In the first chapter to our book, Urban Teens in the Library, Denise Agosto and I argue that in order to successfully provide library services to urban teens, we must move beyond the racial and socioeconomic biases that pervade the popular culture, as well as our own preconceptions (misconceptions) and see them as individuals, not as members of a stereotyped group. The same is true for African American male youth. Many educators, administrators, policymakers, and members of the general public "buy" into stereotypes and interpret cultural and racial differences as a deficit. This often leads schools to lower their academic expectations of African American male youth, to track them into remedial classes, or to place a disproportionate number in special education. As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
One of the central tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the concept of voice. CRT research suggests that one of the key ways to shift the lens through which we view African American male youth (i.e. move beyond the single story) is through the use of personal narrative and story.
Sharon Flake’s poem “You Don’t Even Know Me” is a powerful example of a counterstory—a story that challenges the story of the dominant culture. In the poem, performed in a video by students from Roseville High School in Minnesota, a black teen rebukes his teachers, neighbors, and even his friends for making assumptions about his academic ability, his career aspirations, and his behavior based on stereotypes: “You know/ I’ve been wondering lately/ Trying to figure out just how it could be/ That you can see me so often/ And don’t know a thing about me” (2010, p. 4).
We have invited a group of young men from North Carolina Central University, UNC Charlotte, and a local high school to participate in the summit—to tell us their stories and to help us reimagine what libraries should look like and be like in order to truly meet the needs of African American male youth.
How have you involved African American male youth in your library programming and planning? In your research? How have you given them voice? What counterstories did they tell?