Michael Brown

Four years ago to the day of our publication date – on August 9, 2014 — a Ferguson police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown. A grand jury convened by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch considered whether this police officer, Darren Wilson, should be charged with a crime for killing Michael Brown. Among a wide array of evidence and testimony, this grand jury heard from Wilson himself. According to the transcript of the interview released to the public on the night that McCulloch announced that Wilson would not face criminal charges, Wilson told a grand jury a very strange story about this very young black man.

Wilson said he felt like “a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” The police officer was giving his version of events about his first physical contact with Brown. Wilson was trying to establish that he feared for his life, and this was his image of the fear he felt for this youth he shot six times and killed — though the youth was not armed and Wilson knew he was not armed.

That is to say, Michael Brown was not armed with anything other than his own human arms; it was Wilson’s contact with one of the 18-year-old youth’s arms that made the 28-year-old police officer — armed with a .40 caliber Sig Sauer, in addition to his own two human arms — allegedly revert to a boy aged 5 clutching onto a 6’7” adult professional wrestler. Wilson also testified that Brown was a serious threat of overpowering and disarming him, though he was himself a large man. Officer Wilson was 6’4” 210 pounds, and Michael Brown was 6’4” 292 pounds.

This was an all-too-common narrative about a black male told by a white male facing possible criminal charges for killing the black male. And it helped to convince a St. Louis County grand jury that this white man with police powers and a powerful gun, 10 years older than the unarmed youth and just as tall, felt like a 5-year-old in the arms of a giant. That’s quite a story.

In Michael Brown’s memory, starting this week we will present a year-long examination and critique of the narratives surrounding, attached to, and weaponized against black males. Each week we will invite a black male to think about the stories people tell about black males and to help us envision some new narratives about black males — in the hope that, at the end of these new narratives, the black males being talked about are empowered with real opportunities for healing, growth and upward mobility.  We aim to cultivate a regional culture of opportunity and investment in black male development the likes of which the region has never witnessed.

We want to reimagine St. Louis as a region greatly valuing black male upward mobility as an initial step, worthy of social and resource investments, alongside ongoing regional efforts to improve the health and economic outcomes of all where we live. We are invested and believe it would be critical to undertake a better understanding of dynamic black males and to change the narrative of how we think and talk about them — not simply for the betterment of black males, but for the moral and economic health of our region. We both cherish many black males who are family members, fathers, friends, colleagues, and mentors—real men who are surviving or thriving in spite of their challenging circumstances.

The deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 highlighted the long-standing disparities in health, education, employment, and overall well-being experienced by black boys and young men in the St. Louis region. In response, the HomeGrown STL initiative (within the Center for Social Development at Washington University’s Brown School) for over three years brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, from across sectors, to build regional capacity and efficacy of programs dedicated to improving the social mobility of black boys and young men, ages 12-29, within one generation – by 2039.

Thus, we undertake this project thinking about the wider public and the greater good. To coin a phrase from the old name of a project now called “Health Equity Works,” we want to better understand black males and improve their outcomes for the sake of all. To be very blunt and to the point, in our judgment it will not be possible to reverse declines in population and Fortune 500 companies of the St. Louis region and to help the region grow and thrive and fulfill more of its vast potential if we don’t improve the lives, the well-being, the productivity, and the safety of black males.

Each month in the next year we also will report on a project, program or organization that is having some success with creative strategies to intervene in the lives of black males and to empower them and improve their lives. There will be opportunities along the way for readers to put down the paper or their mobile devices and get involved. Because this is not at heart merely a project of journalism. We also are hoping to help bring about positive change.

“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American. It will be edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American (under the guidance of the paper’s publisher and executive editor, Donald M. Suggs). 

You will hear from black male colleagues of the editors, but mostly we will share community voices: black males from very young ages to very seasoned black male voices. We will share the voices of black males from a wide range of income strata, occupations and neighborhoods. We will report on a wide variety of programs, projects and organizations that already are doing this necessary work and joined as member of HomeGrown STL in reimagining St. Louis as a desirable region for black boys to grow up and for black young men to work.

Not that it will undo the loss of a very young black man who died far too young — in an otherwise meaningless incident in Ferguson that should not have resulted in his being shot six times and killed – but we dedicate “Homegrown Black Males” to the memory of Michael O.D. Brown.

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