How to Save One Young Black Man at a Time
For several years I’ve been concerned about our young black men, and despite what’s regularly on the news and social media, all of them are not in gangs, making babies, or in prison. Some are making waves, like Reece Wabara of Manière De Voi, who built a multimillion-dollar fashion empire. Michael Omari — “Stormzy” who created a scholarship in 2018 to provide financial support to two UK black students each year, which has helped transform their University experience.
They are blazing a trail that many of our parents and grandparents could never imagine because the opportunities were not available and harder to pursue. Yet, challenges remain. There is a worrying increase in suicides among young black men, and it is not uncommon to know someone who has decided to end their life — often prematurely. In the UK, Black British people are more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis, encounter inpatient mental health services, and be detained under the Mental Health Act.
Coupled with that is the problem of racism inequality in the criminal justice system, where young black men are more likely to be discriminated against and given longer prison sentences. These discouraging statistics have left me asking why things have escalated and what could I do about it? Without realising it, a decision to have dinner with my nephew grew into more than just catching up and was the genesis of this piece you are reading right now.
I’m of Caribbean heritage (Guyanese) and British-born. My mum and dad came to England -with my older brothers and sisters as it was my dad’s ambition to become a Barrister and my mum a nurse.
However, as soon as he qualified, my dad returned home, and this was because he knew he could not progress in the UK. My mum, twin sister, and I followed soon after, leaving my elder brothers and sisters behind in London. It was the best thing they could have done for the two of us.
We lived a privileged life in Georgetown, Guyana. My dad had his Barristers chambers, became a magistrate, and then returned to being a Barrister again. Our circle was fellow Barristers, Doctors, etc. It was customary to see high-ranking officials and professionals who looked just like me visit our home.
That experience is not the same for many British-born Caribbean children. Many have grown up feeling’ different,’ excluded from opportunities that would ultimately impact their self-confidence, self-worth, and what they felt was possible.
In school, many were labeled “Educationally Sub-Normal” (ESN) and expected to fail by their teachers, who were quick to send them to detention or have them excluded. Supplementary schools, also known as Saturday Schools, run by black educators, were the saving grace and helped many black children fulfill their potential.
Life took a different turn for our family as my dad died in a car crash when I was 12, and we returned to England to join my older brothers and sisters.
Looking back, I didn’t realise the darkness of my complexion or that racial slurs existed before I returned to England. It wasn’t my world growing up as a child, and the significance of this difference did not impact me until I started secondary school. It was not a great experience and took me ages to settle in.
I’m an uncle to seven nephews, six nieces, and a great uncle to several other nieces and nephews.
However, particularly with the boys, as they were growing up, I had an unconscious concern about their safety and well-being because anything can happen to a young black teenager. I frequently talked to my nephews about the importance of choosing friends wisely because, as the saying goes, ‘by their friends ye shall know them.’
Mothers are scared for the safety of their sons when they approach secondary school age, worried if they will return home from school at the end of the day. Peer pressure and social media are powerful influences in and out of the home. They can fall into the wrong company, be attacked, made to do something they don’t want to do or get in trouble with the police. They are constantly vulnerable and at risk, compounded by the fact that we hear about another loss of young life so regularly in the news.
In a recent Guardian article, London recorded its highest ever level of teenage homicides (30) in 2021, surpassing the previous peak of 29 in 2008. Most were victims of knife crime, and many were killed by other teenagers or those in their early 20s. The youngest victim was 14 years old.
While writing this piece, I learned that BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) constitute 14% of the general population in England and Wales but make up 25% of its prison population. More than half of the young people in jail are of BME background, 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. 71% of the inmates at Feltham young offenders Institutions are BME. Something is not right here.
I was concerned but did nothing about it. I remember that several years ago, I was invited to do talks in Category D prisons and was disturbed by the number of young black men inside. It was disheartening.
So, this was the start of me doing my bit. On a cold Sunday evening last October, I drove to South London to meet my nephew Jerome for a meal and for us to sit and talk. Meeting up with him had been on my mind for some time, and we finally agreed on a date.
He’s a young cub — as I like to call them — I love talking with him because I learn about his life and how the young people see the world. There’s so much more challenging their mental health and sense of value, constantly living with the curse of comparing themselves to their friends’ filtered appearance on Instagram and Facebook or some other medium.
At the end of our first dinner, he asked, “can we meet up every month, as you are one of the few people I get to sit with and talk?” I said sure. That fateful night was the beginning of something that grew into more than I expected, and so over Christmas, I extended the invite to my other nephews.
I felt nervous sending the text because it had been more than ten years we’d spent any one-on-one time together for some of them. We would see each other briefly at family events, but that was it. But my fears were reassured when they all enthusiastically said yes and made comments like, “Definitely up for a meet, and I’m am looking forward to it.” I was pleased and pleasantly surprised.
Looking back, I needn’t worry because I was involved in most of their lives when they were growing up. I took them to school, played football, raced them, cycled to cousins’ houses with one of them on the handlebars, and saw them grow into adults, leading independent lives.
I intended to hear about their world and, tentatively where necessary, share my own experiences, so they know that Uncle Morton’s journey has not been all plain sailing; he’s made some mistakes too and come out the other end.
I had the first dinner with the new invitees in early January, and as we sat in Wagamama, I asked my nephew Tunj, how are you? He said, I’m good and proceeded to tell me about his new job, morning routine, and what he’d learned from reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. He recounted that he shares his goals with a group of friends, and they hold each other accountable. I was impressed with his level of self-awareness and focus.
As I listened, I reflected on being 24 and having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My mind was on everything but studying or setting goals. Conversely, I realised that the children in our family had had a different experience growing up to their parents, uncles, and aunts. In many ways, things were more challenging for us.
There were no lifts to school or someone to take you to ballet, football, or judo, and a warm car waiting outside. There was only the long bus/train ride or walk home, often in the cold. I did not have an uncle near or far who took an interest in me and said, let’s have a chat about what’s going on in your life. My reference and peer group were my close friends, who knew very little — just like me — it was the case of the blind leading the blind.
That said, despite the negative images on the news and elsewhere, there are some shining examples of young men doing well for their peers to follow:
- Oxford University has accepted more than 100 black students, in autumn 2021 and 2020. A record number of places. Cambridge had the most significant number (137) of new UK black students.
- Steven Bartlett- the multi-millionaire and youngest ever dragon on BBC’s Dragon’s Den. He has a podcast (Diary of a CEO) which in 2021 was projected to earn £1.2 million.
- Raheem Sterling, the Man City player, scored 100 goals in the premier league, and he was the 8th youngest person to do so.
- Omari and Amani Campbell-Okolo, two young fencers, have been selected for the England squad. They have signed an Adidas sponsorship contract. A remarkable achievement. I didn’t know there were black fencers as I saw it as an elitist sport.
I doubled up with a nephew and a great-nephew at the Real Jerk in Streatham a month later. We talked about their ambitions, work, and everything else; nothing was off-limits. My internal motto was this is a safe space without judgement.
We shared stories, and Jerome recounted the story of us gathering at mums (when she was alive) for Mother’s Day. Still living in the delusion of being a fast sprinter, but then in my 40’s, I challenged them to a race after dinner, confident of winning and ready to boast that they could not beat their uncle. My second eldest nephew made sure I remained behind him and came second. There’s a video recording of that memorable day and they didn’t know that I couldn’t walk properly for a week. After dinner they came to my home and stayed until 2 am, I had to usher them out nicely as I had a very early start the next day, but it was a great night.
Another dinner, two weeks later, I met Miles. We greeted warmly and realised during the evening that it had been 17 years since we had spent any time together. We talked about the family, his work, business ventures, dreams for the future, our mutual love of rum, the importance of choosing the right friends’ girlfriends, and shared some jokes along the way. He’s an active father and understands the importance of having a role model that you can talk to while growing up. I had missed him during those years. I think we both had.
He said, “you were a good uncle, and I have to thank you for reaching out”. You taught me how to make a Windsor tie when I was 15.” “My brother and I have so many other memories of you.” With compliments like that, I knew the tab was coming my way at the end of the evening. Worth every penny, if I may say. It was a powerful night of reconnection.
On the other hand, we have to make time for our other soldiers who are not doing so well, who have no one reaching out to allow them to talk as their mental health and stability depend on it.
It is all of our responsibility to do our bit to save our young men who may feel alone and that they have no options because problems begin when you think there is nowhere to turn. You may be a dad, uncle, godfather who has not been in touch for a while; I would urge you to get in touch by whatever means feels comfortable. Here’s my advice:
- Don’t text to say I am checking in; pick up the phone and arrange to meet and break bread
- Listen and look into the whites of their eyes, and you will learn about their joys and pain end everything else
- When you meet, avoid the urge to judge or sound disapproving.
- Share your story, twists, turns, successes, failures, mistakes, and achievements. It’s incredible how they appreciate it when we are transparent and share our vulnerabilities.
We have to find new ways of connecting with our young men as they live in a world of digital connections (texting, Snapchat, and WhatsApp) and not speaking, which is where the magic happens.
Writing this piece was not in my mind when I arranged these dinners. However, I hope this experience with my nephews could inspire others to reconnect with a relative or other young man. They are losing their lives at the end of a knife, gun or taking their own, leaving a trail of pain and devastation for the families from which many never recover. It is heart-breaking to witness.
That said, there are some excellent support services available like 100 Black Men, Young Minds Text line, and the recent initiative by Idris Elba and Ian Wright — ‘No More Red. However, I am starting with my homegrown first because, as they say, charity begins as home.
I’m immensely proud of the young cubs in my family. My intention with meeting them was to listen and create a safe space to share and learn about their lives, but I gained so much more.
I’ve enjoyed the reconnection and looking forward to having more dinners. As Reece said at the end of the evening, “Whenever you want to have dinner again, just let me know, I’m in”
A couple more dinners remain with a few more nephews, but who knows where this will all end up? We will see.
In the meantime, let’s all make whatever effort we can to save our young cubs. Their future, our future, depends on it.