The Art of Reaching Troubled Youth

It hadn’t occurred to me prior to writing about young males to add visuals to my books. Before You Fly Off, inspired by my own teenage daughter, offered hard to reach Black and Brown girls an alternative tool to addressing their self-destructive behavior and learning more productive ways to express themselves from learning effective communicating to relationship concerns. Barely one hundred pages each, I broke the conversation in two books. I use the term ‘conversation’ because that’s how I write. Like the angry young man or the girl bully is sitting right in front of me or next to me, being more open to receiving intervention because there’s no judging here; no red pen or agenda to kill their sense of originality for the sake of conforming to standards that we know now do more harm than good to their emotional lives. 

When a mother approached me at a book signing and asked, What about the boys? Or more specifically, what about her son? I went into immediate action on a motivational book for Black males in their upper teens and nearing adulthood. I was advising both High School and college students at the time, along with group homes and youth detention centers, so the material was literally taking turns sitting in my office. But unlike with the girls, there was so much more to talk about with the boys. Their self-esteem issues were just as alarming as the criminalization of problem Black girls in schools, with the added burden of living in immediate and surrounding communities that still don’t allow our sons to fully express their emotional selves, as they learn to perfect their hyper-masculinity or what they’ve been taught to understand as socially appropriate maleness, Black maleness. And this is when the idea of adding visuals to match the various topics, too difficult to talk about for most maybe but now with images they could relate to or even see themselves in, helped shape the continued success of Message to a Youngblood – A Conversation with Our Sons.

But Chris has an artistic gift for translating anything I asked him to draw from. Show me what struggling with your studies looks like? Show me a good day. Show me a couple in love. How does functional depression look like to you? What can freedom look like in the hood?... We were beginning a kindred partnership we both under-estimated until readers started asking about the artwork.

I had already known Chris Evans through his mother, a single parent determined to keep her 21yrld off the streets and out of police bullet range. Chris was creative but not focused; kind but easily aggravated. He was like most young Black males I meet. Angry at the System for leaving them with very few options and angry at Black parents for dropping the ball. But Chris has an artistic gift for translating anything I asked him to draw from. Show me what struggling with your studies looks like? Show me a good day. Show me a couple in love. How does functional depression look like to you? What can freedom look like in the hood?... We were beginning a kindred partnership we both under-estimated until readers started asking about the artwork.

More young artists came on board with my following book, I’m Not Gay. I Just Mess with Guys Sometimes where we ask the question Why so many Black young and older men who have sex with other men choose not to self-identify as gay or queer, or other labels they feel do not represent their day to day realities. As a youth counselor and advocate, I see this as somewhat of a second sexual revolution where in the 60s it was about being whatever you wanted to be and sexing whoever you wanted sex. Now it’s more about lifting the labels that say who’s supposed to be with who.  It’s also a look at how the Black Community is being faced with having to choose between religious indoctrination based on the rejection of sexuality as an indefinite and returning to ancient African teachings where all masculinities and all femininities were recognized and celebrated before invaders taught us shame. And how do you say all that through art? But these great young artists I’ve had the honor to work did just that!

My next book project is on youth in group homes and residential facilities, as well as those aging out of foster care and the transition process between being a ward of the state to independent living. New artists like Carlos Gee encourages me to consider middle aged youth who are already pipelined to prisons. And 15yrld Jay reminds me to include transgender teens in the conversation. But as always, Chris takes front seat in leading the artwork to interpret the personal struggles of these amazing young people living adult lives.