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Voice Male - Summer 2004

Color Lines

A City Kid of Color Comes to a White College Town

Liberal Utopia...Or Not

By Lahmar Louis

For the past three years, Lahmar Louis has been a member of the Young Men of Color group coordinated by the Men's Resource Center of Western Massachusetts. The group, which meets weekly when school is in session, is a mix of high school students and college mentors, facilitated by a youth programs consultant to the MRC, Julius Ford, executive director of the Harriet Project, assisted by Melvin Harris, a University of Massachusetts senior. It focuses on issues related to young men on the journey to healthy manhood. What follows are Lahmar's reflections on the group and on being a student of color in a primarily white community.

Coming to Amherst,Lahmar Louis Mass., from Brooklyn, N.Y., was a big transition for me. Moving from an all-black area in Brooklyn to Amherst, which is predominately white, has not been easy. I had very few dealings with whites outside of my schoolteachers until I moved to Amherst three years ago as a scholar in the Amherst A Better Chance (ABC) program. ABC brings intellectually gifted high school students of color from inner cities around the country to more academically challenging school systems like the one in Amherst.

In the time I have been here I have experienced both the good and the bad sides of Amherst. Unfortunately, I can't say this is true for all people of color in this community. Many have experienced more of the negative side of this community. The ABC program has exposed me to many of the great people and great opportunities Amherst has to offer. The ABC board is made up of community members--mostly white--trying their best to create a high-quality experience for the ABC scholars. The Amherst ABC program survives primarily on funding from the United Way and donations from community members. But ABC can only do so much trying to bring us the best Amherst has to offer.

As ABC scholars we are not exempt from the negative side of Amherst. We still must deal with elderly white women clutching their purses as they pass us, having car doors locked by white drivers when we walk by, constantly being followed around stores and being asked if we need assistance, as well as people assuming we are all members of sports teams.

People believe Amherst is a liberal utopia. But from the eyes of a young black man, Amherst needs to address many issues before it can be called a utopia. One of the most important issues that need to be worked out in Amherst is making white people aware of all the privilege and status their skin color grants them. People who define themselves as white also need to recognize how their ignorant or subconscious behaviors affect people of color. It would be nice to stop hearing white people ask me, "Why are blacks still angry about slavery?" or, "Nigger isn't used in a hurtful way anymore, so why can't white people say it?" My "favorite" comment is, "We made up the word, why can't we use it?" These types of attitudes need to be changed.

As for the Young Men of Color group, college mentors and professional men from the community play a major role in its success. They provide guidance, support, friendship, and most important, wisdom. They share their wisdom in a variety of ways. Rarely were we lectured to.

Every group starts off by going around the circle talking about how our week has been since the last meeting. This is probably the longest and most important part of the group; young black men sharing what has transpired in their lives over the last seven days. As we go around the circle people comment about experiences and feelings they had during the week. Then we open the floor up to the larger circle to comment. Hearing how older men dealt with similar experiences is helpful. I appreciate the fact that they choose to share their wisdom with us. The wisdom that I have taken from the group is diverse. Some of the men demonstrate great wisdom in health, race politics, class politics, and more. Their wisdom allows us to know how to react in difficult situations, or may just give us security knowing we aren't alone in our struggle. The wisdom that is shared in the group makes it possible to learn something new every week. Because I know this wisdom will be there, I've made sure to be at every meeting for the past three years.

In April our group held its first fund-raiser--a dance at Amherst Regional High School. It was an attempt to break down cultural, class, and generational barriers while simultaneously advocating for the group's financial independence. The dance was a success on many levels. The money we made from the dance allowed us to have more financial stability, since the budget provided by the MRC is small. I hope that next year we will choose to do another dance fund-raiser so we can apply the lessons that we learned from the first.

With little guidance from the older men, the nine of us organizing the dance got support from the business community--Peter Pan Bus Company and the Lord Jeffery Inn, in particular. The high school, area media, members of the KINGS, a local men of color support group, white and black college fraternities and sororities at the University of Massachusetts, all came together to support a safe space for youth--particularly youth of color--to gather, to celebrate, and to express their culture.

Approximately 100 people came to the dance, but the true significance of the event, according to Julius, our group facilitator, was "the simultaneous reverberations of independence and connection that echoed throughout the valley. The Pioneer Valley, sometimes called the 'Happy Valley,' is a unique blend of cultures, classes and spiritual beliefs. But unfortunately, like so many other towns and cities in America, the Valley's intellectual capacity to appreciate diversity, ensure equal opportunity, and share resources among all its citizenry exceeds its willingness to make this thought a reality. It is only through supporting our young people in their efforts to lead our community that we will create the Happy Valley so often fondly talked about."

I'll be back in the fall for another year in Amherst and I hope Julius' vision can move closer to becoming reality.

Lahmar Louis, 17, will be a senior at Amherst (Mass.) Regional High School this fall. A summer intern in an architecture firm in Manhattan in 2002 and 2003, he worked this year as a counselor at a summer camp in his hometown of Brooklyn.

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