Community activist, Kevin Powell has been making strides in the African American community for some years now. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, but a proud Brooklyn resident, Powell has run for a seat in Congress, is the president and cofounder of BK Nation, an American organization focused on civil rights, human rights, education, ending violence against women and girls, health and wellness, and equal opportunities for all people. Powell is also the author or editor of 12 books, including his recently released memoir entitled The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood. In the book, Powell describes his troubled upbringing and the struggles he faced being raised in a single parent home. Kevin Powell recently sat down with Parlé Magazine to discuss his book and his views on the current state of injustice within communities.
Parlé Magazine: Why did you feel now was the right time to write The Education of Kevin Powell?
Kevin Powell: It’s a book I’ve wanted to write since I was a child. I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. As I say in the book, my mother took me to the library starting at the age of eight, and she got a library card, I got a library card. She let me roam all around the children’s section. My mother never checked out books; she would just read the newspapers. My mother had an 8th-grade education, and she was always on me about learning. I will say that my mother was the first teacher that I’d ever met. Given the fact that I was raised by a single mother, my father abandoning us when I was a child and growing up in terrible, terrible poverty, which people would consider to be the hood, you start to wonder and feel if anyone can relate to this. As an adult, being blessed to be able to travel the world, I never realized that there were literally “hoods” everywhere, and everyone is in the same situation. You know there are poor people, and there are those who don’t go anywhere, for example, the people who never leave Brooklyn or Harlem or the Bronx. That’s what I felt growing up, and one of the things I say in the book is that I felt trapped. I always wanted to write something, especially when I got to college and I discovered for the first time that there were Black and Latinos writers. I know that may sound crazy to people, but before college I had no idea about colored authors. I was taught about Shakespeare. There was no Parlé Magazine, VIBE or The Source magazine. What I saw was solely based on the information I received in school. When I read those books and those coming of age stories, I said, I want to do something like this coming from my perspective, someone who grew up in the Hip-Hop era and who is clearly a Hip-Hop head. I wanted it to be something that people could relate to. I’m in my 40s now, and I don’t know how much longer I have left on this planet, and I wanted to share all the ups and downs of my whole life. Honestly when you read it, you’ll see it’s a very raw and honest book. There is no cursing in the book on purpose, but it’s not an easy read. For anyone who has experienced violence, abuse, and poverty, they know what I’m talking about.
Parlé: You mention you were brought up in the poverty stricken ghetto, how were you able to overcome your harsh reality and become the man you are today?
Kevin: Education. That is the reason I decided to call it The Education of Kevin Powell. I had a lot of Hip-Hop titles originally for the book, and I don’t want to mention them because they were kind of wack. Education is everything that affects us. It’s something that has always been with me, always learn, never stop learning. To this day, I will never go anywhere without carrying a book, newspaper or magazine when I travel. I read everything. I’m a huge sports and music lover. I love all kinds of music. I always believe that you should be learning all the time. I feel like ignorance, there is nothing wrong with it, just means you don’t know something. However there’s something wrong with what I call enthusiastic ignorance, which means you not only don’t know things, but you don’t want to know things. People fail to realize that enthusiastic ignorance will keep you stuck in the situation that you are in. Three things that helped me along the way were faith, my mother having a plan for my life and education. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be a life-long learner. There is no way I could have done any of this stuff or do anything that I’m doing now without a love of learning. Education also means you should know who you are. No matter what your cultural background, I think if someone goes to school in this country and you do not learn about the heritage of your own people then you have been seriously miseducated. If you walk around hating who you are because of your nose, lips and hair, you have also been miseducated. This is a topic that I deal with very bluntly in the book. I talk about how I worshiped everybody else’s culture except for my own because I didn’t know anything about myself. That was profound self-hatred. That’s another reason why education is important to me because a lot of times people think that if you get good grades, you’re an A student. I was an A student from grade K-12. I finished second in my grammar school graduating class and I finished third in high school graduating class. If you would have asked me questions about my history, I was clueless. I don’t think we can really say we are educated if we don’t love ourselves for who we are and are proud of it. The standards of beauty, what is considered handsome and not handsome and what is considered good hair and what is not, that is all self-hatred. It is blatant self-hatred and we think it is something else. What else could it be when you deny yourself and think someone else’s way of being is better than who you are? This is something I think about a lot. It is all in our culture. It affects us on every single level consciously and subconsciously.
Parlé: Recently, a New York City police officer was killed in the line of duty, what is your political view on the current state of the “war” between the police and the people they protect? Do you think both parties involved are ignorant to each other or is one side to blame?
Kevin: Let me say this first and foremost, anybody getting killed bothers me. I don’t care if it’s a person in the community or a police officer; we should be saddened by the death of any human being. I think we should be saddened by all the violence in this country. I read somewhere in my work that since Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were killed in 1968, 47 years ago, we have killed enough people in this country by gunfire to deplete a population of many nations in this world. That saddens me. The second thing is I’m always conscious of the language that we use to describe our situations. If we see it as a “war” between the community and the police, then it’s going to be a war ongoing between the police and the community. I have been working around racial profiling cases, and police brutality cases, which have been going on since the 1980s, and the only difference is social media. Back in the day we didn’t have Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to say, “Yo, so and so just got killed.” The information gets put out there fast. Understand, none of this is new. This has been going on and part of the problem is that the police in a lot of these cities and the community leaders have not sat down and had real conversations with each other about how they are going to deal with this. On the community side, we need leadership that’s not just going to get out there and rally and protest, but who are going to come up with concrete plans of action. If the people feel there is a problem with the police force, we need a plan of action, which talks about how the training needs to be handled with regard to cultural literacy. If you’re going to be a police officer in a community, you should know something about the community you’re working in. The school system is educating people, well where do the police officers come from, the same system you and I come from. With that being said, why would they know anything about a community they are placed in if they were never taught about it. The people of the community have their feelings about the police presence. In my book, I have a chapter where I was brutally beat up by a police officer at the age of 15. I might have weighed maybe 90 pounds. I have lived the work that I am talking about. I feel like on both sides, there has to be a willingness to sit down and dialogue, and if you’re serious about having a real community, then there has to be a give and take on both sides. The police have got to admit that police officers have been violent and brutal towards people of color and poor people and that many of those officers including the Blacks and Latinos have been culturally illiterate. They are going into communities with all kinds of stereotypes. On the community side, we have to say what it is that we want to see, we can’t keep saying what we are against. I understand when people say they are against something, but the question is what are you standing for? That requires real work and demonstration.
Parlé: Too often, African American men are seen as a negative source within the community. They are viewed as dead-beat fathers, drug dealers and illiterate. What needs to happen in society to help the African-American man progress? Can politicians use their voice to help with the movement?
Kevin: As an activist, organizer, and servant to our communities, I have seen that you have people who call themselves leaders and are making a profit off the community. The case they are fighting for is not about them; it’s about the community. She or he has no vision for the community. The same vocabulary we heard years ago is the same thing we hear now, and it is irrelevant to the times. A lot of them have no understanding of the Hip-Hop generation. If you are 50 and younger, 40 and younger, you grew up in this language, culture and an art form that touched you in some way and a lot of them are clueless about it. Some of them are clueless about the technology. I have heard older folks diss Black Live Matter saying, “what is this? “What is this hashtag stuff?” I’m like you need to come into the 21st century. That’s one problem. I feel like you have to be careful of saying just the Black man because it’s Black men and women. Sandra Bland and countless other women have also been killed by the police. There wouldn’t be a Black Lives Matter movement if it were not for Black women organizing it. I know that if you come out to my organization, BK Nation, monthly forum, there are mostly women there. My mother was a single Black woman with an 8th-grade education. She migrated from the South to the North with nothing. She raised me when my father abandoned us on welfare, food stamps, and government cheese in a kind of poverty I wouldn’t wish on anyone. She was just as endangered as anyone else in this country. Any black woman, who has to raise a child by themselves, that’s being an endangered species. I always try to shift the conversation because I think Black men and women are dealing with oppression and discrimination equally, even if it is different. We haven’t even discussed the fact that domestic violence is very real in our community. I think that any person who calls him or herself a leader needs to talk about the community as a whole. If they are not, that’s a problem. Secondly they must be well versed and aware of the major issues affecting every aspect of our community, that’s a huge problem. If they tend to elevate one group over another, that’s a problem. I see the self-esteem issues of Black girls in my community. Who am I to say you need to get over that because brothers out here have it worse than you? That is disrespectful to her humanity. That is something I’m not willing to participate in. We can’t afford to be on one hand fighting racism and then over here spreading sexism. I believe that our development needs to be in six key areas:
- 1) Spiritually- what do you believe in? I’m not talking about Religion, I’m talking about your divine purpose.
- 2) Politically- are you aware? You should read, study and travel like your life depends on it.
- 3) Knowing who you are culturally.
- 4) Financial Literacy- think about all of the money that we waste in our communities buying things because of a low self-esteem.
- 5) and 6)Physical and Mental Health – we have insanity issues in our community, people who are survivors of abuse and people who just can’t do things for themselves because of their health.