Author, actor, mentor and activist Hill Harper is here for a purpose. Although he is fully aware that he’s a part of an industry that degrades and has been degrading his race for the past ten years, he’s doing is best to combat those images and at times ugly realities into self awareness that we are more than the images that we portray and are portrayed as through all media outlets. Hill Harper knows how the African-American community got to the state it’s in today but instead of as Dr. King Jr. says, “Being stuck in the paralysis of analysis.” Harper is about solution building and moving forward because the more we analyze and converse the less we do.
Clutch: When I was growing up my mother always told me that Black men were kind of the most feared human on earth whether educated or uneducated. Do you still feel like that is a reality today?
Hill Harper: No, I think in the western culture members of Al Qaeda these days (laughs) are more feared than brothers but, they kind of portray brothers as Muslims but it gets all co-mingled. To be more serious, the issue about fear and all these things; I want to change the paradigm of the conversation. I really don’t care what other cultures or races think of us, what I care about is how we think of ourselves. We’re in a place now where our self-esteem, or self-loathing and self-hatred are so extreme that no one else has to hate us because we are destroying ourselves. So I really don’t want to entertain the conversation about whether White folks or any other folks fear Black men because ultimately Black people are doing so much damage to ourselves and we can talk about why that is and the legacy certainly is inextricably linked to the slavery legacy but I’m about solutions and looking forward and solving the problem. I let the historians talk about the reasons why, but I just want to deal with the problems we have today, figure out how to solve them and move forward.
Clutch: To that statement when we talk about imagery and the things we see on television today, what are Black men doing to contribute and feed the fire to those images that have been created of us?
Hill Harper: The issue in my mind is that we allow multi-national corporations that have no interest in the effect of what we put out as entertainment has on the individual listener. At the end of the day television and film images and music have power. The shareholders and companies don’t care if we’re calling each other the n-word, b-word or the h-word, they don’t care if it’s selling records and they will continue to promote that if it’s selling. It’s not the individual entertainer or entertainment that’s the problem; it’s really how we as entertainers are being use by the multi-nationals to enrich them by denigrating us.
Clutch: What do you say to the critics who solely put the blame on hip hop? Interestingly enough you went to music as an example. What do you say to the critics that say it’s totally hip hop culture and rap music’s fault that we are in the condition that we’re in right now?
Hill Harper: Not just music let me be clear. This is an entertainment business, this is entertainment it’s not just music. All these companies own music companies, they own record companies; it’s all co-mingled so I’m not putting myself out of it. I collect checks from an entertainment industry that does more to destroy the self-esteem of my people that anything else in the past ten years. So I have to look at myself in the mirror to figure out what can I do to fight against that so I wrote this book Letters to a Young Man: Manifest Your Destiny; because I look at myself in the mirror and continue to cash checks so whether I continue to use the n-word, b-word of the h-word makes no difference I’m still benefiting from this industry that is hurting us because I work in the industry, that doesn’t let me off the hook. So it’s not just about music, it’s about the entertainment industry and how powerful it is and how all of us allow ourselves to be used.
Clutch: While writing this book what else did you learn about yourself?
Hill Harper: I learned even more that there are so many of our young man out there that are looking for answers and help and that navigation on the journey from boyhood to manhood, more than I even thought. Beyond the statistics that say 66% of them are being raised by incredible African-American single women many of whom are working multiple jobs and not getting a great deal of financial support from the father necessarily. There are a lot of men out there that are searching for role-models and are modeling behavior and a lot of the behavior they see isn’t necessarily positive so therefore they end up modeling that in a not so positive way.
Clutch: How important is it for the Black man to be infused and connected to his community?
Hill Harper: It’s vital, every statistical model you see the number one predictor of young African-American male’s success, education and where he ends up in terms of his life; the number one predictor is whether that young man had a positive role male model in his life. The answer is yes and the statistics are incredible, the answer is no and the statistics are equally incredible. That’s the key; I’m tired of us in the community looking for the government to solve it. We must look at ourselves and say there’s a way to solve it and there is a solution and that’s time. One on one time Black male elder to young Black brotha. I’m a spokesperson for Big Brothers Big Sisters, I talk about being a big brother I try to recruit and help them recruit. I’m a member and an honorary member of 100 Black Men, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity asked me to help them participate so if you know another brotha it’s up to you as an individual to say look I need you to get involved, I need you to take care of a young brotha.
Clutch: Historically and even in contemporary times people have often created this definition of what a man should be. I just turned 27 and was raised by a single mother, so I believe there are core values but every man has their own definition of what a man is. What is your definition of what a man is and on top of that is there any difference in what your definition of a Black man is?
Hill Harper: No, ultimately all the elements of manhood are not race specific. However, there are things that we all experience given certain circumstance, whether that’s race, economics, gender, educational background or educational opportunity, access to knowledge or access to money. All these factors will obviously influence experiences we have over the course of our lives. I’m not belittling the differences in terms of race, but manhood is manhood. It’s interesting that you ask that question about what is my definition, the definition to me is more of how do you define faith? You don’t articulate the definition in words it’s something that’s felt. Those of us who are men who are living right, we know we’re living in the right manhood based way. Those of us who are living wrong, we know that we are living childishly, making boyish decisions. Everyone knows it and they can sense it, so it’s not about words or me giving a Webster’s Dictionary of what manhood is, it’s really about looking internally. The first quote in my book is from Dr. King., where he said, “One’s sense of manhood must come from within.”
Clutch: Growing up for me, men were in and out of my life, so there was no real constant. It became very hard to trust men that were older than me, and it’s hard to this day to see a man for who he is, because I always thought they were trying to get with my mother. What do you say to the younger generation to keep them on the path of the right way of living and growing into a man?
Hill Harper: The advice I give about mentorship and finding mentors and seeking them out is that you don’t always have to know them. I’ve been mentored by Paul Robeson, obviously I’ve never met him but you can read about people and understand the choices, because ultimately it’s about choices. Our journey is all about choices and we model behavior therefore we see people make certain choices and often times we make similar choices because that’s what we saw or experienced. You can learn about the choices other people make that came before you and how they went about making those choices. You can also piece together a mentor because there are very few people that represent everything to you. A quick example obviously on the business side and the relationship side someone like “Magic” Johnson is incredible. There are certain things about his life that I would love to mimic, but there are other things about is life that I would chose not to model and that doesn’t make him wrong or me wrong but you can chose the things you want to model about individuals and piece together a role model.
Clutch: For some reason when Black or African-American people speak even though they are speaking only for themselves they tend to get labeled as speaking for the whole race. How hard is it with the recent images of Michael Vick, “Pacman” Jones and even Barry Bonds what do you say to the youth growing up and how do you as a person deal with that?
Hill Harper: I think if you’re a public figure, therefore someone in the public eye that folks are going to write about, there is an opportunity you have because you’re given a platform and you can choose to use that platform however you want. What’s the use of purpose or celebrity unless you use it to help somebody else out and at the same time what’s the purpose of money unless you use it to help somebody out? What’s the purpose of Paris Hilton, unless she uses her celebrity to help somebody, do you know how many young women she can influence? All that to say that all the people you mentioned who are public figures and I don’t know enough about Michael Vick or “Pacman” Jones or anybody else to speak on them at all. I could find out that Michael Vick has put 5,000 young men through college. I try not to speak on anything unless I’ve seen it or experienced it because like you suggested often times media scues things. I try not to let the media influence my perception although all of us should understand the power of it and make a decision, and that’s not to say that everyone is perfect. I’m the last one to judge anybody because I’ve made my share of them.
Clutch: At this day and time talking about solution building where do you the role(s) of women in the rebuilding the community in relation with the Black Man, because ultimately it goes back to your answer about the importance of the man being in the community because as much as it affects the son it also affects the daughter. What do you say to the single mom who is struggling, even though I think it all comes down to communication and the lack there of…
Hill Harper: It’s a huge lack of communication, if you notice across all age groups there are fewer Black Male and Female friendships unless it’s some type of sexual relationship. I say to women having a positive male role model in your life is vital but it doesn’t have to be someone you’re interested in having a relationship with. Often times they say they are looking for role models for their son, but often times they’re looking for a mate, and they need to separate the two. There is a story about this woman who would stop by the firehouse on the way home from picking up her son and she stopped by the firehouse with her son, they got a tour and her son ended up meeting a 62 pot-bellied married with two kids, White man 35 miles away from the city. Now is that someone she would chose to be in a relationship, no, is that someone she thought would be a role model for her son, no. However, he ended up becoming the role model for this young man. So it’s about the friendship building and finding a role model for your child.
Clutch: What do you have coming up for the rest of 2007?
Hill Harper: I just finished a movie called ‘Mama I Want to Sing‘ with Ciara, it’s based on the play, and I play Ciara’s manager. I’m still doing a lot of work and a lot of speaking with young people and I’m working on my next book which is coming out in 2008 it’s called Letters to a Young Sister it’s going to be a message to young women, and I’ve just started my fourth season of CSI: New York. So it’s a busy time but it’s a real blessing to be busy and to have the opportunity to meet so many people across the country.
For more information on Hill Harper head to www.manifestyourdestiny.net