"When you say "young black men' everybody responds to that a certain way," says Rohan Preston. "There's a knee-jerk response equating black masculinity with violence and sexual deviance." But he and Daniel Wideman are challenging that stereotype with a diverse anthology of poems, plays, short stories, essays, letters, and interviews called Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence. "We wanted to have something to speak of black men as human beings," says Wideman. "We wanted the book to represent that broad genius. So much of our strategy has hinged on internalizing and repressing what we're honestly feeling."
One short story, "Eenie Meany Mynie Mo," written by former IBM systems specialist Glenn Davis, begins, "We are your brothers, your sons, your husbands, and fathers. We are your neighbors, co-workers, lovers, and cousins. . . . They never make movies about us. Rappers don't rap about us and we're definitely not on TV shows or the news. But we've got stories to tell. DO I HAVE TO KILL SOMEBODY to get an opportunity to tell my story?"
These storytellers are lawyers, ministers, students, professors, musicians, some of them writing for the first time. Wideman and Preston, who also included some of their own work, found their contributors by making calls and passing out flyers. "We wanted a diverse representation of voice and background," says Wideman. "We didn't go for the most accomplished in their genre. We were much more concerned with authenticity of voice."
The two men's own backgrounds are emblematic. "When you say "young black man' I bet not a single person would conjure up my experience," says Wideman, the 27-year-old son of novelist John Edgar Wideman. "I was born to a black man and a white woman in Philadelphia. I spent time out west in Wyoming. I spent time in the worst ghetto in Philly. I spent time in Princeton, New Jersey, with my mother's well-to-do white family. All of these things shaped me. You can't oversimplify the black man's experience."
The 29-year-old Preston was born in Jamaica and moved to New York when he was 13. "I came up in an idyllic situation and a crucible of hell." He remembers Brooklyn's rough streets as well as Yale's ivy-covered halls. "I'm all of these things," he says. "I'm the full range. Any monolithic idea of the black man is wrong. It doesn't speak to the reality, to the truth."
The two men have already gathered enough material for a second book. "This is just one possible way to open dialogue," says Wideman. "The challenge is for everyone to heed and listen to more voices."
Wideman and Preston will read from Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence at 8:00 PM Friday, February 9, at Barnes & Noble, 1701 Sherman, Evanston, 847-328-0883, and at 1 PM Monday, February 12, at the Norris Center Bookstore, 1999 South Campus Dr., Evanston, 847-491-5812.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo J.B. Spector.