topless man stretching his arms to his side

Are we scared of black men?

Brighton Book festival is one of my favourite events ever. The variety of people and event is truly breathtaking. I loved every event this year and last year too, but I definitely had a favourite.

Each year the team spearhead a particular event and my event was Boyz to Men on Saturday night. This was a panel of 5 men talking about their journeys from boyhood to manhood and how it is reflected in their own writing and literature around them. One of the highlights for me of this event was that the were all men of colour.

I loved this because I know it is so rare for black men to get a platform to talk about their feelings and emotions themselves. So often the stories of black men are told by white people. We are told that they are violent, bad fathers, criminals, not to be trusted.  Even when I was growing up I struggled with these narratives. So many of the black men I knew just didn’t fit these stereotypes and as an adult I now know, of course that this is all about racism. And I know that many others know this too.

So, here’s the thing. Why then was it so difficult to sell tickets to the boys to men event? Don’t get me wrong we sold lots of tickets but not as many as we should have for the calibre that was with us that night.

We had some of the top selling authors in the country. There were over 15 different awards present on the stage. We had international author who was doing the last stop of his book tour, the event was hosted by our author in residence who sells tickets wherever he goes.

Now you might think well maybe it just wasn’t that good an event, maybe there were too many people on the panel. The problem is, I’ve seen this before.

Last year we did an event at the book festival on toxic masculinity. For that one we had a double MOBO winner and an international author, both black and again we struggled to sell tickets.

I am pretty sure if we had added a white man to either of these events, we would have sold more tickets. Because those narratives and stereotypes about black men have stuck. Instead of people seeing a unique opportunity to hear what these men have to say, they assume that they have nothing to say. They imagine it will not be relevant to them. If they are not talking about knife crime (which takes way more white lives than it does black) police violence and drugs, then what could they have to say.

Studies by the American psychological society found that when people were shown two men of the same height and build, they thought that the black man was bigger and more menacing. I cannot tell you the number of times people have asked my husband if he fights or have described him as scary even if they have never spoken to him. This is the same story for my brothers and even my pensioner dad! We have got to break these tropes and the way to do that is to listen, to give these men our ear, to know we have lots to learn from them and be ready to learn, and we truly did learn so much in that event.

So, is the solution for next year that we should focus on different events as this has not been a success or maybe add a white guy to give these men credibility?

 Absolutely not. I will keep ensuring that black men’s voices are heard and keep giving them a platform to tell their stories in their won words, because that is how we will destroy these false narratives and learn to love and support them better. And how we can be the change.

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I think it is time we took on the elephant in the room which is the continued influence of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation system and its interaction with modern crises in the way that Black men and women are seen and see themselves.

Gaverne Garfield Bennett

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