When Fallon Wilson saw the movie “Precious” recently, she cried throughout the film. But some of the depictions, especially of the title character’s abusive mother, also made her angry.
So Ms. Wilson, a graduate student, blogged about it – and entered into a spirited debate with other young blacks about the movie. They also discussed African-American stereotypes and the reasons that black women sometimes seem to choose men over their girlfriends or even children.
Wilson is one of the regular bloggers on a website launched last month out of the University of Chicago that aims to be a “one-stop shop” for all things pertaining to black youths. It’s an amalgam of research, media reports, and survey data, as well as a platform for young African-Americans to post videos and music and to blog about politics, pop culture, and their experiences.
“We felt there needed to be a space on the Web where young black people could speak for themselves,” says Cathy Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and the lead investigator at the Black Youth Project (BYP), which has researched the attitudes, culture, politics, and resources of African-American youths since 2003. “This is a space for young black people to be politically engaged, and it’s a place for teachers to think of creative curriculum based in the lives of young black people.”
The website (www.blackyouthproject.com) came out of the work that the BYP has been engaged in, particularly a national survey it conducted several years ago. The survey, coupled with detailed interviews with individuals, offers insights into the attitudes that black youths have about everything from hip-hop and sex to politics and religion.
It also paints a picture of a group that feels largely ignored by US leaders and pessimistic about its role in society: Forty-eight percent of the youths surveyed said they believed the government treats most immigrants better than most black people.
Still, this is a group that believes it is possible to make a difference through political participation. In the past two years, Ms. Cohen says, black youths felt incredibly energized by Barack Obama, both as a candidate and as president – although they still tend to feel suspicious of how the government responds to their needs.
“Going forward, we’ll have to figure out ways to engage young black people beyond the specific opportunity of voting for the first black president,” Cohen says. “There’s a very clear distinction for them between the president and what he can do and their expectation that the country has any deeper commitment to their survival and progress.”
It’s against this backdrop that Cohen and her students decided to create the website and to make it more than just a repository for survey data.
The current site includes a searchable database of rap lyrics – a tool they hope might be useful to educators in addition to young people. The site also has active blogs and a section where people can submit videos of their performances or artistic creations.
“We talk about it as a hub,” Cohen says. “The website isn’t going to solve these problems [facing African-American youths], but hopefully it can help facilitate dialogue and discourse and offer data that’s ultimately needed … so that we’re listening to and being led by young black people.”
Jonathan Lykes, a sophomore at the University of Chicago who’s also a regular blogger, says that his favorite section is the “Black Youth Create!” area, which highlights videos of young people dancing, singing, rapping, drumming, and reciting poetry.
“You see black men ‘voguing’ – a new style of dance that’s really four or five different styles of dance put together in one,” Mr. Lykes says. “The Black Youth Project can pinpoint these talents, these arts that people don’t broadcast anywhere else in the country.”
Lykes blogs weekly about subjects rooted in his experience – about a recent performance at a community-service group for which he’s the artistic director, for instance, or about the “living history” he experienced talking with his grandmother. “It’s an inside look into my life as a black man,” says Lykes, who appreciates the exchanges that the blogs open up with readers.
Wilson has tapped into a particular vein with her blogs about “Precious.” Recently, educators have contacted her, requesting a study guide or wondering how they can use her posts and others’ to talk about the movie with students after taking them to see it.
“To see the back and forth of how people see gender or race – this is a good space to have,” says Wilson, who says she usually blogs about black women and feminist issues.
Other blog topics on the site have included the beating of Derrion Albert, a Chicago high school student whose death was caught on video earlier this fall; the healthcare debate; and capital punishment.
Ultimately, Cohen and the BYP contributors say, the hope is for the website to be used in more classrooms and for it to be a regular stop for black youths in high school and college. Also wanted: more – and younger – contributors.
“We struggle with how to reach younger black kids,” Cohen says. “Part of it is about getting in high schools, but it’s also about getting youth bloggers who are maybe 15 to 17. The goal was to start this here, and now the goal is expansion.”