Youth voices: “I am a Young Black Man’’ book of poems

A collection of poetry and prose written by students from Gentlemen’s Quest of Tampa Bay Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping at-risk students realize their full potential, is now on sale.
Featuring 31 students, ages 14 to 17, I am a Young Black Man explores the joys, triumphs, and nuances of their individual lives. All together, it is a reflection of hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  

Gentleman’s Quest originally published the book to raise money for the young men to visit Washington in February 2022. That goal has been achieved through numerous book orders.

As a result, all the kids in the program will get the opportunity to tour Howard University and explore both the American Poetry Museum and the National Museum for African American History and Culture, etc. 

Gentlemen’s Quest also facilitates summer camps for Tampa’s at-risk youths. This year, 2021, was the third summer running a STEM program for youth. In addition to focusing on learning blueprint design, 3-D modeling, industrial planning, etc., this year the camp also offered help for the kids to realize and recognize that they have a voice. The end goal wasn’t to publish a book, the kids were just taking part in various activities curated to get them writing and engaged in public speaking.

“This particular day, we created an activity called ‘I am,’ where the kids would write these ‘I am’ poems on the spot. We gave them instructions and they just had to follow our instructions and then they’d present it to us,” says Tavis Myrick, Executive Director of Gentlemen’s Quest and an instructor in the Department of Education at the University of Tampa. “When the students started presenting, the poems were so honest and honorable and transparent and real that I thought to myself, ‘this is more than just a moment’.’’ 

Myrick would start a sentence by saying, ‘I dream…’ or ‘I fear…’ and the kids would take that and run with it. “I gave them no frame of reference and I think that’s what really makes it beautiful because it’s really their heart, it’s the sentiments of their heart,” Myrick says. “When you read some of the poems, you can hear some of the weight that rests on their shoulders as African-American young men. Some of them say things like, 'Will I live past 2021? Will I be successful? Will I end up like my father?’ ”

Some of these things you’d normally expect to hear from older men, but it emphasizes the weight of these issues when it comes from the mouth of a youth, Myrick says. 

Keith Canady, a 16-year-old junior attending Brandon High School, shares that during the exercise a lot of the thoughts that were going through his head revolved around the Black Lives Matter protests that were going on last year during quarantine. He was thinking about his ancestors and what they had to have endured years before to get us to where we are today. His poem focuses on the things that Black people go through day to day, sometimes being racially profiled or treated differently than others.

“What I’m saying and what I wrote is something to really push people forwards, it’s supposed to be inspiring. I want people to hear my voice,” Canady says. “Everybody’s story needs to be heard whether it’s something really serious or not. [The book] allows you to experience the minds of each of the different teens in this program.” 

The book isn’t about racism, but through the words of some of the students, it’s obvious that as a country, we still have a long way to go. 

“I think sometimes it’s easy to overlook. The fact that we are not living, per se, in the days of slavery, it’s easy to overlook the history from 50 years ago, 100 years ago. But when you read these poems, you start recognizing that the same fears back then are the fears of these young men today and they’re not even adults yet,” Myrick says. “If we want to break the chains, we really have to put more money into education and create a bigger focus on mentoring.”
Having never been on a college visit, that’s what Canady, an aspiring entrepreneur, is looking forward to the most when they depart on their Washington D.C. trip. 

“The struggles I went through in my life have all depicted me as a person because I feel like you can’t live without struggle,” Canady says. “Struggle is what makes you, you, and God gives the hardest battles to the strongest individuals.” 

Myrick hopes that these kids can see that whatever they decide to do as adults, they know they have the tools to be successful. 

“These are 14-, 15-, 16-, to 17-year-olds who are now contributing authors to a book. They can now add that to their resume. Keep in mind that all students in our program are at-risk youth, so these are students who thought that their name wouldn’t have been in anything other than a yearbook,” Myrick says. 

Functioning as a nonprofit, the Gentlemen’s Quest’s expectation from the kids is to improve their academic performance, and to have no disciplinary infractions in school or criminal activity in the community. Regardless of what they imagine their future to be, the goal is to position and prepare the kids to follow their own dreams. 

Accompanied by illustrations, the poems give readers the chance to put themselves in the young writers’ shoes as they navigate their life journeys. Readers can make the decision to listen as the young people put their hearts on the line as they maneuver their self-identities and “the beautiful complexity of their blackness.” 

To learn more or to order a copy of the book, visit the Gentlemen’s Quest of Tampa Inc. website.
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Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.