What Would Men Do? Men’s Empowerment Panel at Essence Music Festival

What Would Men Do? Men's Empowerment Panel at Essence Music Festival
Dr. Mike Weaver, author and blogger Demetria Lucas and Dr. Michelle Gourdin

I was appalled, but not sure by which: the Men’s Panel featuring Lamman Rucker, Laz Alonso, Terrence J., Lance Gross and Tank, or the Reel Talk: Breaking Down the Images of Reality Television panel featuring Cynthia Bailey, NeNe Leakes, Shaunie O’Neal, Evelyn Lozada and Tami Roman. I was not alone in my assessment.

Motivational speaker Dr. Iyanla Vanzant apologized for expressing her feelings toward the EMF Empowerment Series in regard to the shared panel with Dr. Cornel West, Reverend Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley and others, “We have only 40 minutes for our panel?  And you gave Steve [Harvey] 2 1/2 hours for ‘Family Feud?’ ” Dr. Vanzant summed up the commentary of those of us in the back of Exhibit Hall D of the Earnest Morial Convention Center — a select group of authors who had been invited by EMF organizers to meet the EMF family, have access to 400,000 attendees and to sell books.

“How can, arguably, the biggest venue in black America provide a platform for sexually laden and buffoonish comments from entertainers,” I opined with fellow authors.

“Bottles on me,” Laz Alonso declared.

“… it’s just the caveman in me,” shared another male panelist.

“Give me an older woman. They know how to take care of you,” exclaimed BET’s “106 and Park’s” Terrence J.

“I’m looking for somebody here at Essence to help me make six more kids in addition to the four I already got,” mentioned R&B crooner Tank.

Now, to be fair, the session was only titled as “Men’s Panel” while there was a session the following day titled “State of Black Women.”  The two hardly compared.  As a university professor who teaches a course on black manhood (Masculinity and the Black Male Experience to be exact), I cringed with damn near every word Hollywood’s black heartthrobs had to offer at Essence. Not only were their words barely compelling, probing and insightful, the vast majority of their comments centered on dating relationships, romance with women, and working Tinseltown for the next big part. Really? With all the hell black folks, and young black males particularly, are catching in this economic downturn, the best these panelists could provide the Essence audience with was, “I came to New Orleans to party with all y’all beautiful Black women!”

Interesting, though, their comments solicited weighted responses in applause, cheers and laughter. Maybe these entertainers have come to realize which buttons to push in an audience full of mostly single black women. Not necessarily as an academic, but as a father of three black boys and husband of 16 years, I told my newly made colleagues in the back that the panelists needed to “go sit they a–es down somewhere and grow up!” (Like Steve Harvey always admits with his intermittent swearing, “I’m working on being a Christian. Y’all forgive me.”)

The reality is, however, can those male panelists deliver any more than double entendres, sexual innuendos or straightforward sex-laced remarks? Can they add to the discourse, which could help the plight of black women in the audience deal with men in their lives as partners, family members, and colleagues? What can they say to inspire a mother in the audience with the problems she’s having as a single parent — or a married one for that matter — with her son?  Can these panelists cite examples besides their own? Can they offer resources or provide direction?  How will unanswered questions lead to our ultimate survival or demise as a community? As a people?

While these questions may seem “too deep” for a session at Essence, very similar ones were dealt with at the women’s session. Akin to Dr. Vanzant, can I fault Essence for putting together a male panel stacked with Hollywood hunks as a draw while facilitated by a black female?  As a draw, naturally, the Male Panel was the third most attended session after America I AM: The African-American Imprint (panelists West, Vanzant, Sharpton, Tom Burrell and Jeff Henderson, moderated by Smiley), and the aforestated Reel Talk session. Was the focus of the session on substance or attendance for the Men’s Panel? Several of those “leading” men have graced the cover of this very magazine you’re reading right now.  Read their archived cover stories on the website.  Can we expect them to provide responsible commentary on the state of black men, black manhood and masculinity? Or should these panelists’ existence be relegated to the silver screen, the live stage or, possibly more fitting, the idiot box?

There were several hard-hitting sessions through it all, however; State of Black Women, America I AM and Terry McMillan Presents, to name three off the top. Coming Home: The Message You Are Waiting to Hear was a powerful speech delivered by Dr. Vanzant, as was The Power to Transform Yourself and Your Community provided by the Reverend Al Sharpton. The spiels given by the U.S. Army officers — who were all black women — was motivating as well. Note to Constance C.R. White: I would advise Essence’s new editor-in-chief to leave interviewing up to the professionals or, at the very least, get more practice. As far as the reality TV session, I got two words for NeNe Leakes: most privatest (get it together, sister!).  I’ll reserve my comments for the entire reality TV session for another place and another time.

What Would Men Do? Men's Empowerment Panel at Essence Music Festival
Dr. Mike Weaver with his students from University of South Florida.

After two wonderful days of networking, meeting new colleagues and selling books, there were three young ladies hanging out with the authors at the back of Exhibit Hall D at the day’s end. We talked about HBCUs, my Katrina research and world travels each of us had experienced. One of them begins a doctoral program at University of Pennsylvania this fall.  The young women mentioned how ticket prices prevented them from going to the evening’s concerts at the SuperDome, but the said they would enjoy themselves on Bourbon Street as they had done the night before.  With a small window of time before heading back home to Atlanta to my beautiful wife and children, I offered the sisters a brief tour of the hurricane-impacted areas. We spent time at the Gentilly levee, and a greater amount of time in the Upper/Lower Ninth Ward. I also drove them down St. Charles. We talked about the EMF, conditions surrounding the black community and career aspirations throughout our time en route to each destination. I learned from them (didn’t know that Denzel’s son is on the basketball team at Penn and we all laughed at Ms. Leakes’ grammar) and they were able to pick my brain on all things Katrina. They asked me about being in front of the classroom, and about marriage and family: the type of insight, I believe, the young women who come to EMF desire. Less that 24-hours later, one of them emailed, “I just wanted to say thank you for the wonderful tour yesterday. My friends and I truly appreciated your generosity, insight and conversation. Hope you made it home safely and that your family enjoyed the beignets. Thanks again!”

We’re taking a group of metro Atlanta youth and parents to Birmingham’s Civil Right Institute on July 16 and to New Orleans for a service learning project from July 27-29.  Get involved at: www.DrMikeWeaver.com or www.TheRootsCriedOut.com.  In the spirit of transforming yourself and your community, I bid you peace.

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