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He Said, He Said: Black Male Cross-Generational Conversations on Perspective, Place and Positionality

This blog evolved from a series of mentoring conversations. What began as an informal chat between college faculty member and undergraduate student morphed into a complex and multi-layered exploration of topics that challenged us both to think deeply about issues ranging from diversity, equity, identity, masculinity, positionality, social justice to Trump and Wakanda.

Regan JohnsonRegan Johnson

We are no strangers to the engaging conversations that happen on a daily basis between Black men. However, what was different in this set of exchanges is how we seemed to center on a number of key themes and spoke very candidly about each, but with an explicit understanding that our conversation was coming from a place that foregrounded our respective generational positionalities. So, we were able to move beyond the obvious — gender, race and faculty/student status and allowed ourselves to consider other identities that colored our respective lenses.

While we shared many commonalities, even down to our membership in the same Black Greek letter organization, we saw our roads diverge in a number of areas that made our paths unique. Regan is a millennial and an undergraduate student, Fred is Generation X and a professor.

Although our roads diverged in some respects, it is the way they converged on the historically Black college and university campus of Prairie View A&M that is the genesis for this blog.

In this first of two parts, we offer our perspectives on three of the seven critical themes that have implications for the experiences of Black males in P-20 education settings: self-confidence and efficacy, stagnation and fear of failure and HBCU versus predominantly White institution turf wars. Part two will highlight Black masculinity, resources, family influence and support, and career and future success.

Dr. Fred A. Bonner IIDr. Fred A. Bonner II

Self-confidence and efficacy

REGAN: Through my lens as an African-American male, a notion has been prematurely set that we as Black men have an excessive amount of self-confidence. Having doubts, or feeling nervous, is something that we are not supposed to experience. Many of our peers view us as being cocky — as individuals who believe in their invincibility. Since this is the mantra commonly shared about African-American males, many of us buy into this perspective and live our everyday lives as such. So, this leads us to not always be honest about needing help or assistance. I’ve come to understand that we are most confident in comfortable situations. Because we are often first-generation college students, we often have to learn “on the fly” as well as learn how to become comfortable in the college environment.

FRED: I have come to realize that understanding the uncomfortable state that we are often placed in is normal, even for those who are not first-generation college students. Understanding that we are here for a purpose helps us become confident. I believe that the more comfortable we become, the m ore our confidence grows. Overall, I believe that confidence grows each day in a collegiate environment, especially the more we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. I say this because it becomes apparent that we are able to thrive and succeed with the tools we already possess.

Fear of failure and stagnation

REGAN: Through my lens as an African-American, fear of failure or stagnation is a troubling feeling. Expectations for us African-American men are high, but they are also low. Of course, we have all heard the saying, “I don’t want to be a statistic,” meaning we do not want to be the man that society has all too often deemed to be unsuccessful, ignorant, financially illiterate or criminal. From our community – i.e. support systems, professors, churches, families — there are expectations for us to be exactly the opposite of these negative identities.

We are expected to be that light in our communities, to shine on those behind us and to come back home with jobs that will make our community members proud of the things we are doing. Also we are expected to come back better than we were when we left, and to become productive members of society. So for me, one of my biggest fears is letting my family down because of how much they have invested in me to be where I am, and because I also want to be an example to my younger cousins.

FRED: Through my lens as an African-American male who happens to be a faculty member at an HBCU, my perspective on the fear of failure and stagnation has evolved over the years. During my formative years as a graduate student and professional in PWI contexts, my fears were mainly based on my feelings of not performing to a level that would lead to my individual success and advancement — I didn’t want to “let myself down.” These fears are less about me as an individual, but more about my community (church, family, friends, students) and performing at a level that will contribute to their advancement.

I have always believed in “keeping it moving,” so stagnation has never truly been one of my vices. Growing up as the son of two HBCU alums (bachelor’s and master’s), as well as the grandson of an HBCU teacher education graduate, I learned the importance of working hard and being task-committed very early on. My internal mantra has always been, “You are going to be hard-pressed to outwork me.” I truly believe that intellect carries you to the brink, but it is the hard work that pushes you over the top.

HBCU and PWI turf wars

REGAN: Through my lens as an African-American man, it’s clear to see on the HBCU campus that there is this continuing argument on which institutional type is better —HBCUs or PWIs. The debates are usually about which institution’s degree plans are stronger, or offer more options; or which institution spends more money on its students and, ultimately, who will benefit more from their degrees post-graduation. These debates also include discussions about which institutions actually care more about the well-being of students.

Jokes are made like, “at least my PWI has enough money to continuously fund and support u,s” which is a ‘slug’ thrown at HBCU students. A reply I have witnessed on Twitter would be, “at least I don’t sit in class and get called ‘ni***er’” or a number of other comebacks. This continuous debate isn’t anything I am foreign to because I often have conversations with my peers from PWIs, and some believe that they in fact have a major advantage.

FRED: Through my lens as an African-American male professor, I have experienced the HBCU/PWI turf wars from the vantage point of student as well as a professional. Much of the back-and-forth sparring I have witnessed among Black folks who chose to attend either an HBCU or PWI was based on a number of different factors — from family influence to formative-year experiences in all-Black versus all-White schools. My classmates who selected HBCUs for their undergraduate experiences talked about wanting to be in an environment where they felt supported. Many of us were using our weekly engagements with Denise Huxtable and the Hillman College crew as a way to virtually experience what we imagined the Black college experience to be.

In my current role as a college professor on an HBCU campus, I value the experiences that I had in my undergraduate and graduate PWIs. However, I appreciate the opportunity that my education in those institutions has now afforded me to share with my students in this context. I have always had as my guiding mission to first prove to myself and then to the masses that I could handle the rigors of faculty life in the Research-1, PWI context. After gaining tenure and promotion to the rank of full professor, and later promotion to the ranks of endowed chair, I had made peace with my proving process. I then made the conscious decision to shift to HBCUs.

Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is Professor and Endowed Chair in Educational Leadership and Counseling at Prairie View A&M University. Regan Johnson is a senior studying human science and nutrition at the university. 

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