Steven A. Holmes is executive director of CNN’s office of standards and practices.
Not long into Kevin Powell’s “My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man,” I came across a sentence that stopped me in my tracks. In an essay titled “The Day Our Prince Died,” Powell had this laudatory thought about the late singer: “He has been a multigenerational global superstar when there have been few others in world music history, save the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross; and maybe one day folks like Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, and Adele.”
The mind reels. What about the Rolling Stones or Elton John? What about Carlos Santana? What about Aretha?
Of course, one should not judge a book by one observation. But in some ways this one epitomizes too much of Powell’s latest book: passionate, confident and not well thought-out.
Powell, a prolific writer, poet, essayist and self-described activist, is best known for his 2015 autobiography, “The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood.” That well-received work had the structural narrative of his personal chronology. This latest work is a compilation of essays, several of which were originally published in places such as the Huffington Post and the Utne Reader.
Most of the essays are infused with righteous anger over police brutality, racism and white privilege. That is combined with an explication and celebration of hip-hop from what he terms its “Golden Era” under artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Run-DMC to its emerging dominance of American pop culture exemplified by Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.”
It’s his forays into the country’s still-depressing racial landscape, however, that I find the most disappointing. They are not necessarily wrong. But they are lacking in original thought.
At a time when we are constantly bombarded with sad tales of police shooting down unarmed black men and cops being sicced on African Americans as we go about our daily lives, it is difficult, if not impossible, to take issue with his demand that whites step up, acknowledge their privilege and work within their communities to end racism. “Yeah, it is utterly exhausting to have to navigate daily the macro and micro slings and arrows that are American racism,” he writes. “It is doubly exhausting to have to do so and also explain to well-meaning White people over and over again what racism is, what they can do and should do and why, and then, in some cases, hold their hands emotionally.”
Fair point; but it’s one I have heard for nearly half a century. And there is little evidence that the scales of racism will soon fall from the eyes of whites. In the age of Trump, when the economic, psychological and political interests of people of color and working-class whites have never been closer, yet the antipathy between them has never been greater, new strategies may be needed. Power, money and privilege are being concentrated in the hands of a small group of elites. Working- and middle-class whites and people of color are being screwed, yet one searches in vain in Powell’s book for any hint of how to bring these oppressed groups together to confront their real enemy.
It is a shame, because Powell does have important things to say.
Freedom is an underlying theme in many of his essays. He yearns for the men he profiles — and they are nearly all men seeking to be free.
He wants Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to feel free enough to tell disrespecting sportswriters to “kiss his butt.”
He cheers Jay-Z for his willingness to confess his shortcomings on “4:44,” calling the hip-hop album “a confession of an ex-abuser of people, an apology to his wife, his sister-in-law, his mother, all women, while never quite losing that ego-centered palm grip he has had like forever on his private parts. He is vulnerable, yes, but he is also, in a word, free, fighting for his freedom on his terms.”
He revels in the individuality he declares Prince displayed. “Prince talked sex, he talked love, he questioned God, he questioned himself, he weighed in on social issues like AIDS and violence, and he had the balls, quite literally, to pose butt-naked, as a matter of fact, on the cover of one of his albums. So Prince was, in a word, free, and it was electrifying and shocking to behold.”
To his credit — and possibly as the book’s saving grace — Powell’s yearning for freedom does not end with observations on race and celebrity. His strongest writing is wrapped up in a heartfelt plea for men to loosen ourselves from an outmoded notion of masculinity and redefine what it means to be a man.
From his opening essay, “Letter to a Young Man,” through “Jay-Z and the Remaking of His Manhood . . .” to his strongest and most personal effort, “Re-defining Manhood: Harvey Weinstein and how his toxic manhood is our toxic manhood, too,” Powell encourages men to break free from the sexual exploitation, violence toward women and fellow men, fear of being seen as “soft,” and deeply ingrained sense of privilege that pervades this country, including communities of color.
He poignantly sketches his journey from a violent past that included physically assaulting his girlfriend and being placed under a restraining order, through reading feminist writers, speaking, writing, talking with circles of men and many hours of therapy to emerge as an introspective man, in the very best definition of that noun — even as he acknowledges that he is still a work in progress.
“Change demands tough, fearless searches for the man in the mirror, self-criticism, and owning of all the things toxic manhood sets out furiously to deny: our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, our easy lapses into male privilege,” he writes. “And meanwhile, that privilege, and the power that comes with it, is deeply tantalizing and addictive.”
Powell further says, “To be a different kind of man means that we would have to give up any form of ‘power’ that hurts us, other men, women and girls, the human family — that we would have to become honest, and vulnerable, and emotionally naked in a way that forces us to confront ourselves as we have never done before.”
For all my issues with much of his book, I find that, in the age of Trump and allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, I can’t help but applaud Powell’s demand that we no longer accept sexual violence, exploitation of women and condescension toward females with a “boys will be boys” shrug.
By Kevin Powell
Atria. 284 pp. $26