karen_stephens_copy.jpgMy Dear Brothers, I have been wanting to find a way to communicate with you for a long time, wanting to find some way to magically fix whatever is broken in you to help you stand proud and strong in your God-given majesty.

Now, with the not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I can keep silent no longer.

We are at a crossroads, a time when we need to say halt and take stock of where we are, how we got here and where we are going. You, my brothers have some soul-searching to do and some decision-making about what your future will look like as disenfranchised American citizens.

A Florida jury has, for all intents and purposes, just reinstated Jim Crow, which, for 100 years after slavery, was a system of laws that permitted legal discrimination and, many times, murder of black people. There were many times when young black men left home and never made it back, only to be found lynched, swinging from trees.

This is America’s legacy to you, the Strange Fruit on Southern Trees. The ghosts of the past are living among us and they are now joined by Trayvon.

Negative images

Many people use the violence taking place in the black community as an excuse to justify the murder of an unarmed boy. They say, “Well, they are killing each other in record numbers every day,” and that’s true. However, it has nothing to do with a self-appointed watchman profiling a young boy, stalking him, and causing his death.

Unfortunately, the violence taking place does have a direct effect on how young black men are viewed in this country. Ever since Africans were brought to these shores, our identity has been shaped and defined by those who were in control of our lives, defined by people who equated us with animals. As a people, denied education and the ability to make decisions about our lives, we were at the mercy of the very people who forced negative images upon us, forced to comply or risk losing our lives.

For many years, people of all races and nationalities joined forces to fight for equal rights for black people in America, many of them losing their lives in the process.

There is something we owe those soldiers. We owe them our effort to strive for more, to be more. With the passage of the Equal Rights Act, it was against the law to discriminate against black people and slowly more doors and opportunities began to open up for us. That was less than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, things now seem to be going backward and we have to ask ourselves, “Have we done enough to take advantage of those opportunities, especially education?”

Rampant bias

Many things have changed for the better in those years since the ERA was passed but people of color still have a long way to go to realize the promise of America, a promise that seems reserved only for some. There is still rampant discrimination, unemployment and incarceration of black Americans. Our communities are underserved, schools substandard and the sense of hopelessness in urban areas is overwhelming.

Those who have negative beliefs and feelings toward African Americans use the problems in the black community to reinforce their dislike and bias. They use them to reinforce the idea that we don’t deserve anything better. We are still being defined negatively.

Our job – your job, my brothers – is to stop feeding into those negative stereotypes that continually give others ammunition to demonize you. Your brother is not your enemy and each time you harm your brother you dig deeper into a spiral of soul-murder that becomes harder and harder to emerge from.

Many of you are fighting and dying over “turf” that you don’t own and demanding “respect” when you’ve done nothing to earn it. Many of you turn your noses up at getting an education, not realizing it is the only thing th`at will propel you to a better life. You view going to jail as something to be proud of, rather than something to be avoided at all cost.

Hostile world

When you become entangled with the American judicial system, you become a slave all over again, giving your life and your future over to people who profit from your misery and, once you’re in the system, it is nearly impossible to get out of it. Is that the life you want for yourselves? Is it the life you deserve?

Those who seek to demonize you don’t know you nor do they want to. They don’t know how smart you are, how truly fun and funny you are, loving, charming, sensitive and strong. They see only the mask of bravado you wear to protect yourself from a hostile world; they see only what they want to see.

I implore you to not allow the worst of what others believe about you become your reality. You do have a choice. Elevate and honor yourselves. For many years, we sang the song of freedom in our communities; now we sing the song of misogyny and death and it is a tune given to us by someone else.

Make no mistake, it is hard. Working and reaching for what you want takes commitment and effort but it is a part of the process. You were born to be free and healthy, not locked up in a cell or running for your life.

Think back to the time when you were younger and the world hadn’t turned into the dark place it is and remember what you wanted to be, what made you happy, and make the choice to be that. Don’t allow the pull of negative culture and images to continue to allow you to disrespect yourself and others. The things fed to you by the media and the entertainment world are illusions; they are illusions that are killing you.

Upward trajectory

Most young African-American males have their eyes on the prize. They have made choices about their future and are making strides to realize the life they envision for themselves. We want all of our young brothers and sisters to have this frame of mind.

Working hard and having goals is no guarantee of safety for you in a country that devalues you and denies your humanity; Trayvon and too many others are proof of that. However, when you are on an upward trajectory, it becomes more difficult for those stereotypes to stick and they fall away like old clothes.

It is a characteristic of the racist system we live in that the actions of one black person reflect on the entire culture but it is a reality we have to deal with.

Step up, rise up and change the world’s perception of you. When they can no longer define you, they are stripped of their power. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help and, remember, you came to this world fully equipped inside with everything you need. Own your divinity, blossom – and remember we love you.

Karen Stephens is an award-winning actress, performer, writer, director and choreographer who lives in West Palm Beach.