Davey D and Kevin Powell, together in Oakland
By Lou Fancher
Kevin Powell isn't coming to Oakland to unload, complain or criticize. He's coming to talk about solutions and how a person, city, community -- or maybe even a book -- can be the harbinger of change.
Powell, the author of the new autobiography "The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey Into Manhood," and syndicated radio host Davey D will sit down Tuesday for a wide-ranging conversation.
Ever since Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" leapt off the Greenville Public Library bookshelf in Jersey City, New Jersey, and into his 8-year-old hands, Powell has been fond of putting pen to paper. He's authored 12 books and written for The Huffington Post, Vibe, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and others. Even so, he says "Nothing beats face to face."
It won't be the first conversation between the civil rights activists when they take the stage Tuesday at First Congregational Church of Oakland in a program presented by KPFA Radio 94.1 FM and Marcus Books. Davey D, journalist and hip-hop historian, says their 20-year association means that interviewing Powell will "be old hat," but for Powell, there's always new ground to cover.
"I have a lot of questions for Oakland," Powell says. "I'm prepared with my remarks, but I prefer to be organic."
Formal or spontaneous, their intended talking points, they agree, are deeply visceral and equally intellectual: the upcoming presidential election, police brutality, black leadership, white privilege, economic inequality, gentrification, institutional racism and more.
But before those matters are tackled, Powell plans to introduce the book he says was the toughest he's ever written.
"It's the most personal," he says. "I've written essays, blogs, books. Everything I wanted to say, I said. That's why it was so painful. I just hope people keep responding to it."
The 304-page book chronicles his journey from a child's innocent self-love to learning to hate himself as a black person growing up in America. The coming-of-age cycle repeats itself in stories from his adult life as the rage of growing up without a father -- or rather, as the son of a man who tells Powell's mother he won't spend time or "a near nickel" on his son -- tears holes in his psyche.
Grasping indiscriminately for role models has Powell alternately rising high on the history of African-Americans and stories about black leaders including Malcolm X and hip-hop star Tupac Shakur, or plunging into depression, bankruptcy and couch-surfing after drinking too much alcohol, violent outbursts and financial irresponsibility.
Kicked out of Rutgers University years ago, Powell today says, "Everyone should have college, be exposed to the library. Those are lifesaving things. Young people without those supports are a recipe for disaster."
Davey D says defining the ingredients for solutions to contemporary society's struggles will come from coalition-building and cohesive, nonbinary conversations.
Instead of "unholy alliances" and "cosmetic legislation," he says black leaders must focus first on principles: "What is the definition of maleness? Does it mean my son doesn't cry, or that he engages with his sister and mother in a way that reflects equality and not dominance? That's a good conversation to have."
Change, he says, will come only with tremendous effort. "There's no one answer," he says. "Some people are on the ground making things happen, others have the national scene in mind. In the Bay Area, what we are doing is unusual."
To address issues facing women and people of color in America, Powell hosts town halls in cities across the country and monthly forums in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York.
A curriculum for using his autobiography in middle schools and high schools will feature a free downloadable version.
"We want it to have a long shelf life, to get people talking," Powell says. "If we can keep one kid out of jail, in college, they can multiply themselves. They can become a whole people who live and contribute to society. I have no car and only a few suits, but I have eternal hope for the future."