Healing front and center of ‘Because Black Life’ conference

A one-day summit Saturday will focus on the state of black life in Minnesota

Artist and educator Keno Evol.
Artist and educator Keno Evol leads a volunteer meeting Tuesday, ahead of the Because Black Life conference that will be held at the University of Minnesota's Rarig Center.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Keno Evol understands the importance of creating space for black healing.

“Can black men in America right now say that they’re hurt, like, you hurt me? Is that allowed in our lives?” He posed this question to four black men on a panel discussion last month aimed at “unlearning” toxic masculinity.

The men on the panel paused.

“We can and we do. It’s — are we believed?” said the Rev. Danny Givens, one of the panelists. “It’s just like white noise in the room when I say, ‘I’m hurt.’ I’ve come through a process of trying to find language, trying to find words, trying to find a place that I felt brave enough.”

The conversation, moderated by Evol, was one of several events leading up to The Because Black Life conference. Evol’s nonprofit, Black Table Arts, will host the conference Saturday at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center.

The term “toxic masculinity” is defined by the American Psychological Association as toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity. It’s cultural masculine norms that can be perceived as harmful.

Panelist Jason Sole, a criminal justice professor at Hamline University, said toxic masculinity shows up differently for black men because of the circumstances in which they grew up.

“My masculinity was centered on being ready and being protective when it’s time to ride,” Sole said. “For me, I was born in ‘78, the war on drugs started in ‘82. That snatched a lot of the men out of our neighborhood.”

Evol wants the conference to spur conversations that help heal not just black men, but all black people as they deal with the effects of racism, generational trauma and disenfranchisement.

“All it comes down to for me is black love and putting that to practice in the way that I can as an executive director,” he said. “A part of that is unlearning and relearning.”

Evol describes the conference as an eight-hour “think tank” to tackle some of the issues that impact black people specifically in Minnesota.

“I'm looking around in the state of Minnesota and we are at the spot in the country that has some of the worst racial disparities — particularly in housing and education,” he said. “So, I want to see black people alive.”

This will be the second year Black Table Arts has hosted the conference. Evol is expecting more than 200 attendees, on par with the size of the crowds from last year. He describes it almost as a town hall where community members can gather to take a deeper dive into issues and attendees can walk away with plans and strategies.

“How do we want to shape black life for the next year?” he said. “How can we think about a conference as a trampoline to generate black ideas into the future?”

Four people stand near a wall covered in a cream curtain.
From left, Metaled Lee, Mary Reed, Najma Siyad and Jason Jackson tour University of Minnesota's Rarig Center on Tuesday, ahead of the Because Black Life conference. During the conference Siyad will lead workshop called "Black and Muslim: A Complicated Identity," and Jackson will lead one called "The Ties that Bind: Black Queer and Trans Experience with Blackness."
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The conference entails about a dozen workshops that explore an array of issues impacting black life. Some look at the intersections of being black and Muslim in the current political climate. Others examine reparations. Evol said an underlying common thread in most of the workshops is healing.

“The framing of the conference is a community plug-in, a statewide check-in and a national lean in,” Evol said.

One of the workshops will be led by Jason Jackson, who directs Macalester College’s multicultural center. He said the conversation of black healing is not just local.

“Black healing is becoming a big conversation even just nationally. Over the last six, seven years, I've been hearing the word ‘healing,’ and I think it's beautiful,” he said. “We're constantly trying to heal. We're constantly trying to figure out what is holding us, what stops us from being.”

Jackson, who was part of the panel on toxic masculinity, is also a member of the conference’s core planning group. His workshop will be on the black queer and trans experience.

Evol knows that the healing won’t come in a single day, but he hopes the conference will lead to ongoing conversations.

“If we have the initiative to gather and talk to each other, participate in a conviviality, we can emerge ideas that can actually shape our communities,” he said.

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