The author discusses his debut novel Passage.
Novelist and Social Justice Advocate Khary Lazarre-White
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight a conversation with writer and activist, Khary Lazarre-White. He joins us to discuss his work helping young people throughout his organization, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, and his debut novel, “Passage”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Khary Lazarre-White coming up right now.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Khary Lazarre-White to this program. The social justice advocate and founder of the youth development organization, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, is out with a new novel, his debut novel. It’s called “Passage”. The story centers around a teenager named Warrior who must navigate the streets of New York and all the dangers he encounters. Khary, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Khary Lazarre-White: Thank you so much for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: I was fascinated — pleased, but fascinated — by the fact that you called this kid Warrior. Tell me why.
Lazarre-White: You know, I think it’s so important when you’re telling the stories of young Black men when they’re telling their own stories that they’re able to put their own narrative front and center. This is a novel that’s about the internal psyche of a young man.
And what he loves about the meaning of his name is that it tells every single person he comes in contact with who he is and what he represents. And he feels he’s at struggle for his very survival, to survive the conditions he’s facing even though he’s from a family of great love.
His mother and his father provide so much support, but still the moment he leaves the doors, he’s faced with the socioeconomic conditions that so many young people face and he feels like he has to be a warrior to navigate that. That’s the tension between being strong and tough and wearing the mask, but also being sensitive and loving towards his family, and that runs through the novel.
Tavis: You chose to give him a mother and a father. Why?
Lazarre-White: I think it’s absolutely critical that we tell more stories about the wholeness and the power and the beauty of the Black family. Obviously, it is a truth that so many of our young people grow up without a father in their life, but so many grow up with a father in their life.
So his parents are separated, but they have deep love for their son. His father lives in Brooklyn and his mother lives in Harlem. I wanted to show that deep love between a Black man and his son that’s intimate, that’s affectionate, that’s loving, that’s supportive. I think it’s a story that needs to be told more often.
And if we look at our history in this country, the reason that children have been able to survive over so many years of slavery and segregation and the continuing issues is because at times of the strength of the Black family. So often, instead, it’s painted in a negative light and that conversation needs to be had, but we also have to have a conversation about the strength of the family.
Tavis: We all have our critics. So for those who would say that the drama that Warrior endures is a stereotypical story of what Black boys in America deal with. So for those who would say, on the one hand, stereotypical, how do you respond to those? And the folk on the other hand who would say mother and father both in the house, that’s aspirational, how do you respond to those critics?
Lazarre-White: Well, for those who say that it’s stereotypical, I would say they don’t live in those communities and it’s not their reality. The truth is that when we talk about violence in urban areas whether it’s Los Angeles or Houston or New York, or whether we talk about in the rural areas as well, it’s not just about the violent act. It’s about growing up around the ambient feeling of violence.
The feeling of violence is right around the corner and it could happen at any moment. That’s what I portray in the novel. This is not a novel that’s filled with violent acts. It’s the fear of violence. What does that do to the psyche of a young man? How traumatic is that for so many of our children that we allow them to grow up in those conditions?
So I don’t think it’s stereotypical at all. He’s based in great love and great support, who he is as a Black young man in terms of his history and his culture and his people, but he’s also confronted with the very, very real specter of violence.
Again, I think the fact that he has a mother and father in his home — they’re separated. His father lives in Brooklyn, his mother in Harlem — but the fact that children grow up with powerful male influences in their life and powerful female is certainly true.
That is the other side of the coin. As rampant as a lack of fathers are in our community, we also know that there are millions of Black men doing what they’re supposed to do in our community as well.
Tavis: How do you respond to that critique — I hear it all the time. I know you hear it all the time in the work that you do, which is this notion that oftentimes comes from the right that the problem of Black America is a problem of parenting and that, if we had more men in the family, in the homes, we wouldn’t have half the problems that we deal with.
How do you respond to the folk who say that that is primarily our problem, that we lack Black men in homes?
Lazarre-White: Well, that’s a big question. I think there are a few different answers to it. The first is that we have a problem with manhood in our country. We have a problem with masculinity in our country. The majority of violence in this country is committed by white men, both murder and rape.
And while Black men are disproportionately represented in a lot of these statistics, violence is still perpetrated by men of all colors. We have all these mass shootings that people often talk about. That’s about either mental health or that’s about guns.
One thing that’s not talked about is masculinity and manhood. The women who are mentally ill are not doing mass shootings. It’s men who are doing it. So do I think that there is a crisis of manhood in this country? Yes. Is that reflected in the Black community? Absolutely. And do we need to talk about it? Without question.
But the idea that that is the root of the problem in a country where 13 generations were born in to slavery, four generations were born into segregation, and we have two generations born legally free who we still have the kind of systemic oppression and racism that we know exists in this country, and to say the reason for the difficulties in terms of socioeconomic conditions for our children is because of Black men, is taking the responsibility from where it should be put and putting it on the victim of the reality.
Tavis: So the work that you do every day is real work in the real world.
Tavis: The conditions that Warrior has to navigate in this novel are real conditions that real negroes have to deal with every day and yet you chose to tell this story through a novel. Why a novel?
Lazarre-White: Well, Tavis, I think art at its best, you know, inspires people. It’s a journey where it allows people into another person’s experience. That I can read a novel that’s about a white boy in a rural community and it’s J.D. Salinger’s story of Holden Caulfield and that stays with me. I can read Maxine Hong Kingston’s beautiful novel of a Chinese-American girl coming of age and that inspires me.
So I think part of the power of art is to allow others into the story and for them to understand things that sometimes statistics and policy and law doesn’t allow people to be able to do, even though I often talk in that language as well.
But then this is also a novel that’s written for young people facing these conditions. This is not a young adult novel. I hope people of all ages read it, but what I want is for especially young men in their teens and in their twenties to see their story here. And I think that there’s a way to reach people by showing their story in this novel.
I have a good friend, a young man in this thirties. He said to me it was the first time he saw his face on the cover of a book. Just the optics of this is my story, how powerful that is. The last piece is that when you start talking about the power of art to transform, it’s an idea. It’s storytelling and there’s a way to tell a story in a novel that is not really possible when you’re writing a political essay.
Tavis: I’ll come back to these Black boys in just a second. Let me start with the good white folk first. Tell me why it is that you think that they will read a book and get a reality from a fiction text when many of them don’t seem to get it when it’s in their face, live and in living color on the network news every night?
Lazarre-White: I think that, you know, this is a country that only exists because of the objectification, the enslavement and the continual persecution of Black and Brown bodies. That’s what the country is built on and we know that and we know that so well.
That’s only been allowed to happen because of white folks who have been aggressively against Black and Brown people, allowing it to continue and also, theoretically, white people of good faith who have not stood up enough.
So we live in a time right now where this country has elected a person who articulates anti-woman issues, who talks about Black and Brown people and Muslim people in the most horrific way. None of that was enough, right? None of that was enough to stand in his face.
That wasn’t just those who were known to be racist. Those were peoples’ neighbors. Those were peoples’ friends, right? So this isn’t going to speak to all of the “good white folks” who aren’t getting it on the news and also won’t get it through this novel.
What I do think is it will speak to those who are our allies, the people who truly want a more humane world, who reject the kind of country we’re living in now, this inhumane institution that we are living under. And I think it will speak to them. I hope it will.
Tavis: What I’m about to say now, you know well, given the work that you do, Khary. But I’ve been honored and, I think, blessed to do a number of prime time documentaries for this network, PBS, over the years about the plight and condition, the suffering, quite frankly, of young Black boys.
One of the things I learned many years ago that, again, you know full well is that if Black boys don’t develop a love of reading by the third grade, they’re doomed. So many of them, I discovered in the research, don’t develop a love of reading by the third grade because they don’t see themselves in the narrative. They don’t see themselves as characters.
That’s the point you raised a moment ago about these young Black boys who’ve never seen themselves on the cover of a book. I wonder whether or not you think that some of the issues that you have to navigate every day through the work you do with Black boys would not exist if Black boys in fact developed a love of reading earlier on.
Lazarre-White: You know, I think that the educational realities and outcomes that our children face is certainly a part of the crisis that we’re facing. This idea that somehow doing well in school is being white is a very new phenomenon, as we know well.
There was nothing blacker than doing well in school. Our universities reversed out of this, teachers could move throughout the south and have homes to stay in because they were revered. So I think part of it is not about having to find a new answer, but trying to find some of the solutions that were already there, the emphasis in our community on education, the desire to ensure that all of our children get the right education.
That’s done in two different ways. It’s done by the direct service kind of work that I do at Brotherhood/Sister Sol, that we do in our schools, helping the small number of young people to love learning, to love to read, to see in themselves aspirational goals of who they can become as men and as women, but it’s also about changing the policies that create those conditions.
I mean, the situation of education that we have across this country is abhorring. That we allow children to attend schools where even if they do what they’re supposed to be doing, theoretically they’re graduating with an eighth grade level education in urban systems all across the country means we’re selling those kids a false bill of goods.
It means we’re telling even the children who pushed you, you will not be allowed to compete in our society. So I think education’s key, but so is math and science and coding and all aspects of development of young people.
I also think the arts are very important. I think ensuring that young people have a space to tell their story, to be able to deal with the trauma and the pain that they face in their life. Often arts is an outlet for that and that we see the arts ripped out of so many of our schools across the country means that that opportunity is not there.
So I think we have to return to a much more holistic approach to the education of our young people which so many of our schools don’t focus on, even the ones that theoretically get the good test scores, that theoretically provide an education to prepare children.
Are we preparing them to be ethical and moral people in an inhumane world and to try to change that world? Or are we just preparing them for a test? So we have to really look at the holistic development of young people, which is what I think is key. That goes back to the earlier part of our conversation about what kind of citizens are we creating, right?
This isn’t a Black and Brown issue. If we’re not dealing with moral issues of humanity, then we are not ensuring that we have more good white folks, more progressive white folks, who will work with us hand in hand to change issues, more progressive, the Asian folks and Latino folks and Black folks. This is a national issue we’re dealing with.
It’s why we elected a president like Trump. It’s why we have so many mass shootings all around the country, this divorcing from a more ethical and moral way to live our lives. And I don’t think we’re teaching that in schools because people are afraid to teach those issues. They’re afraid to confront what undergirds that, you know.
Tavis: But how do you teach Black boys or anybody else, any other child, for that matter, the value of being humane when they live and witness and have to endure an inhumane world every day?
Lazarre-White: So that’s the essential tenet of “Passage”, of my novel, right? You have a young man who’s confronted with violence all the time and, on one level, he’s terrified of violence. He’s terrified of what violence can do to the human body. Yet he also uses, when necessary, his physicality and his strength to push back at the inhumanity he faces.
I think we can raise children — and this is a work we’ve done at Brotherhood/Sister Sol for 23 years — I think we can raise children to confront the massive injustice they face because of racism and poverty and many other issues, can push back as social change makers to change those conditions, in a defiant way, in a way like a warrior would, whether a boy or a girl, to have that indomitable spirit and also to be gentle, loving, humane people to those who are loving and gentle and humane to them.
I think you can do both things in a person. When we look at those who have really stood out in our community as leaders and advocates, they’ve merged those two. They’ve merged the ability to confront the viciousness and yet also be humane in their world vision. I certainly believe we can develop children to be like that.
Tavis: The other thing I want to go back to is this distinction you made — and it’s a good distinction — between violence and fear. It seems to me that we are good in this country about talking about the violence when it rears its ugly head as it often does, but not so good about having conversations about the fear.
You made that distinction earlier. I wonder whether you think that the majority of our fellow citizens understand — never mind the violence — the fear that too many children have to navigate just moving through their daily existence around the country.
Lazarre-White: In a word, no. I think that, you know, Baldwin talked many a year ago about the ignorance that so many people cloak themselves in.
You know, this idea that if it’s not happening in your community or immediately adjacent to you, you’re not aware of it and somehow that is something that makes you innocent, that your ignorance protects you. We live in a society where everybody can be aware of what’s going on down the street, in the adjacent community, or in the next city.
And the fact that we allow the kind of violence to occur, that continues to occur, that we allowed a criminal justice system to incarcerate two million people, all these forms of brutality are only allowed to occur because they are striking at Black and Brown, disproportionately poor folk. And in other cases, poor white folk, and that’s allowable.
But once the wall comes down and the violence hits other communities, all of a sudden, there’s an uproar about it. The violence has always been there. It’s not that the violence is new. It’s that the victims of the violence are now.
So that’s a real moral struggle with this country, that it’s a country birthed in violence that almost has its identity connected to violence and thinks it can control the sickness that is violence from striking itself, which is an impossibility.
You know, New York City, there used to be 2200 murders a year. Now this year, it looks like there’ll be roughly 300 murders and people are celebrating that, which in some way I understand, right? That decrease is so striking.
But if you were in most countries around the world and a city had 300 murders, they would be bouncing off the walls trying to figure out what to do to stop the carnage. It’s only that we accept that as a norm that means we allow that kind of violence to continue.
So if you grow up in a community or a city with that level of violence, you constantly think it’s right around the corner. You constantly think it’s down the street. You become both inured to it and terrified by it. And that produces trauma in our children.
Tavis: It’s one thing through a novel or any other means, Khary, to make people aware. It’s another thing for those persons to care. Why do you think they care?
Because if I wanted to — I’m not going to — but if I wanted to, we could play devil’s advocate for the next 10 minutes and I could give you a litany of reasons why I think the evidence abounds that people don’t care about the kids that you care about. So it’s one thing to make them aware, another thing for them to care. Why do you think they care?
Lazarre-White: So I call myself a realistic optimist. I am very realistic at the conditions that continue to be faced in this country. I’m based in a family of people who were incarcerated because of their beliefs, who fought back in every single way against oppressions in this country. I’m aware of American history. I’m aware of the American reality.
I push back on the idea that Donald Trump represents something new in this nation. He represents something that’s been here since its founding. I am optimistic because I believe in the end people of good faith and goodwill will win.
I think we have to bring more to our side. I don’t for a second believe that we have the allies we need and that we have enough progressive voices walking with us, but I know that there are people in this country who reject the inhumanity and the violence and the bigotry of this country. I know that.
Tavis: Is that optimism or hopefulness?
Lazarre-White: No, that’s realism. That part, I think, I have seen. I have seen white, Latin, Asian and Black people reject the inhumanity of this nation. I have seen people protest and organize and contribute. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is an organization that unapologetically supports Black and Brown children through a political lens of social justice.
Our supporters are Black and white and Latino, people of all different backgrounds who support what we do. So I know there are people there who are doing it. I agree with you from a realistic perspective that there are not enough.
That’s why we had the election we had. That’s why we have the police brutality and the violence that we have. That’s why we have the criminal justice system. So it’s not that I don’t understand the conditions. It’s that I’ve dedicated my life to pushing back against those conditions every single day in every way that I can.
And the only way I can do that is that I know one day we will win that. I’m not saying that’s gonna happen tomorrow, Tavis. I’m not saying that’s gonna happen next year, but I am saying that I believe in the end a more humane world will come to pass and that’s what we have to struggle for.
Tavis: Before Donald Trump went to Washington, there was movement, as you well know, on the criminal justice front. There seemed to be in the U.S. Senate a bipartisan effort. I think of Cory Booker on the one hand. I think of Rand Paul on the other side.
But there were a number of senators across the aisle who will come together to get behind some meaningful criminal justice reform. That seems to have stalled for the moment. What do you make of where that conversation ultimately is going to go?
Lazarre-White: Well, first, I think that some of the bipartisanship is a little overstated that was previously there. I think some of it was for financial reasons on people not seeing it as something that was financially tenable anymore. You know, I think that we really have to frame a lot of this in language again of morality, that it is immoral to incarcerate two million people. It is immoral to put human beings in cages.
It’s not about criminal justice reform. We have to obliterate the entire system and build something up for the small numbers of people who continue to commit those kind of crimes that’s based on rehabilitation.
I know a guy who spent 25 years in prison. He said he’s been in every correctional facility he can find and he’s yet to find one that corrects anything. So what’s the point of the institution?
So I think it’s certainly something that has even less legs than it had at the time, but it was also quite honestly a great disappointment of mine with the Obama administration, that there was not enough of a focus on true, comprehensive approach to criminal justice issues and it’s kind of biting at the edges.
So I think, you know, it’s a very interesting time with the face now of drug addiction and the opiates being a working class white face.
And now, all of a sudden, the conversation on the response to that is one of healing and one of medication when the face was crack which, again, we know was majorly used actually by white folks, but was framed as a Black drug. The it was Three Strikes You’re Out, lock them up, increase the population by 400%.
So I think that’s a long journey. I think it’s one of the great stains on this country and I think that that’s, you know, a struggle that’s going to have to happen politically. But as a social organizer and a community organizer, I believe that has to happen from the ground up. I think it has to happen on a people level.
Tavis: I totally agree with you on the moral question. What scares me about that, as Dr. King taught us, that we know we can’t legislate morality.
Tavis: So it is a moral argument and yet I’m just not convinced — maybe you can disabuse me of this notion –but I’m just not convinced we can get there by making it a purely moral argument.
Lazarre-White: I don’t think we can anymore. I mean, you know, we’re talking about a novel and a piece of art any more than that can win the argument.
I think we need multiple approaches. So one of the things that I feel fortunate about is that, in my professional career, I’ve been able to move in several different spaces. So I’m an attorney and I believe in litigation. A litigation has been central to the movements for freedom of all different types of people in this country.
Lazarre-White: I’m a community organizer and I believe in strength from the ground up and protests and boots on the ground, but I’m also an artist and I believe that the role of art and social justice. Art and activism are deeply intertwined and I think that art often makes that argument of morality and ethics.
So at the same time that King is moving towards litigation and moving towards boots on the ground and supporting all that, it’s the letter from a Birmingham jail which, while an essay, is one of the most profound pieces written about race in this country and, to your point, the “good-natured white folks” who are not supportive of his movement.
James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”, same thing. It’s framed in a way that’s a moral and ethical argument through the written word, and I do think we need that. I think it brings inspiration and that is the role that I think art can play.
Tavis: This is an impossible question and yet I’m gonna ask it anyway.
Tavis: Your critique on whether or not you think in our community, in particular, the citizen artists are stepping up to the plate?
Lazarre-White: Insufficiently. I have been fortunate over the last decade to be close to, inspired by, Harry Belafonte, who is somebody who we honored at the Brotherhood/Sister Sol. You know, I’ve had many conversations where you’re almost sitting at the foot of Mr. Belafonte and he’s just telling these incredible stories about the intersection of art and social justice.
I think we need more artists out there. We need more storytellers. We need more people who are unapologetically committed to telling stories of humanity and justice and freedom.
And I think, unfortunately, but not surprisingly, we’re at a time where there is a lack of those. I mean, I think that the attempt to take the arts and to merge the arts with a corporatized approach to the arts has silenced so many of those voices.
The raising rents and the difficulty of living in urban areas has decreased the ability of artists to congregate and to be able to live, who are struggling artists who will one day not be struggling artists. This is a tough time to be an artist who’s really committed to issues of social justice, but I do believe we need them more than ever now.
Tavis: Got a minute to go. You are on the front line of the fight. How do you — given what you see every day, how do you sustain your hope?
Lazarre-White: You know, I think I am sustained in great depth by my family, by a family that’s been committed to activism and social justice, by an awareness of how long this fight has been, that we will not win it, again, overnight.
But when I look back at the incredible strength and fortitude that people had through these difficult times, I feel it’s my responsibility to continue to advance that. If they were able to push through those times, then I have to be able to push through these times.
And then I feel that, at the end of the day, if you cannot be hopeful, if you cannot feel that a more humane world will come to pass and we will defeat these elements, then how does one struggle every day? I have to remind myself of that even, as you said, when I’m aware of the depths of what we’re facing and the massive struggle that we’re engaged in.
Tavis: I appreciate your work and your witness, and I thank you for the text. It’s a novel. It’s called “Passage” by Khary Lazarre-White. Thank you, brother.
Lazarre-White: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you on.
Lazarre-White: I appreciate it.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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