Black Man's Think Tank encourages discussions on race

Friday, April 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — MU's Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity hosts a monthly forum called the Black Man’s Think Tank, which allows people to voice questions and concerns or discuss issues affecting the black community locally and nationally.

The next scheduled forum is Monday, during the fraternity’s “Alpha Week,” and will address black expression in the arts.

If you go

What: Black Man's Think Tank forum

Topic: "Blacks in the Arts — A Dialogue on the Importance of Black Expression"

When: 6 p.m. Monday

Where: MU's Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, 813 Virginia Ave.

“Originally, the Think Tank was … part of our fraternity as a social gathering for black men to come together and discuss issues on the campus and in the community,” said Montel Evans, facilitator and fraternity member.

But Evans said that in the past few years, the fraternity has opened the forum to the community and now discusses issues including health and economics.

Some discussion topics come from literature, such as W.E.B. DuBois’ article about the Talented Tenth, a term explaining DuBois’ plan for fighting racial inequality. He described the Talented Tenth to mean educating and preparing the top 10 percent of the black population to help the remaining 90 percent attain those same heights.

Evans said one previous Think Tank even subjected participants to the brown paper bag test, a method used historically by upper-class black people to see if one’s skin color was light enough to warrant inclusion into selective churches, clubs or social groups. If one’s skin was darker than the bag, that person was denied entry.

“We gave light-skinned people preferential treatment and then had a discussion,” Evans said.

The last forum, in February, focused on the relevance of Black History Month. Co-facilitator Rickey Leathers said few students at MU recognize Black History Month.

Topics of discussion included whether black history should be restricted to one month or implemented in school curricula year-round. Leathers said that participants had a lot to say about black history and its place in America.

"We talked about African-American history actually being American history," Evans said. "Some said that if we continue to single out our history as different, it’ll never be seen as American history. Some felt like we shouldn’t have it and just celebrate black history all year round, just like we acknowledge other histories and contributions."

The forums are modeled after town hall meetings. Both Evans and Leathers research topics and think of ways to engage people in the discussion.

“Sometimes we play the devil’s advocate,” Leathers said. “We’ll play both sides of the fence to get that conversation sparking. Once we get everyone on one side of the fence, we try to find a solution.”

MU senior Melanie Cannon, who has attended nearly all of the think tanks, said the topics and the sense of community are what keep her coming back.

“Everyone is free to speak their minds,” Cannon said. “I’m a transfer student, and I didn’t know lots of people. (The Think Tank) exposed me to people more like me. It lets you learn from other people’s experience … relating you to other people.”

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