Yo, Brother: Teach me to be Black

A powerful book and a community of elders help a

young man to learn “how to be Black so I could live.”


The author with his mother around 2000, the year he discovered "Yo, Little Brother" | Courtesy Christian Brown

The author with his mother around 2000, the year he discovered “Yo, Little Brother” | Courtesy Christian Brown

Last Saturday, Oct. 25, 600 Black boys and men congregated on the University of Southern California’s campus to learn survival techniques from Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity that originated in 1911. Among them was Christian Brown, who credits the group with providing him with the tools so he could grow up to be a professional Black man in Los Angeles, and in particular exposing him to a book he received from one of Omega’s elders called “Yo, Little Brother.”

I was halfway through my jog around my suburban Los Angeles neighborhood when a White police officer stopped me.

“Hey! Do you live around here?” he demanded.

I was angry with the police officer, but also wondered if some of the blame was mine. I had forgotten the 145-page book that taught me how to be Black so I could live. One of the key lessons: I should never run at night.

Growing up without a father in suburban Los Angeles County, I had no one to ask questions about how to be a Black man. My mother recognized that. One early Saturday morning in October 2000, she dropped me off at the Omega Psi Phi Youth Leadership Conference, which was then held at El Camino College. The all-day conference led by a band of educated and professional Black men was about empowerment, fellowship, brotherhood, college prep and mentorship.


Last weekend hundreds of young Black boys and men gathered on the USC campus to discuss some of the same lessons that transformed my life. For 21 years, Omega Psi Phi fraternity has held a conference to educate and empower young Black men. The conference holds special importance to me because I am an alumnus, and as a 13-year-old boy, one of the most memorable parts of the conference for me was receiving the book “Yo, Little Brother: Basic Rules of Survival for Young African American Males.

The book’s lessons were simple but spoke volumes to me:

Keep your hands out of your pockets when in stores.

Don’t wander the streets without a destination.

Never get in a car unless you know who bought it.

Speak without slang.

Don’t become a statistic.

Don’t rap to yourself else people will think you’re a hoodlum.

Don’t take dangerous shortcuts home. Avoid known troublemakers. Study hard.

During reading time, I would pull “Yo, Little Brother” out in Mr. English’s English class – yes, his name was Mr. English – and soak in the lessons about society, education, and sex. While my Latino and White classmates found the book intriguing, I realized even then why I was different and needed to read the book. The statistics speak for themselves. Homicide is the leading cause of death in Black men ages 15 to 34, according to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For young White males the leading cause of death is accidents. Likewise, less than half of Black men graduate from public school, compared with more than three quarters of students overall, according to a Schott Foundation for Public Education report. As a graduate student and award-winning journalist, those figures humble me. I’m one of the fortunate brothers who survived because I was lucky enough to get a manual detailing every sacrifice I’d have to make. The men I have to thank are teachers Anthony Davis and Jeffrey Jackson. Alarmed by the lack of resources for young Black men, the longtime friends wrote “Yo, Little Brother” in 1998. “We would see things on the news and say, ‘If that brother would have only done that or this,’” said Davis, who is now retired. “We started with 50 ideas and it just started growing.”

The author, today | Christian Brown

The author, today | Christian Brown

Sadly, the lessons are just as pertinent approaching 20 years after publication. In several high-profile cases this summer, police officers shot – and in some instances killed – unarmed Black men who were walking the street. From Ferguson to Los Angeles, these ideas about self-preservation can still help young people. “It’s incredible the impact the book has had and the fact that we’re talking now means it’s still got legs,” said Jackson. “It’s a constant – it’s nothing new. We recognize in Black America, we’re always in danger.” A product of South Philadelphia during the 1960s and 70s, Jackson knows firsthand the struggles young Black men face. “Out of my circle of [childhood] friends, I’m one of four that graduated high school and only one of two that graduated from college,” he said. While Jackson and Davis were convinced young Black men would benefit from their wisdom, major U.S. publishing companies did not share the pair’s enthusiasm. “We got 30 rejections,” Davis said. “They told us, ‘Young Black men don’t read books.’” Black publishing houses knew better. Five offered to publish the book right away, Jackson said. “African American Images dropped two projects to publish it immediately,” Jackson said. “It was one of the first books to speak straight to young brothers. If nobody is communicating to the young brothers, who are they going to ask?”

Some critics have accused the book of suggesting young Black men should not “act Black” to go further in life, but Jackson and Davis vehemently deny that allegation. They see it as naivete.

“Who defines what acting Black is?” Davis asked. “Too many young [Black] people think they’re invincible, living in a post-racial society. They bought into this very hard rap music that’s disrespectful to women and materialistic…But acting Black isn’t acting violent, it’s following in the footsteps of Black men who built 135 Black colleges in this country.”

While figures indicate that one out of three Black men will end up facing prison time, Davis said, nobody ever focuses on the other two-thirds.

“[Young Black men] are bombarded with images that say, ‘You are a thug,’” he said. “But two- thirds are doing the right thing. They did a lot of things to kill off Black people in this country — Jim Crow laws, lynchings, employment inequalities — but we’re still here.”

And perhaps that’s the book’s message: Challenges persist for young Black men, but with a little help from our elders, more of us will be able to survive in a nation where the odds are stacked against us. So far, the work of these older Black men seems to be working for my generation. As Davis told me, “I’ve had hundreds of people tell me that the book saved their life, or the life of their nephew or son.” 

WATCH:  Members of Omega Psi Phi prepare for the 21st annual Youth Leadership Conference, an all-day empowerment training for young black men held Oct. 25 at the University of Southern California:

Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A. You can reach the author, a graduate journalism student at the University of Southern California, at [email protected].

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