Powell, a cast member of the inaugural season of MTV's Real World and former music journalist, is talking specifically about "The State of Black Men in America," his successful ongoing lecture tour, and its companion piece, last year's book Who's Gonna Take the Weight? Manhood, Race, and Power in America (Three Rivers Press). The book, a collection of essays exploring different aspects of what it means to be a man (specifically an African-American male) in the current culture, is a 160-page invitation to ask oneself hard questions.
"I think we've got to look at ourselves," Powell says. "We've got to say, What kind of man do I want to be? Where did I get the idea that manhood comes from either the penis or the pistol?'"
It's an area in which Powell speaks from painful experience. Who's Gonna Take the Weight? shines a harsh, unflattering light on the author's past as a "recovering misogynist" and as a confrontational, quick-tempered young man at Vibe magazine in the 1990s -- a course that led to his eventual firing and a subsequent period of taking intense personal inventory. Powell admits he's still far from perfect -- the book begins with a recounting of his 2001 arrest following a public confrontation with a fellow writer who'd dissed him in print. But, he says, his continued fallibility is what makes his points relatable: "That's why I put myself out there. (Growth) has got to come from serious self-examination."
Indeed, Powell's candor is The Weight's ultimate strength, investing the book's essays with a common humanity meant to strike a chord with his core audience: black males. That everyman aspect also keeps the reader from viewing the book -- and Powell himself -- with a too-cynical eye. After all, Powell is a glib, charismatic speaker rumored to be mulling a run for Congress in 2006; it's easy to read and hear the messages of uplift and empowerment in The Weight, and in his lectures, as the self-aggrandizing foundation for a career in politics.
For his part, Powell deftly deflects such speculation. He concedes that he's part of a group of like-minded African Americans who have considered starting their own organization by 2006. "People in my 'hood," Powell notes, "don't even know what the NAACP is. That's the truth. That's part of the problem." But, he says, politics for its own sake isn't in the cards. "Let me put it to you like this: I am interested in being wherever I can help the people -- black people first and foremost, but all people. I'm not interested in a paycheck. Even if I ran for Congress, I'm going to be there for only three or four terms and then help someone succeed me. And half your time is spent raising funds. I'm about being where I can be most effective.
"In Brooklyn, where I live," he continues, "black communities are being gentrified very quickly. Brooklyn is a borough dominated by black elected officials; these people have been in office 10, 15 years, and yet they've never developed an economic plan for our communities. So now we find ourselves begging the developers coming in here for a piece of the pie? That's ridiculous to me."
If it sounds like Powell's taking the easy bait of painting all elected officials as an impediment to social growth, his aim proves a little wider. "I'm speaking specifically of black leadership, (including) mainstream black organizations," he says. "We've gone from being very proactive in the civil rights era to (being) constant victims. At least during segregation, in spite of poverty and racism, you saw the building of black institutions. At least there was a pride in getting an education, in our traditions, that just does not exist now and has not existed over the last couple of decades. I know Bill Cosby pointed the finger very hard recently at poor blacks. I would say, just as Dr. King talked about, that the onus is more on those of us who are black professionals with an education -- the black middle class. We have the access to resources and skills and information."
To that end, Powell says, he strives to present his audiences with more than just a feel-good talk and a T-shirt: "On tour, we have speeches on empowerment, a reading list, information on everything from counseling services to AIDS testing, and we've got 20 or 25 organizations present to offer more information." The goal, he says, is to help define the issues that African Americans tackle in the 21st century: "At the end of Dr. King's life, he was talking about economic justice, economic empowerment. What is the agenda going to be for black America? I submit that the old guard has dropped the ball woefully, and we've got to step up."