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Too many African American young men are 'cut dead,' says Emory professor

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Elaine Justice

Gregory Ellison is author of "Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men."

Despite their hopes and aspirations for the future, too many African American young men are still being rendered mute and invisible by society, says Emory University's Gregory Ellison. His new book, "Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young Men," (Abingdon Press, 2013) is a call for action and a blueprint for response.  

Ellison, assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Emory's Candler School of Theology, invites readers to enter the lives of five young men, chronicling their journeys from a sense of invisibility to a sense of understanding of both themselves and the world around them.  

He encountered these young men in his work with high school and college-aged students in church and school settings, and from programs for youths transitioning from prison. While the individuals are real, they also represent many more youth who have limited access to education, have been in prison, or have been pushed to the margins in society.  

Origins of 'cut dead'  

In describing the plight of African American young men, Ellison uses a 19th century phrase, "cut dead," an expression he first encountered in the writings of William James in which the famous psychologist talks about humans as social beings.  

"James asserted that it would be a cruel and fiendish punishment for any person to go unnoticed or unseen, to be made invisible," says Ellison. "James recognized that people would rather be tortured than to be 'cut dead'—deliberately ignored or snubbed completely."  

Powerful stories  

Because the young men Ellison encounters are "cut dead," they are emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually cut off from the world. "At some point, because they are unacknowledged, unseen and cast aside, their hopes, dreams and even their very humanity, begin to crumble and die," says Ellison. Their stories are powerful.  

"One of the young men that I chronicle in the book was a very notable drug dealer in his community," Ellison says. "And some of the counselors at the program I worked at were badgering him to change and he said, 'You don't know me.' And he proceeded to tell his story."  

"He said, 'I sell drugs because my mother is a crack-head and she prostitutes out of our home. So I sell drugs to keep the men from coming into my home, and protecting my younger sisters who are there.'"  

"At that moment the air went out of the room," Ellison recalls. "And when it returned, we realized that we had to mobilize around this young man, not only to offer support to him, but to the family that he was seeking to sacrifice the life of his mother for."  

Caregivers must see  

"Once you begin to see a person as one who is made in the image of God, once you begin to see a homeless person as someone's uncle, or brother or aunt or sister or mother, you can't just step over them as a piece of trash because you have seen them fully," says Ellison. "Hence my mantra, 'once you see, you cannot not see.'"  

Ellison not only provides compelling reasons for caregivers to begin "seeing" with new eyes, but also shows how caregivers can begin nurturing young men with guidance, admonition and support to help create a community of reliable others to serve as an extended family.    

"Cut Dead" is Ellison's first step in what he plans as a comprehensive and ongoing effort to help people see those around them, "to see the beauty, to see the divinity, to see the humanity fully and not just to objectify them or to dismiss them by saying 'Oh, this person is just a future statistic.'"  

While the book is targeted to African American men, Ellison says that four fundamental needs — having a sense of belonging, control, self-esteem and meaningful existence — are phenomena that affect all humanity, regardless of race, nationality or faith background.  

"It is my hope that this book will help us to see all people in a more human and even a more divine way: That we are all worthy of respect. That we are all worthy of an opportunity to succeed."

Next step: Community organizing  

Ellison is a young scholar/activist, a product of Atlanta Public Schools and an Emory alumnus who is now a father himself. This year he plans to take his findings to the public with a tour in several U.S. cities and on academic trips to the Bahamas, London and Sao Paulo, Brazil.  

Following the book tour, Ellison plans to launch a grassroots community movement, titled Fearless Dialogues, led by a team of experts he has recruited from healthcare, politics, education, community organizing and the arts. Plans include intensive work in five cities where team members will conduct a longitudinal study in each city with the aims of:

  • informing community strategic planning,

  • charting progress,

  • fueling future research,

  • organizing community leaders to institute change, and

  • presenting policy recommendations.  

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