On Dec. 11, 2019, the Council for Black Male Success and the Cultural Wellness Center held a Manhood Rites of Passage ceremony at the Minnesota Historical Society. The men, who ranged from 11 to 27 years old, completed an 11-week cultural self-study curriculum designed by the Cultural Wellness Center. The curriculum and the Rites of Passage ceremony stem from the Cultural Wellness Center’s research into African people, traditions and rituals since ancient times.

“In order for black men to move ahead and become leaders—to become the backbone of their community—they need to recover the culturally grounded manhood that was lost during enslavement,” said Elder Atum Azzahir, executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center. “Black male culture has become reactionary to life experiences under the dominant system, instead of one grounded in our cultural practices.”

After 11 weeks of sessions, the Council for Black Male Success and the Cultural Wellness Center presented the young men, the “initiates,” to the community. According to Azzahir, the initiates went from “feeling empty of culture and history” to sharing a “full representation of themselves as historical human beings,” ready to create their future.

“On stage, you could see the men embodying the legacy of strength, beauty, gentleness and a masculinity that is a benefit, not a weapon,” said Azzahir. “This collaborative seeks to invest in and uplift a different model of manhood. Several of the young men spoke to their ability to see themselves as black men who can be both compassionate and guided by principle.”

The Council of Black Male Success comprises Above the EDGE, Aurora/St. Anthony Development Corp., Bolder Options, Change, Inc., Every Body’s In, High School of Recording Arts, I AM Resources, Irreducible Grace Foundation, Mentoring Young Adults, MN Literacy Council, Past Athletes Concerned About Education (PACE) Program, Ramsey County, The JFK Movement, The Sanneh Foundation, Soul Touch Productions, St. Paul Youth Services, Ujamaa Place and YWCA St. Paul. The council was seeded by the Saint Paul Foundation. Each nonprofit organization selected one or two young men to participate in the Rites of Passage program.

Minnesota State Senator Jeff Hayden and Tony Sanneh, president and CEO of The Sanneh Foundation, served as keynote speakers at the Rites of Passage celebration. Sanneh, whose father is from Gambia, recalled boyhood visits to the African country to learn about his culture.

“I lived in Gambia for two and a half years, and I remember watching Rites of Passage ceremonies and wishing that I could experience the process, but I was too young,” said Sanneh. “Being grounded in my culture made me the man I am today, so I honor you and your journey.”

Senator Hayden also spoke to the journey of becoming men.

“Looking at me today, you can’t see that I’ve gone through the same thing you have with family and community to guide me,” said Senator Hayden. “Sometimes you judge yourself by what you are now and what you’ve been, and you’re not able to appreciate what’s there for you to become.”

The initiates will now serve as the Youth Council on the Council for Black Male Success and start their journey as leaders in the black community.