In my interview with Gavin Simmons. I was able to recognize the importance of mentorship and the presence of black studies within a black male’s life. With these key features within his life, he was able to cultivate himself into a man that not only lived opposing the hegemonic lifestyle of western culture, but also vocally opposed the stereotypes that came along with being a black male. As he learned to master mathematics, he debunked the notion that blacks were immune to learning. Using his mastered skill, he gives back to minority youth to also overcome such stereotypes by teaching AVID students who have been through obstacles much like he was. Educational achievement and success are essential to the advancement of the African American culture. “It’s important to care about our own foundation and history” Simmons says as he speaks about how education can change a black male’s life.
He also lived to challenge other stereotypes as he discussed his deep involvement in his on two daughters’ lives. Making sure his own children would not fall prone to the ill cycle of young teenage misfortune and becoming statistics, he remains a critical part of their upbringing. He passes on going out on weekends so that he can be home at his daughters’ curfews. Recalling his own father—a family and working man—he said that he strives to emulate his involvement. While growing up, Simmons was able to learn the importance of a male’s presence and its influence upon the black family.
In relation to a black male’s involvement and association with society, Simmons explains that it is important to be sensitive and aware about the racism surrounding black males. This sensitivity has made him more aware of how to live a lifestyle separate from stereotypes and how to battle covert racism.
Where did you grow up? How did you grow up? What did your environment teach you about life?
I grew up on the North-side of Fresno. My mom and father were really into black studies so I had an early exposure to a different idea of black people. I was able to see the difference in how a black family raised their children. For example, in my own family I saw that those who grew up with their father graduated and those who didn’t ended up being idiots. Basically I learned how important it means for a father to be a father to his children.
When did you realize that you being a black male affected how you were perceived by the world and how it socialized with you? Can you provide some examples of this when you were young and growing up?
Oh man, I think it would be when I encountered racism, I saw it all the time. Maybe in the 4th or 5th grade I had got kicked out of school for fighting another boy over a racist word he had called me. I remember that he got to stay in school and I was called the aggressor. Black males are seen as villains and everybody else is the hero. Another instance would be back in high school. When I was young everybody used the n-word and it was normal. I went to Bullard High then, which is a mostly white school now, but back then it was a campus of black folk—it was the school to go to. But the white generation there was not used to seeing a black person walking down the hallway and they would say things that were unacceptable, things I though were racist. Things like, “you are pretty for a black woman” or “you speak really well”…and the black people there accepted these things, but I didn’t. Everything can be a racial issue for me. Some say I look for them, but they are there.
How did you used to respond to the struggles of being a black male? Younger vs now? .
When I was younger; with my fists. As I got older; intellectually. Racism is a perception of someone, so when they say something that sounds racist I challenge them intellectually with my mouth.
Had you ever received any mentoring? If so for how long, by who and what did you learn? Why was this important?
Yes I did. Mostly from Dr. Solwazi an Africana Studies teacher at Fresno City College. He taught me how a black woman should be treated and how society should treat me. I really used him a lot after I lost my father and needed guidance. I was at my breaking point; I was deciding whether I wanted to stay and graduate or have an idiot life. I also learned from Dr. Johnson, Dr. Simba and Dr. Reese at Fresno State. It is important to care about our own foundation and history.
What do you feel was a turning point in your life that made you want to live differently as a black male and how are you choosing to live differently?
A turning point was at Fresno City College with Dr. Sawazi. I am teaching minorities, passing on an academic legacy. Most people try to get easy classrooms, but I love to help those that need it most like the ADVID class teaching—those are the kids that are giving up, might not graduate, don’t look at higher education, the ones you saw in that men’s alliance classroom. I also live differently because most of the time people say that black people cannot do math, yet I excelled at it. I also have raised my two daughters.
Having a daughter was also my turning point. I know what its like to have a strong male father in the child’s life. I make sure they don’t hear I love you from another man, so every four hours I have an alarm on my phone that tells me to call my daughters. I want them to be able to walk away from a bad situation because what they see is what they will want. If they see a lazy dad that’s what they are going to look for and if they see a working father, that’s what they are going to look for.
What do you think is important for young black men to learn and know about themselves and the world around them?
How we are perceived, what people think about you, to demand respect, and know what we were. Maybe if we knew what we were, we wouldn’t live the stupid lives we live. To fight the stereotypes; anytime I have a problem with someone I challenge them intellectually and they can’t say anything. Break the wall of stereotypes. They only see it one way: that we’ll get mad and then they’ll call the cops, but if you don’t do that, then they don’t expect it.
What were some of the most important things you think you learned as a youth?
I was taught African American history every weekend. I would have to do a report about different people before I could go outside and play. I would have to do book reports about activists when I was about 7 or 8. I remember getting home from school and all week they were showing specials about Martin Luther King, Jr. and I remember sitting down and missing cartoons and watching these specials with my mom and dad. I basically learned that you cannot expect the enemy to not educate. I was taught to do good academically, but also in our history and culture. My daughters are lucky. My 10 year old just did a report on Ida B. Wells last week and all she had to do was get on the computer. I didn’t have the Internet or computers so I had to go to the library, use the typewriter and really get to know the person I was researching.
How do you feel about the different ways black men are taught to be men? (Western masculinity, within the African America culture, church, stereotypes)
Really it is like the blind leading the blind. My father was my role model. On my fathers’ side there were all college graduates and my mother’s side had idiots. I can close my eyes and hear my father’s words saying, “don’t act like and idiot” and how to be. He constantly bombarded me how to act. When I talk to my friends about how to act its like I’m speaking Spanish. They have children listening to Too Short. These are father figures that sell drugs, have excuses about why they can’t pick their children up, and go out on the weekends. We look up to the wrong people.
I remember my mother saying she couldn’t date a man who didn’t have a job. You know, because he would have to take her out. These days its cooler to not have an income, to not be a head of household. I see women work while fathers babysit and play video games in front of children. My mother argued with my father about working too much, he never missed a day of work. But she didn’t have to work, she just raised us kids. We learn what we see from our parents and most don’t have their fathers so they learn from BET. You can’t go to school or be intelligent, that’s acting white, not cool…
What is your particular asset to the lives around (community, friends, family) you as a black man?
My knowledge about African Americans and math expertise. Black kids give up on math before they can try, they are taught that math is hard. But there are so many scholarships for black males to learn math because they want us to get in there.