The Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning held a six-week book series from Oct. 24—Nov. 28 entitled “You Cannot Define Me: The Black Man.” The series highlighted Black male authors for the first time in the series’ history.   

The facilitator for the series, Kareem Hayes, an author and local artist, decided on the theme because he feels that he and other Black men are often defined by society. 

“As a Black man, I could appear menacing to some people, but when you actually speak to me and hear what I have to say, I’m a lot more sensitive and a lot gentler than a lot of people perceive,” Hayes said.

The center, in the heart of Southeast Queens on Jamaica Avenue, opened in 1972. The 45,000-square-foot building features art galleries, dance and music studios, classrooms and theaters. 

It hosts a plethora of affordable programs, events and classes dedicated to the visual, performing and literary arts. But when Leonard Jacobs took over as executive director in 2020, he felt that there was a “deficit” when it came to literary programming. 

“We offer a lot of classes in various disciplines and performing arts and visual arts, but because literary is in our mission and because we had nothing literary going on, I was able to identify an opportunity to create what amounts to a book club,” Jacobs said. 

Unlike in traditional book clubs, JCAL Reads participants do not read books ahead of time. Instead, they meet and read excerpts of books together and discuss them. 

The participants who attend all meetings receive free copies of all the books featured thanks to funding provided by Humanities New York, an organization dedicated to connecting New Yorkers to the humanities.

For the first session, they read five lessons from the book “39 Lessons For Teens” by Kevin Bivins. Hayes said the author is a friend of his, and a the book was written as a guide for his own children. The lessons allowed participants to open up and share things they were grappling with such as friendship, religion, and parenting. 

Hayes said Black men need space to be vulnerable to improve their mental health. “You have so many Black men that don’t have a place to place their emotions, and they end up lashing out with aggression,” he said. 

It’s a topic of national conversation. Earlier this year the White House held an event called “Addressing the Mental Health Crisis Among Young Black Men,” led by Susan Rice, President Biden’s domestic policy adviser at the time. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, the suicide rates of young Black males from 2001 to 2017 have gone up by 60%. The White House is seeking to provide more culturally competent care that addresses the needs of Black adolescents. Such action, along with the creation of safe places like this book series, could change the narrative around Black men’s mental health, attendees said. 

Alton Genus, who attended the first session on Oct. 24, said he felt that the experience was transformative. 

“It’s about healing, we need to heal. This space tonight was a very important place for us to be as we talked about a very important subject,” he said. “And so tonight I walked out of here feeling excited.”