In early March of 2020 I had the honor of joining a group of Delta State University students at the Collegiate Black Male Retreat, an annual leadership event organized by the Sweatt Center for Black Males at the University of Texas at Austin. I was asked to join to document the experience of the weekend through photography and video. The retreat gathered over a hundred students from colleges in Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi at an outdoor recreational center on the outskirts of Austin for a weekend of relationship building, learning, and reflection.
At the end of the weekend, I was struck by how the energy of the group had completely transformed. One our first afternoon at the retreat center students were largely quiet, physically staying within the close comfort of their classmates. However, the first activity of the retreat required students to form teams comprised of men from other schools and provided prompts for them to open-up to one another, build a team identity, and design team flags. The young men chose team names that reflected their values, experiences, and hopes for the future, like the Kings, Team Unity, and the ACES. The students spent the rest of the weekend working with their teams through competitive challenges and skill-building exercises, forming a bond based on their shared life experiences and goals.
I believe the bonds they formed with one another were especially deep due to the moments of vulnerability that were fostered at the retreat. One activity that sparked these moments was when students were asked to write a letter to their child or unborn child. As some students read aloud passages of their letters, I was inspired by the promises of enduring love, of safety, of acceptance, of breaking the cycle. At the same time, I was heartbroken by the apologies made for being born into this cruel world, for being absent, for future and past mistakes. The courage and conviction in the room was palpable, and it was where I saw the first tears of the retreat fall.
Another moment of remarkable vulnerability came during a facilitated conversation on rape culture. It was apparent to me through the questions asked that the retreat space was perceived as safe by many of the young men. Students discussed forms of consent, expectations of black male sexuality, use of pornography, hypersexual activity, abstinence, and communication with partners. From this conversation, I was reminded of how much diversity exists within the Black male experience, and how many young men feel alone in navigating social norms, childhood trauma, spirituality, and personal values in their intimate relationships.
The facilitators of the retreat showed the young men, however, that they are not alone in their struggles. To deepen the trust they have with one another and demonstrate what support for each other can look like, they engaged them in an activity that required them to partner up and have one partner guide the other as he was blindfolded through a long trail under the night sky. It was powerful to see the young men physically guiding each other, locking arms, grasping shoulders, and holding hands, as they walked to a campfire to reflect on their time at the retreat thus far.
It was here at the campfire, where students had an opportunity to share how they were feeling with the entire group. Several of the young men shared very personal stories about family members, childhood, and experiences at their college. All who spoke expressed gratitude to the group for the love, encouragement, and inspiration they had received from other students and facilitators. The night ended in fellowship, as the young men sat around the warm campfire, some making smores, some debating sports and music, and some just watching the flames and enjoying the moment in silence.
As the retreat began to wrap up on that Sunday, there was a lot of emotion in the air. The young men circled up and in silence, recognized each other through a touch on the shoulder of others who positively impacted them over the weekend through prompts such as:
“Touch someone who made you laugh.”
“Touch someone who inspired you.”
“Touch someone you care about.”
“Touch someone who showed courage.”
I saw hands cover faces, hiding and wiping tears, as the young men were receiving notice that they made an impact on someone over the course of the weekend. This activity was followed by an informal awards ceremony, acknowledging both participants and facilitators who demonstrated exceptional growth, leadership, and compassion. As it ended, we all chanted the theme of this year’s retreat, “I am because we are,” echoing sentiments I heard from the young men I spoke with throughout the weekend: they see themselves in each other, they need each other, and they motivate each other.
The bus back to Austin waited over an hour for us to load our bags and board. I saw men smiling, dapping, hugging, and exchanging contact information with each other. It was Black boy joy in its purest form. There may have been some reluctance to leave the place we established where we could be free of fears, of stares, of stereotypes, and the masks we wear. Yet, I am confident that many of the students feel more encouraged and prepared to face the challenges of the world knowing that they are not alone, and that our struggle as Black men is a collective one.