Hold the Space, Burn Your Fear
Feature Commentary, Pendarvis Harshaw
Oct 26, 2009
Editor's Note: A student at Howard University's Charles R. Drew Hall's recounts the "Burning of the Fears" ceremony, which aims to help young men transform from residents into "brothers" of Drew Hall. Pendarvis Harshaw is a contributor to YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.
Over three hundred young men poured out of the building in a single-file line. The line spiraled to organize around a makeshift wooden doorway. Flames engulfed the doorway, and gave rise to a thick cloud of lighter fluid-laced smoke. The fire made the young men feel uneasy. They moved amongst themselves; many disengaged from the shoulder grip of the individual in front of them. They were starting to tune out of the program.
"The program" was the fifth installment of Howard University's Charles R. Drew Hall's "Burning of the Fears" ceremony, which aims to help young men transform from residents of various states into "brothers" of Drew Hall. The week prior to the start of classes served as the opportune time for young men to address their greatest fear; and then set it aflame.
I remember being in their shoes four years ago, and my shoes had just as much nervous energy as theirs.
In the midst of the late August ceremony, I joked to the residents within earshot: this type of gathering should take place in every Black neighborhood once a week. The residents in line laughed a little, but fidgeted a lot. They couldn’t stand still. The ceremony included speeches from previous residents, the current dorm staff, and a Drew Hall step team performance.
Armed with insights to share with Drew Hall residents, an all-star trio of speakers: Residence life Dean Marc Lee, acclaimed African-American studies academic Greg Carr, and the Minister and beloved one-time Drew Hall Community Director, Michael Stewart, Jr.
Students were nervous, and within the first fifteen minutes, the majority of them had already put their guards up. They were closed off. The young men were fighting against the haze and smoke clouds produced by the burning wood. Along with fighting was the urge to return to the comfort of their dorm room. As students became increasingly disengaged with the ceremony, partly due to our faulty sound system and disorganization, I decided I needed to seize the moment and get their attention.
I jumped onto the cobblestone bench cemented onto the courtyard ground, which turned out to be a perfect spot for orating. I started to speak, solely out of the need to fill the dead air and revive energy into the crowd. Words came out of my mouth slowly and deliberately. “In a world where everything is in constant motion, the greatest rebellion is to stand still and to stay put”, I said.
The act of "standing still" is synonymous to "holding a space," as a mentor of mine explained. Rosa Parks held her space. Likewise, a man should be ability to "hold his space," even when problems waver his stability. "Holding a space" is what many students must practice to overcome the economic turmoil that burdens the lives of many young men. Crash on a friends couch for a semester while continuing your pursuit of a college degree: hold your space as a college student, don’t go home empty handed.
Once I started talking about space, I now had their attention. I could feel the group collectively join together in a calm stance. The smoke slowly cleared and I relinquished my platform.
The audio equipment starting working and Drew Hall’s Community Director Nicholas Gourdine took the reins. When the audio became finicky again, the young men immediately reverted to their previous state of restlessness.
Upon reconsideration, how could you ask a group of naturally active young men to stand still amidst the long-winded rights of passage ceremony? Particularly, a ceremony that takes place the night prior to the first day of college classes?
I suppose that request is comparable to asking a group of mean, mugging, tatted up, young Black men with tough exteriors to open up enough to admit all of the things they are truly afraid of; Once fear is removed from the space inside their hearts, manhood can grow.
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