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Happiness is a Black Man? Longtime L.A. Poet and Writer Says Yes

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What is the megahertz of a black man's joy?

If this question strikes you in any way as strange -- tangential, unsubstantial, irrelevant -- then Peter Harris has already made his point. Harris is a longtime L.A. poet and writer (he prefers the term 'cultural worker') who five years ago posed a simpler version of this question to himself: what is a happy black man? The question launched a Tocquevillean journey of intellectual and existential inquiry that produced a video series in which he queries other black men on the topic, and a book, "The Black Man of Happiness," that Harris published last year. It's a warm, freewheeling but pointed mix of essay, memoir, poetry, political analysis, and historical rumination held together by the urgency Harris lends to this singular question about black men and happiness.

Underneath it is a deeper question about why, in a country predicated on the pursuit of happiness, black men and happiness feels like such a contradiction, like two elements of math that don't belong in the same equation. The answer isn't hard to fathom. After laboring at the bottom of American society for so long and embodying the larger black struggle for equality that continues right up to today with the anti-police brutality movement in Baltimore and elsewhere, black men as a cohort would seem to have little to be happy about. Too, a country that consistently dehumanizes and de-dimensionalizes black men has little reason to ponder their psyche, especially their penchant for happiness. That's potentially as unsettling as their alleged penchant for violence.

Harris knows all this. He knows that what seems like a simple question is entirely complicated. Though notably upbeat -- he just turned 60 but has a strikingly youthful energy -- he's not Pollyanna. He admits to being happy, but not "happy-go-lucky" -- an image associated with black folks that to him is superficial, mostly a mask that obscures real feeling and thwarts true happiness, which in the end he describes as "hard work." He was raised in the hardscrabble streets of Washington D.C. and has known plenty of sorrow and setbacks. But to him that's all the more reason that black men should actively claim the happiness they do experience, and re-frame themselves with it -- expand the definition of their lives beyond all the discouraging statistics with creativity and imagination and feeling. By doing this, Harris believes that black men can take themselves out of the margins of the American experience where they have lived for so long and put themselves at the center, where they belong. Indeed, Harris believes that no group of people has earned its right to pursue and contemplate happiness more than black men, which is why he quotes, with his own tongue-in-cheek commentary, the Declaration of Independence in the opening of his book. "I'm not saying, 'move past the crisis,'" he explains. "I'm saying to move through it, sink into it. We are measured by our misery, but what are our other options? The expertise lies with black men themselves."

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Harris says that when he first started formally asking black men about what made them happy, he got mostly surprise; the most frequent response was, "Nobody's ever asked me about that before." An academic he met at a black studies conference was not just stumped, but taken aback -- his one-word answer, according to Harris, was an alarmed, "Whoa!" as if the very idea was dangerous. But Harris says once interviewees got over their initial shock, they were eager to talk. And twenty different men answered the question in twenty different ways, which was fine by him. "We're doing so many things, living our lives, but how are we living them? That's what I'm after," he says. "We need to inject some deep oxygen into this whole discussion of black men. I don't have any answers, but I have a hunger to know."

All this may sound esoteric. But the spirit of the Black Man of Happiness Project is essentially Harris talking to fellow black men -- fellow travelers -- wherever he encounters them and makes chance connections, from the train station to standing in line at Simply Wholesome restaurant in View Park, where I met with him. In fact, he calls the happiness project a "listening thing," a concerted attempt to tune into each man's voice that Harris says is part of a larger, universal hum, like music.

"It's about hearing them speak and caring about what their answers are," he says. "I want to infuse all the existing programs for black males with questions like: What do you want? Where do you see yourself in five years? We must have a sense that black men have something to offer, to contribute.

"I don't care if your pants are sagging or if you're wearing a tailored suit," he adds. "I'm telling everyone who will listen that we must tap into our creativity. We're not just trying to help people tie a tie, or to get a job. In the end, those programs have to be about love. Nothing less. I'm spreading that word."

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