Atlanta poet receives national attention

October 10, 2016

Royce Mann opened the Snapchat. For a moment, his phone showed a screenshot of a tweet that read, “#TheTRUTH GOD BLESS THIS LITTLE ANGEL!!!!” followed by a link to his video. Taraji P. Henson, actress in the Fox show “Empire,” had just tweeted Mann’s video to her 4.2 million followers.

Mann felt a brief surge of pride at being noticed by someone as famous as Henson. This “selfish moment of excitement” would prove to be significant. In less than two months, the views on his video would rocket from 30,000 to over one million.

In the video, Mann recites a slam poem titled “White Boy Privilege.” Mann originally performed the poem in May at The Paideia School and opened with apologies.

“White Boy Privilege” vaulted Mann’s perspective onto the national scene (see full video below).  In late July an episode of the Fox show ‘Preachers’ aired Mann’s performance of a second poem titled, “All Lives Matter, But…”  In this shorter poem, Mann waded deeper into the national discussion on race and police shootings.

Merely two months after “White Boy Privilege” went viral, Mann spoke to a group of Dallas teachers.  The organization Urban Teachers picked these teachers for special training due to their work in poor, struggling urban schools.  Mann recited “White Boy Privilege” before talking to the group about his perspective on education.

“I owe so much to the teachers I’ve had in my life, so it was really cool to show those teachers how much of an impact they’ll have in the classroom,” Mann said.

At the same time, Mann is still a student sharing information with a group he would normally look up to.

“It was sort of that feeling of, ‘Why am I here talking to them? Do I really have any advice to give them?  They’re making much more of a direct impact than I am.”

Similar to thousands of people around the country, Decatur IB Coordinator Cheryl Nahmias found Mann’s poem through Facebook. Having known Mann for a year, Nahmias was not surprised to see “White Boy Privilege” go viral.

“From the perspective of his humility and what I know about him as a kid, it doesn’t surprise me,” Nahmias said. “It certainly doesn’t surprise me that he has the artistic talent to speak from the heart and not be shy about it.”

One day she was driving Mann home and told him how much she liked his poem.  He thanked her, but mentioned that he thought other students deserved to win the poetry slam.

The next night Nahmias turned on the news only to watch an interview with Mann.  He never mentioned this interview to her the previous day in the car.

Nahmias recently invited Decatur junior Mariah Cooper to attend Black Lives Matter meetings, but race relations have been on Cooper’s mind for a long time.  Growing up with a white grandmother who could be “pretty insensitive at times” piqued her interest in why people who look differently are treated differently.  Cooper agrees with Mann that it’s necessary to have an “open dialogue” about race.

“People think acknowledging race equals racism,” Cooper said. “It’s not the same thing.  It’s just acknowledging and appreciating our differences sometimes.”

The national reaction to Mann’s poem hasn’t been all positive. Comments on his video range from disagreement to threats of violence. He wants to connect with people who have different viewpoints, but finds it “hard when they’re saying ‘die’ or something like that.”

In addition to criticism, Mann has experienced moments of self-doubt. One day, he found himself listening to Blackfeet rapper Gyasi Ross’ “White Privilege 3,” where Ross responded to Macklemore’s “White Privilege” by asking Macklemore, a white man, to “pass the mic.”

“That really struck me because I realized that I hadn’t been passing the mic as much as I could have and I think that it’s fine for a white boy to speak up on these issues, but I need to make sure that I don’t cross the line of speaking for people,” Mann said.

Cooper sees Mann’s position as part of the reason Mann’s poem went viral so rapidly.

“I think people are willing to listen to him because there’s no way for him to be the victim in the situation,” Cooper said. “A lot of times people are thinking that black boys and black girls are trying to pull the race card and play the victim.  I think when you get someone from the other side speaking, that’s what really gets people to listen.”

Nahmias also focused on Mann’s use of privilege as the most important part of “White Boy Privilege.”

“For me, one of the biggest obstacles to progress is the failure of the privileged group to recognize their privilege and be able to hold it in their heads long enough to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t have that privilege and really understand what that means for that other person.”

In addition to performing his poem and speaking to groups of people, Mann has also worked with others on solving issues. In September, he spent four days in Big Sky, MT doing this as part with HATCH, an organization that brings together leaders from around the world. Photo courtesy of Royce Mann.

When his video started to gain national attention, Mann received a direct message on his Instagram account from another teenager. This student told Mann that he shouldn’t be ashamed of his gender and race. Mann replied that this wasn’t what he was trying to express.

The teenager replied saying that, like him, a lot of people probably misinterpreted Mann’s ‘apologies’ in the beginning of “White Boy Privilege.”

“I told him that I was about to go on and do an interview on CNN and so I told him that I would make sure to clarify that,” Mann said.

Later that day, Mann filmed the interview with CNN before suddenly remembering his earlier promise.

“I said, ‘Wait, I just have one more thing to say.’”

Mann proceeded to discuss what he wanted the first few lines of “White Boy Privilege” to emphasize.

“A lot of people think that I’m saying sorry because I feel responsible for other people not having the privileges that I have, that I feel ashamed about being a white male. That’s really not the case at all,” Mann later said.

So what is Mann trying to express in these lines?

“I’m saying that even though I don’t understand what it’s like to be in your position, I feel for you.”

Mann acknowledges that he’s “in no way an expert,” but thinks that this poem has provided a great way to learn from others who might have different viewpoints.

“I have learned a lot about how to understand where other people are coming from,” Mann said, “which is very important if I want to be a part of helpful conversations instead of conversations that are hindering.”

Recently, Mann found himself writing a poem where he kept using the same line over and over.

“I realized ‘standing up for,’ that’s not right.  It should be ‘standing up with,’ like standing up and supporting these people.  Trying to give them the platform to stand up and speak for themselves.”

Although he hasn’t released any slam poems since his appearance on “Preachers,” Mann promises he isn’t done with the activist part of his life.

“I’m trying to start taking more action now, whether it’s on the issues in my poem or other issues because I’m proud of the change that I’ve hopefully started with my poem, but… I really want to put in some more hands-on work.”

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