By Laurel Hanna
With additional reporting by Elaine Justice of Emory Communications and Fran Davis-Harris of The Fund for Theological Education
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling Gregory C. Ellison II is a humble, gentle man, yet that doesn’t stop him from asking tough questions that challenge the way we see, hear, and act. His debut book, Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Men (Abingdon Press, 2013) spotlights the ways society stigmatizes African American young men by rendering them mute and invisible. But Cut Dead doesn’t just point out the damage; it shows caregivers real-world approaches that can lead to healing. In the words of one reviewer, the book is “a call to action and a blueprint for change.”
Evidently, it’s a message people are ready to hear: The first printing of Cut Dead sold out less than two months after its release in June of 2013.
Ellison borrowed part of the book’s compelling title from nineteenth century philosopher and psychologist William James, who writes in his groundbreaking text The Principles of Psychology (1890): “If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily torture would be a relief.”
“James asserts that human beings are social creatures, and remaining unnoticed or unseen is a cruel and fiendish punishment,” Ellison explains. “He recognized that people would rather be tortured than be ‘cut dead’—deliberately ignored or snubbed completely.”
So what does it mean when a whole population is “cut dead,” silenced and dismissed by the prevailing society?
While researching his doctorate in pastoral theology, Ellison saw firsthand the havoc wrought by being “cut dead” as he counseled young men in church and school settings, and at programs for youths transitioning from prison. In his book he chronicles the lives of five such young African American men who journey from despairing places of invisibility and muteness to more hopeful realities of visibility and voice.
“In following the lives of these five individuals, I realized that many of them feel invisible and cut dead. They are living but cut dead at the same time; like walking phantoms, desperately seeking to be seen and heard,” he shares.
And while the individuals in the book are real, Ellison points out that they represent many more youth who have limited access to education, have been in prison, or have been pushed to the margins of society. In fact, they could even represent him.
Though he excelled in school at Emory and at Princeton Theological Seminary, and was mentored from an early age by such luminaries as distinguished educator Johnnetta Cole, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, and Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, Ellison wasn’t spared from being “cut dead.”
“I know what it feels like to be in a classroom and to have your hand up in the air and people ignore you, or to have someone change the conversation as if you never uttered a word. I know what it means to get on an elevator and have someone clutch their purse,” says Ellison. “Those are demeaning and dehumanizing feelings that over time take a toll on one’s self and how you see your future.”
Ellison’s own experiences of being stereotyped, plus encounters with numerous “cut dead” youth, led him to develop a mantra: “Once you see, you cannot not see.” That mantra is the guiding refrain of the book and the next chapter of Ellison’s work, the Fearless Dialogues project. [See sidebar.]
“Once you begin to see a person as one who is made in the image of God, once you begin to see a homeless person as someone's uncle or brother or aunt or sister or mother, you can't just step over them like a piece of trash because you have seen them fully," says Ellison.
When caregivers, clergy, and community leaders begin "seeing with new eyes,” they can begin nurturing young men and women with guidance, admonition, training, and support to help create a community of reliable others to serve as an extended family.
Cut Dead is Ellison's first step in what he plans as a comprehensive and ongoing effort to help people see those around them, “to see the beauty, to see the divinity, to see the humanity fully and not just to objectify them or to dismiss them by saying ‘Oh, this person is just a future statistic.’”
While the book focuses on African American men, Ellison says that four fundamental needs—having a sense of belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence—shape all humanity, regardless of race, nationality, or faith background. “It is my hope that this book will help us to see all people in a more human and even a more divine way: That we are all worthy of respect. That we are all worthy of an opportunity to succeed.”
Laurel Hanna’s favorite way to end the day is by listening to her two-year-old “read” bedtime stories.
Photo 1: Emory Photo/Video. Photos 2 and 3: Michael K. Jones of Michael K. Photos.