INNOVATORS: Vernon Heard - Why PBI?
A conversation with Positive Black Images founder and editor Vernon Heard
Q: You’ve started something . What was your motivation for creating PBI?
V: Well, there has always been a trend in the media making Black people look ignorant and uneducated; criminal and untrustworthy. I noticed that the character assassination of Blacks progressed to the extent that when a questionable killing of a Black person happened, society was\is almost of a “good riddance” mentality. I wanted to offer a counter perspective of Black culture and our community. Offer something positive as much for those in the Black community as those outside of it.
One day I thought about all the Black folks in my circle, rich or poor, from different parts of the country, etc., who are moral, educated, spiritual, entrepreneurial, family oriented and much much more. Maybe not a band of angels, but certainly a far cry from how Blacks are portrayed in the media.
I thought it would be great if someone created a platform to present Black folks as normal folks with integrity and values. Since I build websites as a side gig, my wife suggested “who better than you?”. It’s kind of a shame to have to make the case for being regular humans in 2014 but it was clear that the media went a long way toward saying otherwise. Overtly or indirectly.
Q: So you’re a real ‘Fight The Power’ type of personality?
V: Well, I have truly not been a life-long activist or anything remotely similar but, from short pants days, I have always had an outspoken personality. I guess my PBI personality came forward when I got frustrated with how Black victims of White violence were automatically and ritualistically demonized after they were killed. It seemed within days of a controversial killing, reports started to crop up of how the person was nothing more than a thug. That has been the operative word, thug. And major news outlets would loop the rhetoric and bandwagon the idea of the slain “criminal”. I read a few online discussions about the slayings (Trayvon Martin, particularly) and was really shocked at the horrible posts I read from 'anonymous' people regarding the victim and Black people in general. I felt compelled to respond to the suggestion that there are no exceptional Black people.
My frustration was compounded by the idea that the Black community is bombarded with the same imagery. Young people who only saw themselves portrayed in the news media and entertainment media as drug dealers, killers and violent types could see those people as their only or most obvious choices for their own lives. So I guess I’m more of a ‘Fight the message’ personality than a “fight the power’ type. I suppose they become one and the same when you consider where the imagery stems from.
Q: So what’s your background? Where are you from? What was your family environment like growing up? Etc.
V: I’m originally from Kansas City, MO. I’m the middle son of three boys my mom raised solo. My father and mother split when I was a baby so I've never even met my dad. Luckily for me, I had one of those old school, no-nonsense moms that was strong enough to teach three boys how to be men. One of my brothers is a Litigation Rep for physicians and another is a paralegal for a law firm in Kansas City. I’ve been in music for over 30 years and in IT for over 25 years so I guess mom did OK. Her support network was our grandmother, Doveaner Wilson, and my uncle Melvin Witcher. They collectively demonstrated for us what family is about and how we step up for one another. Lessons that have carried over into our adult lives. We struggled, growing up. Early on, we lived in the Wayne Minor Housing Project. My mom made it work with what she had, working one and two jobs when she could. Later, and to my dismay, she taught (at my) school. I guess I didn't realize how we struggled until I was an adult and really recognized how she sacrificed for us.
Q: And now you have your own family, correct?
V: Yes, my wife Sharon and I have been married for 27 years and we have a 13 year old son.
Q: Oh wow, so your son has been witnessing the current social climate alongside you. How has that worked?
V: Well, it’s an imperfect process because you address these impromptu situations and social injustices as they arise. We haven’t had “the talk” with my son as if he should be afraid to be himself. We have however demonstrated to him how things can happen to him, and young Black men in general, whether he is within the law or not. Armed or unarmed. Educated or criminal, doesn't matter. I don’t want him to buy into some idea that being Black is bad thing or some handicap. He understands that some people will just hate you whether you’ve done something personally or not.
Additionally I ‘hired’ my son over the summer as a research assistant for Black History topics. This was a couple of months after Black History Month at his school. He was confused why some of the outrageous murders he found were not mentioned in school (The Tulsa Race Riot of 1927 and The Chicago Race Riot of 1917) and why there were so many honorable Black scholars and inventors that he had never heard of. It was a backhanded education, of sorts, that taught him that he needs to seek and know his own cultural background. He is also interested in photography so I take him with me on some PBI photo ops to actually meet the people that I do stories on. We’re very proud of him.
Q: So, back to the magazine. How do you choose your topics and your interview subjects?
V: I do research online for different, positive stories about people doing great things. In any vocation or region of the world. I also get a lot of great recommendations from friends and social media connects who know that I’m always looking for article subjects. I’m always in the market for authors, people who have their own businesses, people from all types of jobs, etc. I like doing the job profiles because I get to show examples to younger readers that there are tons of options out there. Every job doesn’t have to place you in front of a camera to be successful. And the definition of success can vary from person to person.
I look for stories wherever I can find them. And I’m proud to say there is always a great story out there. We are doing great things that just don’t make it to mainstream media. So the next inspiration for a little Black kid could exist as close as 100 miles away but there would be no way the kid could know about it because the information is isolated when the media chooses to overlook it.
Thank God for the internet.
Q: Well, in all honesty, little Black kids aren’t getting their inspiration from the news to begin with. When you say mainstream media…
V: Of course, mainstream media takes on many forms, including radio, music (and the labels that support it), social media. They’re all bundled together. Their message is a collective effort.
Q: You’ve been going in on hip hop for a few PBI issues. What would you like to see happen in hip hop? And why hip hop specifally?
V: Damn. How much time you got? Yeah, I’ve been real critical of rappers these days. And I’m a major rap fan but their messages these days are just toxic. Murder and mayhem, drug dealing and strippers, balling out and blowing all your money; just pure irresponsible ignorance. I don’t necessarily advocate super clean rap per se, but this ‘blueprint to prison’ rap is very pervasive, like these rap lyrics are a real way of life. It’s just reckless. Worst of all, it’s optional. Music artists have the internet on their side and can do their own releases and marketing independently without a label controlling the narrative of their music.
To answer your second question, I speak on hip hop specifically because the art form is a product of the Black community. Another one, mind you. It’s obvious who the target market is for rap so, in my mind, if rappers send a horrible and destructive message in their music and they know their music is targeting young Black kids they should be accountable. It’s just as easy to have the same hot track, insane flow, and hype performance and talk about partying, or love or women or ANY TOPIC without lyrically killing a single person or selling a single kilo. You won’t hear the same subjects in other music genres because the labels ain’t having it. But with Rap though, it’s all good.
Q: There seems to be a resurgence of Black consciousness of late, reminiscent of the ‘60s protests. Do you think it will hold?
V: I sincerely hope so. It’s unfortunate that these young men and women have had to lose their lives before people stop treating protests as the flavor of the moment and demand real change. Hopefully they won’t have died in vain. The web has been instrumental to this resurgence of consciousness. Through the web we can keep our community informed about what’s going on in isolated regions where we had no visibility in the past. We can communicate and unite directly and it’s easier to coordinate and organize en masse. Best of all, there is a new focus and new faces along with the new consciousness. Groups like We Charge Genocide that recently appeared before the U.N. in Geneva present a stark message and are earning their own credibility. No more Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton-isms.
I hope to see this new awareness expand into a national action plan. I’d love to see more communities stand up and be heard as one voice and one message... Black lives matter.
Q: So do you see Positive Black getting more radical as these social issues percolate?
V: Hmmmm. I don’t know. I think PBI’s mission is to speak to the positivity that already exists in our community that is basically unheralded. I think PBI is where it needs to be already. I just want to stay consistent with this type of message because I really believe it matters.
That’s not to say that I won’t call ‘em as I see ‘em. I have no advertisers so I don’t have any toes to step on or ideology to align with, ya know. But I want to save the personal attacks and militant conversations for another platform. Maybe I’ll have to start a different publication for that (laughs). But trust and believe I will always support my community and be a proponent for justice.
Q: Speaking of that, I know that creating an online magazine each month is a ton of work. Where do you see yourself taking PBI in the future?
V: Yeah, it can be all consuming sometimes. It’s a labor of love, yes, but a lot of labor for sure. My personal goal is to interview Steve Harvey for PBI. Him, Talib Kweli, Professor Tricia Rose and a few other people I admire.
I’d like to eventually get consistent contributing writers. I know there are writers out there with blogs or just great points of view in Black culture that would be a great fit for PBI. I want to build relationships with writers that will round out the viewpoint of the magazine. I don’t mind writing everything from my personal perspective but, at times, I end up with a single point of view throughout the issue. I’d love to hear from more female writers, writers from an economic perspective, family writers, whatever… I’m open to ideas.
Q: Cool. Any parting words for the PBI readers? V: I’d just like to thank everyone for supporting Positive Black Images. I hope that you’ve taken something from the magazine and shared it with someone to encourage or educate them. I’m proud of PBI and hope that I’m creating something you can be proud of too. #staypositive