Myth and the Hero
They are stories that are often thousands of years old, involving kings, queens, fantastical creatures, heroes, quests, and journeys. What possible relevance could these ancient stories have to African-American males trying to navigate the maze of modern life?
In fact, myths contain profound wisdom, says Kwame Scruggs, executive director of Alchemy, Inc., an Ohio-based organization that uses myth to help young men make a successful transition from boyhood to manhood. “They speak to archetypal situations, universal dilemmas,” he explains. And, embedded in myths are guides to behavior that he believes can help counter some of the destructive images of masculinity that have taken root in some aspects of urban culture.
Alchemy runs in- and after-school classes and workshops at seven public schools in Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown for males between the ages of 12 and 19, who are referred by teachers or counselors. The classes, which meet weekly for up to 22 weeks, begin with drumming, to help groups bond and switch into more intuitive “right brain” thinking. The leader then reads a portion of a myth to the beat of an African drum, asks participants to write in a journal whatever resonates for them, and opens the floor to discussion.
Myths offer a way for young men to talk about choices and behaviors without feeling put on the spot. “Instead of saying, ‘You messed up,’ and you get offended, you can see someone else messing up and see you need to change,” an Alchemy participant notes. Myths, especially those that deal with the “hero’s journey,” also offer a model for how to surmount difficult challenges, for example, by seeking help, showing humility, making sacrifices, and persevering, Scruggs adds. As they grapple with the complex and psychologically sophisticated stories, the young men also gain critical-thinking skills and confidence that can help them perform better in school.
The program prefers to get involved with participants when they’re in the 6th grade and still open to story-based approaches. Staying with the same group throughout high school and even beyond provides continuity. Although personal development, rather than academic achievement, is the program’s chief goal, Alchemy’s techniques are also promoting academic success: Thirty of 32 members of its “first class” graduated from high school and have gone on to college.
Myths and fairy tales always involve trouble, and by working with these narratives, counselors provide models for the youth to engage constructively with the trouble they face in their young and already difficult lives.Barbara Sargent Executive Director