Outside the Box > > Charles Becknell, Jr.
By Laurie Mellas Ramirez
While writing a master’s thesis on African American street gangs and working as an investigator to defend indigent persons on death row, Charles Becknell, Jr., learned about the consequences facing many youth who lack mentors and are denied access to social, economic and educational opportunities.
A doctoral student and program coordinator for UNM African American Studies, Charlie Morrisey Research Hall, Becknell is studying identity development in African American male youth in relation to leadership development and academic success.
His research is focused primarily on a mentorship model, “The Middle Passage Project,” sponsored by the Albuquerque alumni chapter of Alpha Phi Fraternity, Inc. Members work with young black men providing mentorship and encouraging them to pursue college and develop male and civic responsibility. Becknell helped draft a recent bill to fully fund and implement the project in New Mexico schools and communities. He also serves as the alumni chapter president.
The “Middle Passage” refers to the roughly 400-year transatlantic slave route between the U.S. southernmost coast and the west coast of Africa to the shores of Latin America. “Conservative estimates are that more than 80 million black men, women and children died on those 30-90 day journeys. We consider it our holocaust,” Becknell said. “In the bottoms of those ships constructed to hold 100 ‘passengers’ were 300-400 bodies stacked and layered 1-2 inches apart. In spite of the atrocities, they persevered. We believe the spirit and the legacy of many African American leaders emerged from this and we want our young men to tap into that experience, many whose current experiences are as damaging as going through that 30-90 day journey.”
Becknell learned the value of education early. The son of UNM African American Studies founder Charles Becknell, Sr., he graduated locally from Highland High School and earned his B.U.S. from UNM in 1993.
“My family embraced me and taught me black history in the home, which infused my identity. My summers were spent at UNM Afro Studies where my father was director. We learned our history through film, books, discussion, art, dance, recreation and physical activity,” Becknell recalls.
“When youth realize the value, contributions and true stories of African Americans, it raises our self-esteem and helps us reclaim our identity.”
– Charles Becknell, Jr.
He spent the summer after college interning for Senator Jeff Bingaman. He then moved to Atlanta to earn a master’s in criminal justice administration at the Criminal Justice Institute, Clark Atlanta University. He researched sentencing disparities in the southern U.S. courts and later managed an alternative to incarceration program “Project Redirection.”
In America today, more black male youth are involved in the criminal justice system than matriculate through college, he said.
After earning his master’s degree, Becknell moved to Rochester, N.Y., securing a position investigating criminal capital cases. Conducting social history and background investigations on people and institutions, and interviewing death row inmates and their families taught him research skills. A few years later, he returned to New Mexico to be ordained and assist his father in youth ministry.
Driven to reach youth in need of mentors, Becknell returned to UNM to earn a teaching degree. He joined the UNM Service Corps in the College of Education where he met faculty Michael Morris and became involved with community based after-school programming. He began to take note of social and political inequities that exist in communities of color. “It was not long before I felt I would be more valuable in a position where I could create, define and distribute knowledge. I realized a Ph.D. would help me achieve that goal,” said Becknell, who was accepted into the COE’s Language, Literacy and Social Studies doctoral program in 2002.
“Rick Allen is my advisor. He pushes me to think critically. Dr. Morris helps me maneuver between theory and practice,” said Becknell of COE staff and faculty. “Steve Preskill has been valuable as an example of compassion, sensitivity and creativity.”
As UNM staff, Becknell coordinates African American Studies’ Charlie Morrisey Research Hall, a leading repository of documents on the presence of African Americans in the Southwest. Collections include rare books, manuscripts and other publications, photos, oral histories, deeds and titles to lands, and other archival artifacts. Becknell helps build the collections, organizes tours, public lectures and panel discussions. He also teaches visitors how to trace their family histories.
“When youth realize the value, contributions and true stories of African Americans, it raises our self-esteem and helps us reclaim our identity, restores gifts and unleashes our potential,” Becknell said. “They didn’t kidnap and remove the weak, the old, nor the sick from Africa to come and build up America. They took artists, philosophers, counselors, administrators, war chiefs, scientists, farmers, cattlemen, astronomers, educators, princes, princesses, kings, queens, priests and prophets. They took the best and we are descendents of the best. We better realize and embrace these truths so that not knowing does not assist in our destruction.”
“We better realize and embrace these truths so that not knowing does not assist in our destruction.”