CSI's Hill Harper: 'Letters to a Young Brother'

Ed Gordon talks with CSI: New York actor Hill Harper about his new book Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny, a collection of essays meant to inspire young black men.

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ED GORDON, host:

Film and TV star Hill Harper has an impressive resume. After graduating from Brown University, the Iowa City native went on to get his law degree and a public administration master's from Harvard. But acting is Harper's true calling. He made his childhood passion a career. His movie credits include Lackawanna Blues and He Got Game. Harper also stars in the CBS television drama CSI: New York. But he's also dedicated to off-screen projects, including Letters to a Young Brother. It's an inspirational book aimed at uplifting young black men.

Hill Harper, welcome, man. Good to talk to you.

Mr. HILL HARPER (Actor, Author): Thank you, great to be here.

GORDON: Hey, let me ask you: the impetus that got you to put this book together, I understand it was something that was actually given to you that inspired you to do this.

Mr. HARPER: Yes. Ranier Maria Rilke wrote a book. For those of you who don't know who he is, an incredible German poet wrote a book called Letters to a Young Poet. Well, actually, he didn't write it. He actually sent a young man a number of letters over the course of about 12 years. And those letters, they're brilliant, they're eloquent, and they're so touching. And they were put together in a book called Letters to a Young Poet. And someone gifted me that book. The experience reading that book really touches me. And I reread it all the time. And that's where the idea for this book came.

GORDON: It's interesting to me the title, Letters to a Young Brother, because the idea that there's so many young black men who aren't talked to, who don't have that sage wisdom that many of us were really blessed to have. Was that also part of what you wanted to do?

Mr. HARPER: Absolutely. You know, we're living in a time, unfortunately, where, you know, a lot of young men, particularly young men of color, being raised by single mothers. And their mothers so desperately want to connect with them, but I found, in talking with a lot of young men, that sometimes it's difficult. And they don't have a lot of positive role models in their life.

And I'm a big brother in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Los Angeles, and my 9-year-old little brother a number of years ago looked up to me and said, Hill, I know I can't be happy unless I have a platinum Rolex and a Bentley with 20-inch rims. And what was so amazing about that is, where does a 9-year-old come up with that idea…

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Mr. HARPER: …that his self worth is attached to those outside things? So one of the first quotes in my book is a quote by Dr. King, where he said one's sense of manhood must come from within.

GORDON: I suspect, Hill, you did this intentionally, but it's an easy read to digest and maybe try to put into action in your life.

Mr. HARPER: Yes. The challenge of this book really was, if I'm really trying to reach the audience that I want to reach--meaning young men who, you know, they're not necessarily reading books. So how can I present it in a way, in a conversational tone, these sophisticated things, but in a simplistic way that's in--and so, for instance, one way I do that in the book is, the first letter is called, You, the Newest Perfect Model. And the point I'm trying to make there is that these young men have to understand that they're the perfect product of 15 billion years of evolution. So they don't need a platinum Rolex to be perfect. They already are. They just are.

So I use the analogy of a car, and I say what's your favorite car? And, you know, like a Cadillac where--well, today's Cadillac, the '06 model is, you know, better than your grandfather's version. But what's brilliant about today's Cadillac or any model is that they look back for inspiration for future designs.

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Mr. HARPER: So, you, young brother, look back for inspiration for who you are.

GORDON: Interesting, too, that you have employed others to give solutions to questions and problems that people deal with.

Mr. HARPER: Yes. The beauty of having relationships with just some of the most brilliant and wonderful people--and folks wanting to give back, because certainly, everyone in this book did it without being compensated. And the proceeds of the book are going to my MANifest Your Destiny Foundation, which is to provide scholarships for young men and young women. And Barack Obama, who I went to class--he was my classmate at Harvard Law School. He was so gracious to make himself available for this. Gabrielle Union, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, contributes. Nas, a great rapper, Anthony Anderson, the comedian, Jerry Bruckheimer, my boss from CSI: New York, and my professor, Charles Ogletree, from Harvard Law School…

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Mr. HARPER: These are just wonderful people who just gave of their time and their wisdom to make this book better, to reach out to young people.

GORDON: Hill, how do we make sure that Hill Harper isn't the anomaly? The idea that, you know, you can run between rap and athletics and the things that Hill Harper has done and everything in between. And that is the representation of black men, period.

Mr. HARPER: Yes. You know, part of the problem has to do with how we, ultimately, as African-American men, perceive ourselves. And I think that as we really reach out to each other and start to go for elements of self that are more expansive--for instance, I was just in the University of Texas. I was asked to go speak at the University of Texas to the football team and the track team.

And one of the starting linebackers from Texas, after I spoke, pulled me to the side and said, come here, Mr. Harper, can I speak to you? And I'm looking up at this guy who is, you know, big guy, and, you know, certainly bigger than me, but he's calling me mister. And, you know, and he says, you know, I originally didn't want to come to the University of Texas, because it's such a big football school and I knew that everyone would just perceive me as a football player. But what can I do--you know, some of the things you were talking about--what can I do to mitigate that perception and to expand people's perception of me?

I said, you know, be the first football player to join the photo club. Be the first football player to go and--do you like the glee club? Or go to the glee club. And, ultimately, what we'll do is give permission for other football players to follow their passion in other areas besides football, because I guarantee you that you're not the only one who wants to do something else besides football all the time. And once we start giving each other that permission, you'll see examples everywhere.

GORDON: Well, Hill, I can only salute you for it, man. It's much needed. Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny is the book. Hill Harper is the author. And good to talk to you, as always.

Mr. HARPER: Ed, fantastic. Thank you so much for having me on the program.

GORDON: To read an excerpt of Hill Harper's Letters to a Young Brother, check out our Web site at NPR.org.

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