LAWRENCE — Birthdays are supposed to be a joyous occasion. But on March 13, 2020, as Matthew Kane might normally have been celebrating, he heard the news of the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in her apartment, and it was also the day the country largely shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic. Eight months later, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol moved him to write about his reactions to the violence. The vulnerability of that writing inspired him to be unapologetically authentic in his doctoral dissertation, which then evolved into the new book “Walk With Me: Stories of Black Men’s Resilience and Well-being Through Twin Pandemics.”
Kane came to the University of Kansas in 2018 for a doctorate in counseling psychology. Initially interested in being a clinician more than a researcher, he knew he needed to have a topic for his dissertation. As the pandemic unfolded alongside events such as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, comedian Michael Che made a very serious comment that cemented the idea: There has always been a pandemic. One of social injustice, he said.
“That’s when it felt like the world slowed down and we were forced to reckon with this,” Kane said of the early days of the pandemic that coincided with violence. “I wanted to create a counternarrative to the stories that inaccurately depicted Black people as socially violent and victims of their own ineptitude when it came to COVID-19.”
That set the stage for “Walk With Me,” a book that blends interviews with six Black men of a wide range of ages who live across the country with research and theory in well-being, psychology, race, resilience and more. Kane’s narrative combines chapters that tell the stories of how Black men navigated the experience of the pandemic and ongoing unrest with all the frustrations, challenges and successes that entailed.
Each of the book’s chapters are themed and balance stories with tenets of academic research. Coming from a strengths perspective, or focusing on what is right and beneficial in a person while holding and contextualizing their difficulties, themes include superpowers, heuristics, well-being strategies and Black support and scrutiny. Just as comic books and movies are full of stories about reluctant heroes who are not sure they want to bear the responsibility of saving the day, the book’s subjects shared their own stories of being alchemists or how they had to turn dire situations into good ones.
“A lot of them didn’t want to be but felt like they had to be in that role,” Kane said of his subjects. “There were feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion. But I thought it was necessary to highlight them and how they persevered or pushed back.”
The book also examines how America’s history of racism and injustice manifested in new ways, including how states’ attempts to distribute vaccines were influenced by the history of redlining, then explores how the subjects navigated that experience and how they found safe spaces to process, laugh about, be mindful of what they went through and ultimately persevere.
While “Walk With Me” shares stories of everyday citizens, it also connects to research and literature in psychology, well-being and tenets of critical race theory, such as interest convergence, illustrated by how the subjects found an organization would display a Black Lives Matter sign when it became popular and beneficial for them to do so. But the stories are not weighted down with academic jargon, instead using real-life examples of research and theory at work.
“From the minute I got close to defending my dissertation, I felt I could make this into a book,” Kane said. “I wanted to make it as minimally esoteric as possible. I wanted to make it accessible, so I added more everyday examples to go with the academics.”
Brian Cole, associate professor of educational psychology and director of training in KU’s counseling psychology doctoral program in the School of Education & Human Sciences, said Kane hit the mark of accessibility balanced with academic value.
“’Walk with Me’ instantly draws you in with compelling stories, accessible research and powerful lyrics. Matt Kane shines a light on Black men’s resilience and well-being, two areas that are woefully underrepresented in the positive psychology and masculinities literature,” Cole said.
Kane’s work was also recognized by his peers, as the original manuscript, his dissertation, was recently selected for the American Psychological Association Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities Division 51 Loren Frankel Student Research Award, which is given annually to one student for outstanding dissertation work.
As he recently finished his doctorate, Kane is transitioning into a career in private therapy practice. After helping establish KU’s student-operated positive psychology clinic, that provided nearly 1,000 hours of counseling to people across the state in the early days of the pandemic, he’s now focusing on providing individual, couples and family therapy in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He also hopes to continue teaching, lecturing and writing as well as updating editions of “Walk With Me.” For now, he hopes the book reaches young audiences, scholars and not just people already aligned with the pursuit of social justice, but anyone hoping to be an ally.
“'Walk with Me’ is a powerful, well-researched narrative on how Black men employed their power skills navigating the twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and social injustice,” said Ngondi Kamatuka, director of KU’s Center for Educational Opportunity Programs and assistant dean for diversity, equity & inclusion. “It is the binoculars through which to see and appreciate their humanity and resiliency.”
Image credit: "Walk With Me," by Matthew Kane