A Rite of Passage and a Collective Circle of Kings

MaryAnne Howland, CEO of Ibis Communications and author of “Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood”

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — A mother first, CEO of Ibis Communications MaryAnne Howland shares the story of how she provided a community for her son in “Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood” published in January.

Born with cerebral palsy and without a father in his life, Howland knew her son Max would face challenges that she wasn’t prepared to help him navigate, she said. She worked hard to grow his confidence but knew she’d someday hear Max say, “You wouldn’t understand.” 

And like many kids in their middle and high school years, Max became a target of bullying. But it was particularly intense for him as a young African American boy with physical challenges, Howland said, noting the attacks from girls at school hurt him the worst. The additional racist and ableist attacks destroyed the confidence they’d both built up for years.

She didn’t want Max to go through life hiding or being ashamed of who he is–She wanted him to live his truth and love himself. After all, she said, society is the disabler.

So Howland, with input from Max, looked at the men in their lives who she said believe in God and act like it. Men who knew what it felt like to be black boys in a society that hasn’t embraced them. Men who would commit to the covenant of mentorship and be there for her son when she couldn’t. 

She called upon four men she calls “a collective circle of Kings” to step into the role of mentors for Max: an engineer, a publisher, a financial planner and a philanthropist. 

On his thirteenth birthday, they celebrated his life by creating a rite of passage for him: a “Black Mitzvah” inspired by the three tenets of values central to Judaism—faith, community and accountability—though they used the Bible for the ceremony.

And though the mentors have outstanding professional resumés, Howland noted the decision was about their values and whether they could commit to the role of mentor she wanted for her son. The men agreed to the conditions Howland set: not just to keep in touch but to each spend time with Max one-on-one at least once a year. They also agreed that if Max called and they couldn’t answer to return his call within 24 hours.

When Howland told friend Jim Ed Normann about the birthday celebration and her son’s mentors, he urged her to write a book about the experience. After years of crafting her voice, editing and rewriting, the result has grown Max’s community and inspired others to form. The book has been called “a movement,” Howland said.

Now in his 20s, Max is still in contact with his circle, and they have been key in helping him deal with the stress of isolation and uncertainty the novel coronavirus has caused.

We should all be looking to grow and strengthen our communities —now more than  ever.

For more information visit www.blackmitzvah.org, where you can also purchase the book.