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Back in Boston again, Hill Harper is scheduled to receive an award named for one of his mentors — Paul Robeson

Back in Boston again, Hill Harper is scheduled to receive an award named for one of his mentors — Paul Robeson
(Photo: Hill Harper)

Back in Boston again, Hill Harper is scheduled to receive an award named for one of his mentors — Paul Robeson

Mayor Thomas Menino really should give the actor Hill Harper the key to the city because he is always coming back to Boston. We know that he went to Harvard Law School and that he was even roommates with Barack Obama. We also know that Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree is his mentor.

Harper was in Boston fairly recently. In fact, it was the day of the New York City premier of Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” which he co-starred in. That morning he visited 500 kids at Wheelock College and took part in a very special convocation that the school arranged for Ogletree.

Harper is coming back again on Saturday to accept the Paul Robeson Leadership Award from Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts (CBMM), a nonprofit organization consisting of men from many different disciplines throughout the state. CBMM founded the Paul Robeson Institute for Positive Self-Development in young black males. It is through this initiative that the leadership award is being given to Harper.

Previous recipients of the award have included Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Dr. S. Allen Counter, Harvard neuroscience professor; Dr. Randal Pinkett, entrepreneur and winner of “The Apprentice with Donald Trump”; Clifton Powell, award-winning actor and Emerson College alumni; and Byron Pitts, Emmy Award-winning CBS news correspondent.

Harper talked to the Banner from Los Angeles about his foundation and his work. He also confessed to why he seems to have a thing for Boston.

Did the MANifest Your Destiny Foundation come about as a result of your book “Letters to a Young Brother?”

Yes, it is based off the subtitle of that book, and I created it because it became very clear to me that so many of our young people don’t have positive role models in their lives or individuals that are teaching them all the different possibilities of what they can achieve. It’s certainly not their fault, and so we are here to fill in the gaps.

Our mission is to uplift, empower, educate and take kids on a journey to let them know that there is nothing that they cannot achieve. We do that in a couple of ways — number one, we give out scholarships; number two, we have a summer program that focuses on eighth-graders going into the ninth grade because we want to deal with the dropout crisis. We focus on eighth-graders who are falling through the cracks. Right now the program is in Los Angeles, but we  look to expand nationally over time.

When did you first hear about Paul Robeson, and how is his work still evident today?

Paul is a hero of mine, but more than that he is a mentor to me. The reason why I say that is because it reinforces the message that I tell to a lot of the young people that I work with. You don’t have to actually have ever met someone for him or her to be your mentor. So many young people give excuses like if I just had this person in my life then I really could achieve something or I could do this or do that.

But the way mentoring works is we look at the choices that people we respect have made over the course of their lives and we use them as examples. For me, Paul Robeson was a Renaissance man; he was a brilliant actor, but also a brilliant thinker. He got his law degree from Columbia. He was also a singer; he traveled the world; he was political; and he attempted to uplift and inspire people, and so I respect him. To be awarded something that bares his name is such an honor and a privilege.

When you wrote your books, did you think that the writing would eventually have such an impact on underserved males?

No. The books have taken off in a way that I never anticipated. The reason why it was important for me to do them is because the one thing that I love about books is that they go beyond where you can physically be, and therefore you can hopefully touch and reach many more people than you otherwise would. As human beings we can only be in one place at one time, but a book allows you to travel without traveling.

What I love about books is that it’s a solitary activity of which there are very few left in our world. Everything it seems that we do for the most part is based on some type of social-based activity. But books — no matter who you are, where you are, how wealthy you are or where you are — are still an area where you can have just solitary individual activity that allows for reflection on your own life to take place. So, if I can write a book that allows young men and young women or adult men and women to reflect on their own lives and make them better then hopefully they can use the book as a tool.

One thing about eBooks is that it doesn’t allow you to do that in that same way like to literally just write in the margins. To me, that’s the major interactivity of books.

What was the most courageous thing that you have done in the past year?

I decided to courageously talk about, in my next book, a very serious and personal situation that I had to deal with in the summer of 2010, and I haven’t spoken about it publicly to any one at this point. It’s a very sensitive and personal issue. At the end of the day what I’ve realized with all the books is that if I’m asking people to really take a look in the mirror at their own lives and how they can improve their lives; then I have to do the same thing. If I’m asking someone to be vulnerable, I have to be vulnerable too.

The last time we spoke you were heading out to New York for the premier of “For Colored Girls.” What are you working on now?

We just finished the last episode of this past season of “CSI: New York.” It could be the last season, we don’t know. The pickups won’t happen until May, but I’m pretty confident that we’ll get another year. Now, I’m about to do a series of speeches that I haven’t been able to do this season so that is going to take up a lot of my April. Then I hope to segway into a film. I just auditioned for a film that I think I will enjoy doing. It’s a film with Robert DeNiro. I’m hoping to get into that film but you never know.

You come back to Boston quite often, and we appreciate that. What is it about this place that brings you back several times per year?

Having gone to grad school in Boston, and, obviously having done undergrad in New England, I would drive up to Boston a great deal. For one, I feel very comfortable in the city, and I have a number of friends there but moreover, I like the culture there. There’s a lot of thinking and concerned and engaged people in the Boston community. I think that there are a lot of people who are thoughtful leaders; who want to figure out ways to make our communities, and our country, and this world better. And so, I think they’re engaged in activities that are in sync with the type of activities I’m in sync with.

Hill Harper will receive the Paul Robeson Award for Leadership at the Unity Breakfast at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 9, 2011 at the Cambridge Marriott in Kendall Square. All proceeds from the event will be used to continue the work of the Paul Robeson Institute.