Hundreds of people calling for an end to racism in America had marched peacefully for hours through Charlotte when, four months ago, a few unknown individuals broke into Epic Times jewelry store.
One activist later found out: the store is owned by a Black businessman in Charlotte.
Within two weeks, he’d raised more than $15,000 for the owner of the store.
The activist is from Charlotte, he’s 19 years old and his name is Righteous Keitt.
“People’s expectations are driven by the narratives they see online, and that’s not the true nature of the protests,” Keitt says. “There is a small group of people trying to dilute the actual message and make a profit off the movement itself.”
Growing up, Keitt learned of the harm of stereotypes first-hand, and after spending much of his childhood without his father in his life, Keitt has had to work twice as hard to overcome them.
When others tried to label him as an athlete growing up, he proved them wrong.
“Stereotypes, to me, are expectations that are drawn from conclusions you don’t have the evidence to prove,” he told the Observer in a recent interview. “And they can be detrimental.”
Keitt is recognized in the October issue of Men’s Health, as part of the magazine’s “2020 Project” — an honor many of his mentors say they’re not surprised to hear about.
However, though he’s confident now and described by many as a “rising star” in Charlotte, he once felt he had limited options. Now, he wants to make sure other young Black people know they’re capable of much more than society’s stereotypes.
“Young Black men and women who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves, their dreams or personality, I want them to feel supported,” he said. “You can do anything you want to do.”
‘For the people’
When he was born, his mother Dana said she knew she wanted to name him Righteous.
“I think he was meant to be here,” she said. “I wanted to give him a name with purpose.”
But it took time to find that purpose.
As a tall, young Black man growing up in Rock Hill, Keitt said he constantly fielded questions about being an athlete. He said it was expected of him, and he felt he couldn’t escape the stereotype, even after he realized sports weren’t his calling.
“The expectations [Black people] have of ourselves and other people have of us is that we can only be athletes or entertainers, and I wasn’t fit for either,” he said. “And people then ridicule you and say that you’re a disappointment. People used to say I was a waste of height.”
Keitt said he was bullied throughout middle school. He was robbed four times by his classmates, and he remembers students pouring the contents of his backpack into a bathroom stall.
But despite his self-proclaimed inability to “shoot, run, ball, or swim,” Keitt kept trying — and failing. He tried playing football in middle school, but after he broke his wrist within the first couple of days of practice, his mother realized, “Yeah, this really isn’t for him.”
Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston, one of Keitt’s mentors, said young Black men like Keitt are often “boxed in” to those kinds of expectations, and it’s harmful.
“People want to put you in boxes and label you, but with a person like Righteous, he’s here to do the work,” Winston said. “His gift isn’t making plays on a field; it’s making plays in life. And sometimes that’s not easy for other people to conceive.”
It wasn’t until a seemingly arbitrary conversation with his mother that Keitt found his calling.
One afternoon four years ago, after the family had moved to Charlotte, Keitt’s mother asked him whether he felt he was “doing his part.” He thought about the question for a moment.
What kind of impact could he have on the world around him, he remembers thinking, as they both stood in their kitchen.
But then his mom simply gestured to the sink full of dishes.
“I thought there was a greater meaning,” he said, laughing. “But the words resonated with me. Since that moment, I’ve kept that mentality and tried to do my part at home, in school, and in my community.”
At 16, Keitt started his first community organization called Bags 4 Bagless, which still provides the homeless community in Charlotte with drawstring bags filled with toiletries, food and clothing.
Then, he started mentoring other students while a student himself at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology. He was selected to be a part of Steve Harvey’s Disney Dreamers Academy, a selective program for students to explore prospective paths, and Keitt joined GenerationNation’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, where he got to work with city officials like Winston. And he’s spent the past several years protesting and advocating for various causes, like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.
“That’s when I started to see a change in Righteous,” his mother says. “I knew he was going to be for the people.”
Finding his path
When Keitt first joined the youth council, GenerationNation executive director Amy Farrell remembers a quiet young man who mostly kept to himself.
But over the course of several months, she watched him transform into the confident speaker he is today, as well as an advocate for other students. She said Keitt has the unique ability to connect with his peers as well as adults, making him a natural leader and mentor.
“He was not only able to be a traditional leader that his peers looked up to for direction, but he also was really interested in what was going on in the larger community — with schools, police, and in the city,” she said. “And instead of looking for ways to complain about things, he looked for solutions, in doing that, he was a good influence on the other students.”
Keitt’s former high school leadership teacher, Tricia Barnes-Parkins, said he has always paid attention to the “underserved.”
“Righteous stands out because he thinks about things on a deeper level than most would,” she said. “He is very conscious of the different things and people in society that are overlooked.”
Keitt’s love of mentorship comes from a personal place — growing up without his biological father. Keitt’s mother said she remembers him asking at a young age if his father wasn’t around because Keitt had done something wrong.
“I think it’s unfortunate that his biological dad doesn’t play a role in his life, but I think he’s used it as fuel to be a better person,” his mother said. “Even with his little brother Jace, he makes it a point to be in his life and encourage him.”
Keitt describes his little brother as an “artist.” And Jace has gotten to grow up with a father figure in his life — Keitt’s stepdad.
“He doesn’t have to grow up with the mentality I did. He has had a different experience,” Keitt said. “He has a lot more I did, thankfully, and I have more than my parents did. And as an older brother, everything I’m doing is so that at some point, he’ll be able to do what he wants to do.”
And Keitt hopes to share that perspective with many other young Black people in the near future.
Keitt’s now a sophomore studying political science and public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was awarded a full ride in scholarships, and plans to start a foundation to grant scholarships to students going to historically Black colleges and universities. And he is most looking forward to continuing to mentor Charlotte students.
“There are Black coders, engineers, doctors and artists,” he said. “The whole mentality is that if you can see it, you can believe it.”
Winston recently introduced his 13-year-old son to Keitt, and said he’s grateful for the relationship they’ve developed, that his son has another young, successful Black man to look up to.
“I hope there’s a way to keep him in Charlotte for the long haul,” Winston said. “I’m excited to see how he continues to grow.”
Though he doesn’t have specific plans in mind yet, Keitt knows in the future he wants to continue his activism and give back to Charlotte, a city, he said, that has given him many opportunities and a chance to explore his potential.
“Charlotte really helped expand my vision when it came to seeing options available for a Black home. It’s a home for me, and with my younger brother Jace growing up, it’s imperative I try to make it as good a home for him as I possibly could,” he said. “The city has given me a lot. I’d like to return the favor.”
One of Keitt’s most concrete goals, though, is galvanizing his generation to affect change.
“A lot of people in our generation were ignored for a long time, We didn’t have any other power than the power of public opinion. And in the last presidential election, I wasn’t able to vote,” he said. “Now, that’s different.”
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer in 2017 about serving people experiencing homelessness, Keitt gave this advice to other students: “You can go in your own direction, follow your own path.”
And now, he says, he’s finally found his.