God writes straight with crooked lines
He takes the mess we make in life
Turns our groaning into perfect rhyme
Hidden by the veil of time
The wisdom of His love’s design
God writes straight with crooked lines
A lived life is always more crooked than straight. It’s those crooked lines, crooked times and sometimes even a crooked smile that can lead to life-changing transformation. This Black History month, I wish to pay homage to those who, like me, wholeheartedly embrace the crooked lines and crooked smiles of young people, as we recognize that underneath them lies true divinity.
Lyrics from the hit song, “The Greatest Love of All,” put it this way, “I believe the children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” Dr. Baruti Kafele, principal, author, and activist tells fellow educators, “You must see yourself as the number-one determinant of the success or failure of your students.” Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), who has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life, says, ”If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.”
Say it! Sister Edelman. Amen, brother Baruti. Your song is a Black youth mantra, Angel whisperer, Whitney! Black Children today, more than ever, demand gentle guidance and aggressive advocacy on their behalf. This principle applies to students who are like my youngest son, Anthony, a free-spirited, pre-engineering honor roll student at Jones College Prep. Or those who walk to a building where a lunchroom chef prepares the only meal they eat every day. Our children need us. The latter meal scene was just as urgent 50 years ago as it is today. In 1969, hungry Black children were, too, seated at lunchroom tables where they excitedly awaited free breakfast before school. The menu included: eggs, meat, cereal, fresh oranges, and chocolate milk. The government didn’t provide the food. The Black Panther Party did. When Black Panther Party founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale established the party in 1966, their goal was to end police brutality in Oakland. But an initiative led by SNCC member Stokely Carmichael called for the self-determination and uplift of Blacks, which evolved into the Black power portion of their platform. The children basked in the attention of the Black Panthers. An article posted in the Sun Reporter during that time captured the children’s sentiment. They thought the “Panthers were very nice for doing this for them.” Perhaps some of them grew up to pay it forward. That appears to be a sentiment shared by author Pam Leo, who says, “Children are mirrors, they reflect to us all we say and do. “
I am comforted by that when I think of my children which include my oldest, Jimi, a sharp-minded, civil engineering major at IIT or my two nieces, A’Maya and Chloe, gifted girls who attend Kenwood Academy and The Betty Shabazz Academy, respectively. My husband and I are teaching our sons, Jimi and Anthony, to stand up as Black men who are “emancipated from mental slavery;” A’Maya and Chloe are being raised by a hard-working mother, Danielle, and their father, Jeremy, who teach them to believe their steps are divinely ordered.
A’maya is a talented, poised young lady with skin the color of toasted cinnamon buns and a penchant for public speaking. Her sister Chloe, a café au lait ball of energy, has never met a stranger. These young ladies are on the cusp of success; armed with the tools needed to slay adversity. Unfortunately, not all Black babies have the kind of family support described here. Approximately 25 percent of Black children live in homes stricken by poverty, and in a 2012 Academic Achievement Gap study from The Black Star Project, it reported that only 24 percent of the Black population could read at an 11th-grade high school level. The findings compare to 51 percent of Whites, 34 percent of Hispanics, 46 percent of Native Americans, and 66 percent of Asian Americans. Despite these dismal numbers, education remains a priority in the Black community, particularly for youth.
I want to shine a light on an individual who brings this sentiment to bear, specifically during this year’s Black History Month. His name is Terrence Sims, and he is a sixth-grade teacher at Milwaukee College Prep School. Mr. Sims gave his class an assignment to “bring Black History month to life” by recreating iconic book and album covers of authors and artists they are learning about” (Sixth graders recreate iconic book covers for Black History Month, Sha Spencer and Faith Bernstein, abcnews.go.com, February 15, 2019). Guided by Sims, students created cover homages to prominent Black figures such as Michelle Obama, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, and author Sharon Flake. The images have gone viral. “I think it’s really important that we know who we are so that we know how we’re supposed to exist in the community today. I think it is [crucial] that my kids are getting access to that at a young age,” Sims said in a Good Morning America interview.
Sims has noticed more interest and enthusiasm from his students, particularly as related to learning about Black history topics, since the assignment. His philosophy is that education has led to everything successful in his life, a philosophy that I wholeheartedly agree with and support. Sims’ class represents the abundance of young messengers that are currently being groomed to take the front line of the next generation of leadership.
Our nation is in a precarious state. Activism is rampant in our community from Colin Kaepernick’s bended knee to raised voices of young activists like CPS student Asian Johnson who stopped the closing of his elementary school. For the students in Mr. Sim’s class, the power emerges from within. One young lady, in particular, stands out. With a mocha-colored face emblazoned across a mock cover of the Michelle Obama tome, Becoming, the pupil’s future shines so brightly, onlookers need sunglasses. Her stare is confident, and her lips appear to mouth this J. Cole lyric,
I don’t look anything like the people on the screen
You know them movie stars, picture perfect beauty queens
But we got dreams, and we got the right to chase ‘em
Look at the nation, that’s a crooked smile braces couldn’t even straighten
Crooked Smile, J. Cole
Though this scholar, along with my nieces, sons or any other members of today’s youth demographic may be unable to straighten our nation’s crooked grin, they will be able to provide metaphorical braces.
Shanita Baraka Akintonde is an award-winning author, podcaster, professional speaker, professor, wife, and mother propelled by love. Her second book, Leading from the Heart, was released in September 2018 and her third book, Hear Me ROARR is set for release in Spring 2019. Add yourself to her event calendar and book signing distribution list. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach her on Linked In at Professor Shanita Akintonde, www.linkedin.com/in/shanitaakintonde/.