Black Geniuses Stage the Future

Black Geniuses Stage the Future

Black Genius Feild Trips Uncategorized

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As I descended the stairs to The Vault, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Saturday’s Black Genius Field Trip focused on careers in theater. Our featured guests were Kalilah Black, a member of the Broadway musical The Lion King,  and Monet Marshall, leader of Durham’s Mojoaa Performing Arts Company. Having seen The Lion King a few weeks prior, I was excited to hear about the inner workings of the production.

The room felt like a theater. I was greeted by stage lights from Insibiah Media, cameras from The Beautiful Project, and a near full house of kids and their families at the edge of their seats. Volunteers set up chairs and concessions while children wrestled with anticipation, poking each other and whispering excitedly. Babies took in the sights and sounds curiously as parents talked among themselves easily and comfortably, knowing that their families were in a safe space. Much to my surprise, even the older kids seemed eager for the afternoon to begin. Sure, they walked in coolly, as teens do, but their eyes showed excitement, taking it all in.

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Two regal Black women assumed center stage. Smartly dressed and owning the space, Monet gently coaxed the youth to the floor. “Could all of the young people and young at heart please join me down here on the mat?” The kids took their places with no hesitation, scooting around and making room for one another. Watching them as they hungrily awaited instruction from these beautiful women invoked an image of village Elders passing on their wisdom. Before them stood two highly accomplished women boasting college degrees, acting careers, and entrepreneurial success. An instant bond formed between the ladies, children, and families, setting the tone for the remainder of the afternoon. One by one, hands shot up with questions. The future stars were anxious to soak up all that the women had to offer. In that exchange lay an unseen, selective trust between the families and the dynamic duo. Because these women looked like them, spoke like them, and seemed to understand them, the children were open to the knowledge they could impart. Language and a sense of humor really opened the pathways for the children to open up to Kalilah and Monet who were not only down to earth, but also recognized the wonderful creativity within each child. They expected the best from the children which led to positive responses.

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The youth asked questions like, “How old were you when you started acting?” and “How did your parents feel about you wanting to be an actress?” This conversation, shed light on the starting point of Black Genius awareness of Interest and talents. A child’s recognition of their own intellectual curiosity foreshadows a passion that could very well drive their career path.  VOW’s Blueprint for Black Genius recognizes that children who are aware of their talents and interests are easily motivated and smoothly navigate toward their self-determined goals. The confidence that accompanies a child’s self-awareness gives parents the first tools they need to communicate with, affirm their child, and move them along their chosen path.

By illuminating the wealth of opportunities for young people, “Careers in Theater” pushed families to disrupt existing systems. Indeed, young people who are extended the grace to think outside of conventional standards will explore how to imagine their Highest Selves independent of social barriers such as racism, classism, sexism. Monet introduced this revisioning of self within a free Black future as Afro-futurism which visibly challenged the sensibilities of most of the kids. It was as if the idea of having a world devoid of racial inequity hadn’t occurred to many of them. Boundless ceilings were a new territory that the children would leave with that day as well as practical ways of pursuing that Promised Land. Therein, a silent pact was made. Parent to child, family to family, child to teacher- all resolved to dream big and uphold one another’s vision.

Visioning and the role of a supportive community became a central theme in conversation and was showcased through interactive games like “Let’s Make a Machine” and “Fainting Durham”.  Play is instrumental in learning, but the same can be said for community building as these games allowed the children to see how each their fates were not only similar to other Youth in the room but interconnected.  They were able to learn the responsibility that they have to one another as well as the benefits of shared visioning. Kalilah and Monet, even went so far as to retell the story of their friendship, successfully illustrating another Black Genius element; the necessity of trust and vulnerability in relationships when reaching for success.

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Unsure of the future that could be, a lingering question summed up the day’s events. “What do you think is the number one thing a young person can do to be successful?” A moment of quiet settled over the room as the ladies considered the day’s conversations, honoring the weight of such a question. Although we know that there isn’t a foolproof recipe for achieving one’s highest potential, we were now privy to a host of principles that could put one closer to their crowning moment. The gutsy answer? “Create your own idea of what success is and go after it.” What would normally seem like a vague response landed softly and was well received. It was padded with the days’ summations and could be unpacked at home with a more than capable community of families equipped with new language and relationships to communicate through.

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Finally, a farewell song and dance offered the benediction. As Kalilah’s melodious voice floated over the audience, the fluidity of movement and the confidence with which the group danced engrained in our minds an aesthetic of supportive community. Each child holding true to their unique form, allowed us to appreciate the way we complement and edify one another within a cooperative system. Each one taking their place under a single song helped us to envision the future that is our birthright to claim. In a single afternoon we’d empowered ourselves to empower one another. We were feeling ourselves and we were confident in our abilities and the strength of the community that would take us there- there being our our bright, beauty-full, unbounded future.

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Images made in solidarity by The Beautiful Project for the preservation of Black Genius

Black Genius Field Trip: Freelon Agency

Black Genius Feild Trips

Fifteen boys, with their parents standing behind them, watched a digital video rendering of the soon to be completed National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the National Mall in Washington DC. They were all inside of a large boardroom, which was decked with furniture that a few of the younger boys referred to as “Grown Up Chairs.” Chairs where the leaders of the Freelon Architecture Group sit and discuss how to make the buildings they design best represent and reflect the communities in which they are built.

Phillip Freelon, a Black man, leads the firm, which has been responsible for designing numerous libraries, museums and more across the country, including Durham’s own Bulls’ stadium and the beautiful Public Health building on East Main Street.

Three Black women described the firms winning pitch to build the NHAAMC. Zena a principal at the firm explained, “We proposed to have five floors below grade because the history of Black folks in this country was too deep and rich for the mere four stories that were allotted for the museum above ground. So our firm proposed digging five stories below grade to match the depth of the African-American story.”

As I sat there taking it all in I was nearly moved to tears, thinking about the confluence of the moment. My thoughts raced about the state of schools in America for Black children. Our visit to the agency occurred just a few days after the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and on the same day as Malcolm X’s birth. Reflecting on all that had been sacrificed for the moment we were in to happen and all that must be given to create such moments in the future, was a bit heavy for me. I knew this was a story that Kendrick would have probably never heard if one of VOW’s hardworking volunteers hadn’t swung by his mother’s house to pick him up after a last minute request. A story that would have gone unheard by too many youth if VOW board member Kaia Clarke didn’t hustle to get her church’s young men’s ministry to come through with only a week’s notice. But the story was told and heard, and it could be credited to the resilience of the Black American spirit.

I frequently ponder what would happen if in schools where 80% or more of the population was White but 80% of the history taught was about Black people and only 20% about White people. As discordant as this scenario sounds I fear many children of color in this country face a tragically similar situation. Even more as a teacher I personally taught science curriculums that were frequently disconnected from the very real jobs students should be competing for once they matriculate. Indeed students of color often experience a curriculum that is low on real-world application and un-affirming of their cultural identity. Unfortunately, many students in this country frequently learn from teachers forced to focus undivided attention into test preparation and not preparing them for the world they must navigate.

So as we all stood there pondering the levels of spectacular to celebrate the impact of Black life past, present, and tomorrow, there was still one more layer of awesome to enjoy for me, as a recovering science teacher. The conversations on this day were interwoven with themes of creativity, design, science, math, art and energy efficiency. On this day we made good on creating an experience that was intellectually stimulating and reaffirming of our children’s racial identity. On May 19th for 90 minutes, thanks to the Freelon Group and the VOW family, I couldn’t think of a better place in the world to be.