It was billed as “The Black Table,” a Black History Month event bringing teenagers from disadvantaged communities and black professionals together for a discussion on “legacy.”
These were teens involved in the programs of myriad community organizations: the ARK of St. Sabina, Bright Star Community Outreach, BUILD, Inc., Gary Comer Youth Center, Mikva Challenge, Centers for New Horizons, Westside Health Authority, Youth Guidance.
And the professionals came from wide-ranging fields: politics, like Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin and Ald. Chris Taliaferro; Chicago Police, like 15th District Commander Ernest Cato III and Chief of Patrol Fred Waller; civic leaders like DuSable Museum of African American History President/CEO Perri Irmer; and clergy, like Bright Star Church of God in Christ Pastor Chris Harris. The house was also filled with successful businessmen, retired athletes, journalists.
An annual event sponsored by BUILD, Inc., an organization offering academic as well as drug and violence prevention and intervention programs for at-risk youth, “The Black Table” grew from a desire to go beyond usual efforts to remind youths of the black icons who paved the way for them: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Barack Obama.
With all that assails them today, it gets harder to engage today’s youth about the past, organizers said. So they decided to connect them with the present: living examples they can sit across from, hear their stories, obstacles and overcomings, travails and victories.
It was hoped the youths would see themselves in us, learn from us. But as the youths at my table shared their stories of difficult lives still being written, how they see their place in the world, the shaping of their hopes and dreams, it was we who learned from them.
Keontae Thomas, 16, of North Lawndale, is a sophomore at Michelle Clark High School. Discussing legacy and aspirations, he talked about the influence of a loving family where the cooking and sharing of meals has always been important, of hanging out in the kitchen watching his mother and others cook, of how a passion grew for the preparation of food.
His neighborhood is tough, but his home is filled with love. He hopes to go to college, and someday become a chef, following the example of an uncle. Keontae wants to own his own restaurants. He can make great chicken and great steak, and loves to cook a huge breakfast for his family on Saturdays.
Then there was Alyssa Times, 16, of Bellwood, who is a sophomore at Chicago’s Christ the King Jesuit College Prep. Whereas Keontae grew up watching the cooks, Alyssa grew up watching the hairdressers in her family. From watching, she started assisting, and just as for Keontae, her passion grew.
Alyssa has practiced on everyone, probably burned a few heads with perm along the way, she admits, but says she’s pretty good now. And when she finishes college, she wants to open her own string of hair salons, and also work as a nurse. Huh? That’s right. She loves doing hair, but she plans to follow the example of her nurse sister, asserting she’ll do both. And why not?
We hear the stories all the time, the ones about the teens causing all the trouble in the inner cities. Far less do we hear of teens like Keontae and Alyssa, coming up in tough times, combating much more than they should have to at their age, yet resilient, protected by love and an extended support network of mentors and people who care.
As the adults present shared our own stories with them, they asked searing questions. And even when you thought you’d better stop preaching because their eyes seemed to register disinterest, when it was their turn, they stood up and told it back to you, exactly what you’d said, and exactly what they’d gotten from it.
Beyond legacy and aspiration, we talked about life experiences and people who inspired us. I told them people like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey. They told me people like their mothers, their aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches.
BUILD was absolutely on the right track with this Black History Month event.
It’s OK to remind our teens of those who came before them, the great sacrifices and struggles of the past. But it’s more important that they connect to those paving the way whom they can see and feel — their families, you, me. These teens were determined to persevere.
They are Black History, alive and well.