MK Asante walked to the stage of SMU's McFarlin Auditorium last night in a dark, slim fit jeans, a black blazer and a cool-cat hat like your grand dad used to wear. He was there for the sixth installment of the 2012-13 Tate Lecture Series, and his swagger was in full force.
He was unassuming as he spoke to an audience as eclectic as his cache of stories. A wide grin graced his face as he eyed his family among the large audience -- "Hey family!" -- and the crowd settled into their seats knowing that this wasn't going to be an old run of the mill, stale and airless lecture. This was going to be food for the soul.
At just 30 years old, Asante is a tenured professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, a bestselling author and award-winning filmmaker. Born in Zimbabwe to African-American parents, he is a recipient of the Langston Hughes Award and in 2009 was awarded a key to the city of Dallas. Some of his work includes It's Bigger than Hip-Hop, a classic manifesto that uses hip-hop as a springboard to discuss social and political issues; The Black Candle, a documentary film narrated by Maya Angelou about the birth of the Kwanzaa holiday; and 500 Years Later, a documentary filmed in over 20 countries that explores the global legacy of slavery and has won five international film festival awards.
Asante's newest book, Buck, is a coming-of-age memoir set in Philadelphia and is scheduled for release on August 20, 2013. As the author described last night, the word "buck" represents many things in his life -- homage to his enslaved ancestors who were referred to as "bucks" as they were sold at auction, his days growing up as a "young buck" in Philly, and a more tumultuous time as a teen when he got "buck wild" before finally dedicating his life to educating young people.
The theme of last night's discussion: the importance of education. Pulling his inspiration from the likes of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, film director Oscar Micheaux and actor Paul Robeson, Asante dropped several little "nuggets" of knowledge on the audience. His words were powerful and poignant. With public school systems on the decline, his message was on point.
His mantra: "If I make an observation, I have an obligation." If you observe that there is a gap that needs filling, you have an obligation to fill that gap. If we want to see something in existence, but it doesn't exist - we must create it.
CNN has dubbed Asante a "master storyteller and major creative force," and that he is. He mixed and mastered several anecdotes into the evening, and any time he felt it necessary, he weaved in a poem that seemed to join seamlessly with his words that it was hard to tell until you were halfway through it that he was offering up a taste of some of his best prose.
Perhaps the most captivating tale was the story of his chance encounter with a young man named Jordan serving out a sentence in a Texas prison. As he tells it, Jordan was an amazing writer who slept in a cell block without a bed. Asante was outraged, and couldn't comprehend why Jordan was allowing himself to be dehumanized in such a way. Jordan explained to Asante that he had a bed; he just refused to sleep on it.
"Why?" asked Asante. "Why do you sleep on the hard concrete?"
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"MK," Jordan said, "I can't trust comfort in a place like this. It numbs you to the reality of where you really are."
Asante understood what Jordan meant. He'd been kicked out of one school after another as a boy, thrown out of his mother's apartment at 16, had a turbulent relationship with his father and existed in what he called the "school to prison pipeline." He finally found his joy in a small, alternative classroom contained in a little house. As he looked around at the other students, observing their clothes and hair, he felt out of place at first. "I ain't this damn alternative," he said. But the lessons he received in that little house in Philly transformed him into the writer, the man and the educator that he is today.
In closing, Asante posed some questions to the audience: What is going to happen to his generation and the next? Will young people build on what ancestors have put in place for them or will they squander it?
He reminded everyone, their eyes fixated on him as he paced back and forth commanding the stage, that there are two wolves inside of us. One wolf is angry, poisonous and detrimental, while the other is peaceful, fruitful and compassionate. These wolves are at constant battle inside of us and the one that wins is the one we feed. The only thing he knows for sure, he said, is that the future of his generation and the next rests in their own hands.