by Nayaba Arinde
Special to the NNPA from the Amsterdam News
New York (NNPA) – “It’s just a poem,” Autumn Ashante, 7, explained of her “proud and powerful” lyrical offering that has set off a firestorm of controversy and a media feeding frenzy.
Out of the mouth of babes, the prolific reader and performance poet has been “unofficially” banned from Westchester, N.Y., schools because of a dynamic poem she recited, according to her father, Batin Ashante.
“My daughter was invited to perform at Peekskill High and Middle Schools on the last day of Black History Month. And, responding to a near riot that was avoided on the previous day and to what she considered to be a racist mural in the middle school, she recited the Black Panther Party’s ‘Black Child’s Pledge’ and her poem ‘White Nationalism Put U In Bondage.’”
Autumn has since recited the entire pledge before a bank of journalists at City Hall.
“I pledge allegiance to my Black People,” she said. “I will keep myself physically fit, building a strong body free from drugs and other substances which weaken me and make me less capable of protecting myself, my family and my Black brothers and sisters.”
Some in the media were less than thrilled by her “White nationalism is what put you in bondage: pirates and vampires like Columbus, Morgan, and Darwin drank the blood of the sheep, trampled all over them with steel, tricks and deceit.”
Ashante said that his daughter was offended by a four-wall school mural with depictions of Black folks kneeling at the feet of Abe Lincoln with his hands outstretched “like Jesus” and then Black folk building the pyramids for a White pharaoh and his wife.
“She said, ‘Have you guys seen that racist mural?’ and then she told them about White nationalism,” her father said. “Autumn announced that she was speaking to the Black and Spanish students, and did her poem, and those students started screaming. The officials didn’t like that.”
The upstate school district “has a problem with her view of White Nationalism,” he added. “I guess they think that a 7-year-old can’t understand because she has not seen what happened during Hurricane Katrina, right?”
Ashante said that the “Black and Spanish” students cheered, but a handful of White students walked out. She said, “I think it was sad, and I am confused because they are making a big fuss about a poem.”
She understands however that the official response means that “it was effective to them.”
Ashante, a group home counselor, said that his girl “loves to read. She drinks in books and remembers everything. Right now she’s reading another encyclopedia, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass.”
He explained that they worked on the poem together after reading “The Disasters Darwinism Brought to Humanity.”
Ashante said that his daughter was invited to the school by Peekskill Middle School music teacher, Councilmember Melvin Bolden.
“He was suspended. They took him out of the classroom,” said Ashante.
Bolden did not return a phone call for comment by press time.
Judith Johnson, the superintendent of Peekskill City School District, also did not return a call, but her assistant, Alma Jimenez, said that all she could do was read a statement.
She denied that Ashante has been banned from performing in the school district, but said, “The controversy surrounding this situation is unfortunate. Autumn … appeared before a culturally diverse [audience] and in her poem and actions she attempted to bring a wedge between African-American and White students. The students rejected her efforts. We do not have a racially isolated community. People live and work and go to school together.
“The teacher who brought her to the school [Mel Bolden] … said that her performance was inappropriate for a young audience and has apologized for the incident viewed by many as racist.”
Parents and “the entire community” were told that Ashante’s “views and actions” did not reflect the views of the Peekskill school district.”
In a press conferences, Councilman Charles Barron said, “[Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer needs to investigate this case. She’s a 7-year-old who has the right to free speech.”
Rev. Al Sharpton upbraided Westchester school officials who called in a recorded apology to parents of students at Peekskill High School and Peekskill Middle School.
“The proper thing to do would have been to call the schools together and have an analytical discussion, not apologize as if she did something wrong,” Sharpton blasted.
Barron presented Ashante, who is said to speak three languages, with a special proclamation from the City Council and said, “We don’t care what anybody else says. We are proud of you because you spoke out for us.” He explained, “She said nothing that was not true or inspiring…. “The pubic school system needs to hire her father as “a paid consultant. Maybe we need to write a letter to [Schools Chancellor] Joel Klein.”
Ashante is interested in educating others.
“I’d love to share my formula,” she said. “It is one classroom per child.”
Late on Tuesday evening, Ashante called the Amsterdam News to say that someone was littering the Peekskill neighborhood with Nazi fliers.
Upstate resident Don DeBar, the Hudson Valley reporter for WBAI’s Wake Up Call, said the fliers look “identical to the expensively laminated inappropriate garbage sent out last year. It has swastikas and a racist and anti-Semitic blurb.”
DeBar said that he thinks that it is the work of a “guy in his garage with a laminating machine, who goes out at the weekend and throws the fliers in his station wagon. I don’t think they were made in response to the poem issue. The flier looks like the generic garbage. Maybe he read about the issue this week and decided to put Peekskill on his route.”
Ashante said, “I’m not shocked, I understand the times in which we live, and I’m trying to make Autumn aware. This is near Bear Mountain. The Klan run this area.”
He said that he has raised Autumn by himself since she was 11 months old. A media veteran already, Ashante has performed at shows and cultural events from the African Burial Ground to Katrina. She is a voracious reader who began reading books at 2 years old.
“I’ve seen how much power we have when our children are exposed to knowledge of our history,” he said. “The best thing they ever did was to give her a library card.”
Nayaba Arinde is the new editor of the venerable Harlem-based Amsterdam News, http://amsterdamnews.org, whose pages have been lit afire by the eloquence of W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X and many more.