|Sankofa and Naeemah with kids|
Some 24-year olds are obsessed with Facebook and Twitter. Marcus Nicks, better known as Sankofa, wants to re-educate black children, one Thursday evening at a time through Black Genius Youth Academy. It’s part of The Afrikan Village & Cultural Center of Baltimore.
Located within a non-descript apartment complex directly across from Good Samaritan Hospital (1407 Lochner Rd., Unit O), the Academy’s small size belies one of its enormous goals: “helping youth learn knowledge of self…” and becoming “the natural geniuses they are intended to be,” according to its mission statement.
|Black Genius Youth Academy Sign|
As we chat on this chilly Saturday afternoon, the space is nearly empty but pride in Black culture fill it. Everything here is intentional – from the Pan-African flag wrapped around the podium to the Black Genius Youth Academy sign, and finally, the Center’s spelling of Africa, not with a “C” but a “K”. Nicks says it “ties us more to an Afrikan-centered view of our culture [which is] not rooted in a European view.”
The Baltimore branch, led by Minister Ausar Dennis Winkler II, is under the larger organizational umbrella of The Afrikan Village, founded in 1998. It has birthed centers nationally (New York, Chicago and Atlanta among others) and internationally. In addition to the Black Genius Youth Academy, Nicks says there is a core group of eight to ten folks who come out each Sunday from 3:30 to 6 pm to fellowship, and share in the discussion of Afrikan history, economic empowerment and more.
Nicks – the activist, hip hop artist, organizer, and mentor – fell in love with education during college, delving first into European philosophy (Aristotle, Plato and Socrates) – later connecting to African history and culture in college. He discovered Molefi Kete Asante’s Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change and enthusiastically adds, “It opened my eyes up, and exposed me to so many different things like how great our people are…” With the Center, he insists, “everything we do is trying to keep us on the straight and narrow path to empower ourselves, and keep us on the road to learning about who we are.”
|Hands-on art activity with Naeemah|
It’s this goal and focus that drives the Academy, which currently has fifteen students, who range from 1st – 5th grade. While there is currently no charge for classes, he encourages folks to give if they can, and “think of it as an investment in our community.” A teacher at Patuxent Valley Middle School, Nicks organizes everything ranging from the carefully thought out lessons plans to interactive games.
Still, without reservation, he admits, there is lots of help – primarily from parents or Center members like Naeemah McDuffey, a twenty-five-year-old woman who has no children of her own but is deeply committed to the Academy. “It helps to give [the children] a positive influence in their lives. We are taking what is inside of them naturally and pulling it out.”
|Naeemah reads My First Trip to Africa|
Jamal Lee, a young father, echoes Naeemah’s sentiments: “It’s essential for them [children] to understand their background. They don’t get it in the schools.” Currently, pupils at the Academy learn about a range of topics including entrepreneurship, relationships, health and nutrition, geography, Afrikan history, and hip hop.
Some of the Academy’s core values, according to its literature, are “respect for all opinions, beliefs, self, family, elders, cultures and mother/father nature, and exhibiting the Afrikan model of excellence everywhere at all times.” There are plans to expand the curriculum. “What we are going to implement soon is break-out sessions, e.g. music, youth expression [through] poetry, recital, dancing, and [asking students] to describe what they have learned that day,” Nicks said. Eventually, one Thursday [session] “may be devoted to entrepreneurship and Afrikan history, and another to health and hip hop.”
While citing the inclusion of hip hop, he mentions the art form’s golden era. “It was more of a conscious message, Nicks says. “It was giving us a sense of purpose.” His CD, “Endangered Species”, includes tracks such as “Power of Love,” featuring Daran Benjamin and “Black Genius Anthem” with a simple but profound parental advisory label: “Love Your Child.”
“Our kids need to understand,” he says passionately, “that music can be a way to teach, to motivate, make you feel good about yourself.” Nicks has even coined a term. “We call it edutainment – entertaining with a message. We’re not trying to teach them what to think, we’re trying to teach them how to think,” he insists.
Another key element is who teaches the children, and for Nicks this is inextricably linked to their sense of self. “Young Afrikan children need to know who they are… What their history is and what it’s going to tell them about themselves…”
Despite all of these ambitious plans, when it comes to the day-to-day work of the Academy, Nicks says: “What we do is take things and make them basic and elementary.” Activities on a typical Thursday may involve games such as Hotep (means ‘divine peace’), which is similar to Bingo. “There are twenty five squares on the board. We ask a question like: He gave the famous ‘I Have a Deam’ speech. Students must search their boards for the answer. The first student that gets 5 across, diagonal or up and down says Hotep. Winners receive prizes from a treasure box.”
Other fun encompasses arts and crafts, singing the uplifting “Easy to Love” or reading books such as My First Trip to Africa, a joint effort between daughter Atlantis Tye Browder and her father, Anthony T. Browder. Students also attend field trips such as touring Center Stage during its production of “The Wiz”. Future plans include visiting cultural institutions such as The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture and The Walters Art Museum.
“Perhaps, too often schools expect less of our children. ‘No child left behind’. They [are] being left behind still. Black Genius is like an alternative. It’s like come back home. We’re going to teach you about yourself in a way that is conducive to how you can learn best. We help students feel proud of themselves.” He laments that it’s often an arduous process. “Our children are scarred; it can be taxing to undo eight, nine, ten, eleven years of trauma.”
One leaves with the impression that if anyone has the determination to undo these damaging messages, he does, along with Center members who regularly bring their children, week after week. Speaking directly to young people, Nicks wants them to know their potential is limitless: “Whatever it is you want to be, you can be that. You don’t have to be what the television says you are.” Black Genius Youth Academy is recreating how the next generation sees themselves – one Thursday, one book, one interactive game at a time.
For more information about Black Genius Youth Academy:
The Afrikan Village & Cultural Center of Baltimore
1407 Lochner Rd., Unit O
Baltimore, MD 21239
Sankofa Nicks via phone at 410-717-6361