Every once in a while I’ll channel surf the radio stations. And every once in a while, I come across lite rock from the 1970’s, 1980s, or early 1990s. For a moment, I smile as I reflect on the bitter sweet memories of my pre-teen years – specifically, my 6th grade class at Elizabeth Sherman Elementary School in East Oakland. And then my heart gets a bit weary as I think about the person responsible for me knowing all the lyrics to Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” or Eddie Money’s “Baby Hold On” – I think of my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Akili Denianke.
We all have a teacher or teachers that stick out in our minds for a variety of reasons – the one that gave you the bad grade that you felt like you didn’t deserve. Or the one that believed in you when you felt that you couldn’t survive the semester. And then there are those teachers that are special, and taught you lessons that you carried into adulthood – that was Ms. Denianke. Her intent was to prime us to always have a thirst for knowledge, and to not expect everything to always come so easily. She expected us to work – HARD! In the midst of the struggle of our pre-pubescent and pubescent years, Ms. Denianke’s teachings urged us to have a secure sense of self, in addition to recognizing that we mattered. That Oakland kids mattered, in spite of the fracturing of quality education in the Oakland Unified School District.
Through countless book reports, class presentations, videos, and lectures – the encouragement to always do better and aim higher was meticulously woven within every medium of teaching that she used. With this teaching style, my mom and granny took a shine to Ms. Denianke. It was refreshing to them to find a teacher that cared.
Ms. Denianke had the magnificent to beautifully intertwine compassion with discipline. She didn’t take any type of nonsense in her class – class clowns didn’t exist in her presence. Now when a substitute was there, it was a different story. She made sure that we kept every desk was in order and spotless – and made sure that each and every student had a hand in keeping that way. We would routinely have to free our desk of needless clutter, wash the table tops, sweep the floors, cleaned the chalkboards. We may not have had the best equipment, but Ms. Denianke wanted to teach us to respect what we had.
One piece of such equipment that sticks out in my mind was a little clock radio that was nestled in the back corner of the classroom. The small, wood-grained box with a manual dial and neon green digital numbers that gave a soft glow. I remember when one of our classmates asked Ms. Denianke if we could listen to the radio. Of course we wanted to play KMEL and KYLD – and bump Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” over and over again. But Ms. Denianke showed us – she let us listen to the radio alright. Her selection – KOIT, lite rock, less talk. During our afternoon study breaks, for an hour we listened to artists like The Doobie Brothers, Bread, America, Hall and Oats, and Eric Clapton. Eventually we got used to it, and actually enjoyed it. The corner was officially turned when you heard a student say “‘What a Fool Believes’ is my jam!” while aggressively playing the piano riff on their desk.
But Ms. Denianke was not only a phenomenal educator, she was also an acclaimed dancer. She served as the executive director of the Harambee Dance Ensemble – which was embraced by Oakland, and performed all over the city and beyond. Whenever she could, Ms. Denianke would expose us to the art and beauty of dance. For one of our field trips, she took our class to Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company – that was the very first time I saw them perform live. Ms. Denianke wanted to expose us to things that we only thought existed on TV or a movie screen. She wanted us to know that whatever we set our minds to, we could achieve. She wanted us to know we mattered.
After I transitioned on to the 7th grade, my family and I still kept in touch with Ms. Denianke. It actually wasn’t too hard to do so, as she literally lived right around the corner from us. Once, she invited my grandmother and I to watch her and Harambee perform. I was so excited to see her take the stage. In class, she would humbly talk about her performances – but when she hit the stage, she was a completely different person. The leaps, the lines, the passion, the soul. I was awestruck. How could someone that was so reserved and calm have such effortless and undying energy? I wanted to see more! But sadly, that would never happen.
On an early Saturday morning, I woke up – only to bundle up again in one of my grandmother’s quilts to watch “Yo! MTV Raps” in our den. Fab Five Freddy just did a lead in for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got).” As I got lost in the soft saxophone on the track, and the smooth flow of Phife and Q-Tip, my grandmother came in the room with a folded Oakland Tribune section in her hand. “Here baby,” she softly said as she handed to me – then she walked away. Akili Denianke, head of Harambee Dance, dies. Dies? Ms. Denianke? No, I thought. It can’t be true – It’s not true! But next to a beautiful image of Ms. Denianke doing one of her effortless leaps I witness her do in that performance, was her obituary. I was crushed. I had no idea that she was ill. I never thought a person like her would ever pass on. How could someone so loving leave us so soon. She was only 46 years old.
A few weeks ago, and extremely helpful librarian helped me find this obit at the Oakland Public Library. I don’t know – maybe it was the grief, or the inability of my 13-year old mind to take in all the greatness that was written about her in this piece. Akili Deniake – born Paulette Holloway in Aberdeen, Mississippi – trained with various dance legends that helped hone her technique. At the age of 10, she began studying Katherine Dunham technique along with Ruth Beckford, and even took class with Alvin Ailey. Additionally, her educational path would take her to Howard University to study French and anthropology, California State University at Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) to earn a degree in Black studies – and then on to San Francisco State for a masters in educational administration. And just about all of her life, she advocated for the concept of Pan-Africanism – and shortly before her passing, strongly contended for the importance of African dance in the Black Community.
While re-reading this article with older, more seasoned eyes – I began to reflect and question. Did I appreciate the greatness of what Ms. Denianke was when she was here? Given the fact that I decided to share a bit of the impact she had on such a short time of my life, and that I still utilize elements of her teachings today – I think that I did. And to Ms. Akili Denianke, and I am forever grateful.