Witness…

Photo credit: Assassin's Creed.

Photo credit: Assassin’s Creed.

A couple of months ago I was the witness of a crime. It happened so fast, yet things seemed to go in slow motion, all at the same time. It was early evening. The street lights barely flickering in the glow of the sunset. The breeze was calm, with a tinge of humidity woven in. It was a calm and beautiful evening. I was running errands when two perpetrators caught my eye. I felt guilty for pegging them as such – one was the same skin tone as mine, and the other was a shade darker. They were young, they were Black, and they were males. In my head and my heart was a tug of war, and a telepathic conversation that I hoped they were receiving via my glances. “Whatever you are thinking of doing, please, please don’t do it.” They didn’t heed my message. In the blink of an eye, they took a person’s personal belongings. He gave chase, but they were too fast. I called the police – who was to say that weapons wouldn’t have been drawn? Or someone could have gotten hurt or killed? I couldn’t just let this event happen without helping. What if I were the victim?

Approximately 10 minutes later, the police arrived. Several witnesses stepped forward, including me. Call me a snitch – so what. If the same thing happened to you, wouldn’t you want someone to speak on your behalf? Yet, I still felt a sense of sadness and frustration. Why didn’t those guys just walk away? As I was giving my statement to the officer, he mentioned to me how this was his beat, and that he had only been gone for 20 minutes to serve as back up on a shooting call across town. “I was just here,” he said, “if only I had had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.” In that moment I wondered, what if the officer had been there? What would have transpired? Would his presence have made these guys take a second guess about their potential actions, or would they still have carried out their mission? If the officer were there, would he have felt threatened and needed to use force or let off some warning shots to make them stop? If the officer had been there, would the place that these young men last stood become their memorial? A curb covered with candle wax, liquor, and flowers? Or would their names be hash tagged along with #HandsUpDontShoot? What if? Given the outcomes that the poor combination of itchy trigger fingers and dark-skinned males continue to have, in addition to past and present transgressions, as well as my own lived experience – it’s hard for me to say that anything positive would have resulted from his presence. And that’s sad. It’s sad because it doesn’t have to be. It’s sad for the children that may not make it to adulthood. It’s sad for those that will be fortunate to survive, only to ravaged by the insidious nature of racism. It’s sad for the children I hope to have some day. It’s sad for the generation to follow.

However, in spite of how sad such outcomes could be – they are not destined to happen. We do not have to let such attitudes and actions continue to be the social norm. We gotta let go of this bystander mentality in order for a sprout of positivity to grow. My hope is that someday, God willing, my future son can walk down the street on a cold day with his hoodie up. And make it home alive, or without being covered in the stench of temptation, negativity, and harassment.

25 Years Ago…

Tomorrow, October 17th, will mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The other day, I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “The Day the Series Stopped,” which focused on the memorable Bay Bridge Series between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants and the chaos that ensued as a result of this disaster. As I watched the documentary, it took me back to that day – which I can remember so vividly. As I watched, I went back to that fear, confusion, and worry that came over me during and after the 17 seconds that the earth shook. I talked about this documentary with my good friend and fellow Oaklander, Sergio Martinez, and he reflected on where he was with the quake hit. Ironically, he was literally 3 blocks away from me. That gave us chills – to know that we were in such close proximity during such an unforgettable experience. Such a small world, I guess. Anyhow, below is my recount on that memorable times. Where were you on October 17, 1989?

2014 Baseball Postseason for this Oakland Athletics Fan: Bah Humbug!

Oakland Athletics fans are loyal to the very end. It's tiring, but we are loyal!

Oakland Athletics fans are loyal to the very end. It’s tiring, but we are loyal! Photo: Katherine Brown.

There is certainly truth to the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” My hope is that the Oakland Athletics organization has understood, ingested, and has made the moral to such a painful lesson a part of their DNA. As a fan, I’m pissed. I love the game of baseball, but find that I cannot watch these playoff games. It’s too irritating. We should be there. We should be having the walk off wins. The shutout games. Poppin’ bottles, etc. I’ve even had friends tell me to come to the “dark side” and celebrate with the orange and black. I can’t. I just can’t. These are not the words of a “hater” – these are the words of a highly irritated Oakland A’s fan. This was our year to no longer be the bride’s maid – you know, the one that is a vital part of the ceremony, but never gets the ring. It sucks, and I’m getting tired of it. Loyal, but tired.

Poor planning? "The trade" must have been a nightmare for the Oakland Athletics marketing department.

Poor planning? “The trade” must have been a nightmare for the Oakland Athletics marketing department. Photo: Katherine Brown.

During this season, particularly after the Yoenis Cespedes trade, I found myself analyzing what it meant to be a “fan” of a team. Does it mean that you ride or die with them, regardless of the good or bad? That you never critique them for making poor judgments – I mean even if they are EXPLICITLY poor? After “the trade”, I received some criticism from other Oakland A’s fans about my comments on it, and how I felt Billy Beane made a huge mistake. Folks told me, “one person doesn’t make a team. You’ll be thankful in the post season when we get that ring.” Or, “you’re not supposed to like one player – like the whole team!” And the list went on. But as a fan, I had to be honest. Considering how such shake ups threaten the composition of a team – which this trade did. And especially since I have seen this organization go down the same path over 25 years ago. Remember the 1988-1992 Oakland A’s? 1988: went to the big dance, only to be denied by a “gimpy” Kirk Gibson and the Los Angeles Dodgers. 1989: was a power house team that won it all – but the win was overshadowed by the tragedies of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. 1990: went to the big dance like a house on fire! Sweeping the Boston Red Sox, only to be swept by the Cincinnati Reds. 1991: cellar dwellers – a season plagued with senseless losses. 1992: the dismantling of the “Amazing A’s” was solidified with August 31, 1992 trade of Jose Canseco – while on the on deck circle no less. How cold was that?

Weeks after the Yoenis Cespedes trade, items and merchandise with his name and image continued to be sold and distributed.

Weeks after the Yoenis Cespedes trade, items and merchandise with his name and likeness continued to be sold and distributed. Photo: Katherine Brown.

Fast forward to the 2012 – the projected 2015 Oakland Athletics. 2012: a bunch of scrappy “no names” lead by Bob Melvin make it to the American League Division Series, only to be defeated by the Detroit Tigers. 2013: the core of these scrappy “no names” remain, and the team makes it to the dance once again, only to be denied by the Detroit Tigers – once again. 2014: the team is a power house! Best team in all of baseball, until July 31, 2014 – Yoenis Cespedes is traded. The two-time Home Run Derby Champ? The potential franchise player? Traded? On his day off no less. The team barely makes it as a wildcard, with the taste of the champagne barely fading from their pallets before they are defeated in a hard fought game against the Kansas City Royals. (Do you sense the pattern here?)

2015: my prediction is that this team is going to be gutted. Just this morning, it was announced that Assistant Coach Chip Hale has taken the head coaching job with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Additionally, of the 40-man roster of 2014, 35 players are signed until the end 2014. 35 players. That’s 87.5% of the team. Folks argued that, “well, Cespedes was gonna be a free-agent in 2015 and he would have wanted a ton of money. So we needed to get rid of him now.” Does anyone think that players Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick, and Sonny Gray will be requesting a big pay day, take a meager salary from the shoe-string budget payroll, or will they walk? Or what about those fan-favorites? The guys whose unassuming true-grit made a huge difference in those close games – players like Stephen Vogt, Jesse Chavez, Eric Sogard, and Jed Lowrie. Will they stay or will they go?

I am not excited to see what Billy Beane plans on doing come the close of the 2014 World Series. If the Cespedes trade is any indication of his thinking, perhaps the 2015 season is destined to be a repeat of the 1991 Oakland A’s. I know, I know – I’m pretty sure that other A’s fans will get on me for doubting Beane’s decisions. Trust Billy, right? Hmm, I guess the same folks are huge fans of Lew Wolff, his comments, and decisions. *crickets chirping*

I guess for me, as a fan, you can support the team through thick and thin, but you do not have to agree with nor support each and every action and decision the organization makes. As an Oaklander, and a fan of all three of our Oakland teams, I cannot help but help but look at the bigger picture, and project what these constant poor decisions mean. Poor decisions lead to poor products, that eventually become unwanted – hence a lot easier for these teams to leave, as a result of elements like fan fatigue and poor political decisions. Think about it. All three teams – the Oakland Athletics, the Oakland Raiders, and the Golden State Warriors – constantly talk about leaving the city of Oakland. With all three potentially leaving, what does that do to the city’s economy? I guess considering sports like baseball, football, and basketball are businesses, those aspects don’t matter much.

But as a fan of everything Oakland, I will continue on this ride. And when I say that it’s hard being an Oakland fan (A’s, Raiders, and Warriors), trust me when I say it. Even though I may be highly critical of their decisions and actions, at least I’m loyal. Tired, but loyal.

Notes to My 18 Year-Old Self

The other day, I came across a small, tattered white cardboard package. Underneath the yellowing packaging tape was a mailing label – addressed to me from Kaiser Permanente. Inside the package was a black plastic case with a VHS cassette inside with its contents produced over 18 years ago. A time capsule if you will. Kaiser was a key sponsor for the Oakland Technical High School Health Academy, and at that time, they ran a health program called Partners In Health on a local channel in the Bay Area called KBHK. For this particular airing, they were highlighting the Health Academy, and they asked me and my mom if I would like to be featured in that segment. “Of course!” I said. What teenager would pass up the chance to be on TV?! I recently watched this video, which is all but four minutes, but held so much more. I cannot tell you how many emotions and memories were stirred while watching it – amazement, humility, gratitude – all rolled into one. And how fortunate I am to look back on the mindset I once had. Analyzing what has changed and what is the same. After reflecting on this video clip, I decided to pen these few notes to my 18 year-old self:

  • Unfortunately, you did not become a pediatrician as you had always hoped to become, and that’s ok. You are not a failure. God had a different plan for you. Just embrace it and keep pushing.
  • If I could have forewarned you, I would have told you to NOT take 8 classes the first semester of your freshman year. At UC Berkeley. College isn’t high school.
  • Never let that ambition and drive you have diminish or disappear. You will always need it, and you must always cultivate and nourish it.
  • Don’t own or claim the odds that are stacked against you. They are not yours.
  • Granny was not there in the physical sense to see you walk the stage when you got your bachelors or masters degree. But know that she was there. She will always be there.
  • Your mom, sister, and brother are still in your corner and believe in you. So keep pushing!
  • Life never gets any easier. And that’s also ok. Just learn from each experience and continue to self-reflect and grow.
  • If you are fortunate to stay connected to or to reconnect with those that supported you on your journey, thank them. Thank them. Thank them.
  • You will become a champion for the kids that were like you. Those navigating challenges and coming from communities that are often cast in a negative light. The green/inexperienced kid that may not fully understand the process, but has the desire to do better in life – for themselves, their family, and community.
  • You will always carry a backpack. A very heavy backpack. But it’s never filled with burdens or pity.
  • And always, always, always – stay focused and humble.

Let’s Go Oakland!!!

Again, on my varied travels through out the Town, my eye cant help but catch images of pride here and there. Specifically, pride for the home team – the Oakland A’s.

 

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A little mural displaying a huge chant: Let’s Go Oakland! Located near 54th Ave. and San Leandro Street in East Oakland, this art was done by the TDK Crew. Photo: Katherine Brown

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In North Oakland near Telegraph Ave. and 45th Street, I came across a mosaic honoring Oakland native and Baseball Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson. Artist unknown. Photo: Katherine Brown

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Stay. A simple plea to a team that has so much history rooted in a city that has nothing but unconditional love for them. Designed by the TDK Crew, you can find this mural in Downtown Oakland near Jack London Square. Photo: Katherine Brown

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Lift this City: Performers Band Together to Elevate Oakland

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Photo by Katherine Brown.

Have you ever had an experience that put you on a natural high? A feeling that is so positive that it keeps you from falling asleep? An experience that motivates you to try and find a way share this feeling/moment/initiative with others? I experienced such a moment on the evening of Saturday, February 8, 2014. It began with a text from a good friend Vielka that afternoon, “Are you planning anything tonight… I may be able to get front row tickets to Sheila E tonight….” With initial plans that I had falling through, I quickly accepted Vielka’s offer. These tickets were for a the Elevate Oakland 1st Annual Benefit Concert at the Fox theater in Oakland. Elevate Oakland, spearheaded by Ms. Sheila E., is a collaboration between two organizations – Elevate Hope and 51Oakland – with the focus of improving academic achievement and increase student attendance by providing creative and relevant curriculums through Music and Arts Education.

For this benefit concert, artists like Ozomatli, the Bay Area’s own Goapele and Michael Franti, and host of other artists and musicians donated their time and talents for to raise money for this cause. The stage was also a platform for those that this concert was benefiting – youth of Oakland who have an intense passion for music and arts – a resource that over the years has experienced a decrease in funding and support. It is hard to capture into words how elated these youth were to share their amazing talents with the world – and it’s even harder to explain how beautifully this passion is evident in every note they played and lyric they sang.

As a product of the Oakland Unified School District, I remember fondly on the music programs of the schools I attended, and how much those experiences were positive forces in my life. My first music teacher was at John Marshall Elementary School, and his name was Mr. Tapiro. In the third grade, he taught us the very basics of music – how to read notes, about the legends and grandfathers of music (i.e. Beethoven, Bach, etc.). He also taught us how to play the recorder – the first tune I learned how to play was Transylvania 6-5000. He would refer to us students as his team – specifically, as his “Hoosiers.” Mr. Tapiro loved music, and did whatever he could to prepare the next generation in keeping this art alive.

My next music teacher was at E. Morris Cox, and her name was Ms. Newsome. She specifically taught our 4th and 5th grade chorus classes- my favorite songs to sing were “Lift Every Voice,” and “Believe in Yourself.” With Ms. Newsome, I also learned how to play the trumpet. I can still remember the strong smell of the valve oil, and the loud clicks of the latches on the tattered brown case I would tote my instrument in. I would guard this thing with my life, and there was NO WAY I was gonna let anyone “just play” my trumpet. It was my responsibility. It was my positive outlet. It was a necessity.

My last music teacher was Ms. Morrison, and she taught 7th grade chorus at King Estates Jr. High School. She would teach us about the history of music – specifically the origins of Blues, Gospel, and Soul. She could also play a mean piano. One of the songs we used to warm up our vocals with was “Do-Re-Mi,” a la “The Sound of Music” style. When Ms. Morrison would hit the break down, she would play these funky chords that had our class belting in a collective soulful “heyyyyyyyyyy!” She made music fun and engaging, something that us Oakland youth needed.

But as time went on, budgets got cut – and programs that were once viewed as required became electives. And eventually these electives became almost non-existent. However, with initiatives like Elevate Oakland, the importance of music and arts for Oakland youth is redeveloping the recognition and respect it deserves. I am sure somewhere, teachers like Mr. Tapiro, Ms. Newsome, and Ms. Morrison are proud.

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Mark Curry, comedian and Oakland native, addresses the audience and encourages the support for the Elevate Oakland Initiative. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli donate their time and talents for this worthy cause. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Members of the Castleers – Oakland’s Castlemont High School signing group – take in their standing ovation after their brilliant performance. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Musicians El DeBarge and Peter Michael Escovedo share why supporting youth in music and the arts is important. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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A youngster from Oakland’s Westlake Middle School performs an a cappella number for the audience. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Young musicians from Oakland’s Castlemont High School set to perform with Sheila E. It’s hard to believe that these extremely talented young men are 15 and 16 years old. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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The phenomenal Sheila E. giving her heart and soul in her performance. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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“A family that plays together…” Siblings (l-r) Juan, Peter Michael, and Sheila Escovedo bring down the house with their percussion skills. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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A young Oakland singer performs along side Bay Area-raised musician Michael Franti. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Oakland native and Grammy award winning artist, Sheila E., gives an impassioned thanks to all that contributed to this uplifting event. Photo by Katherine Brown.

Reflections…

On my morning drive to work, it’s extremely rare for me to venture from my routine route – 580 West towards Berkeley, then to the exit that takes me to Martin Luther King Jr. Way (i.e. MLK) – the bridge between North Oakland and South Berkeley. Along this trek, I see the usual markers along my path – Children’s Hospital to my right. Upon approaching the intersection of 51st Street and MLK, I have to be cautious of the numerous jaywalkers – the majority of which seem to be hospital staff. I continue on, approaching the corner of 54th Street and MLK – as I glance to the right, I have fond memories of the beauty salon I used to get my hair styled at when I was a high schooler – now the property is a tax preparation center. The light changes, and I move on. I approach the corner of 59th Street and MLK, which on the surface, seems like your usual intersection. A four-way stop with traffic signals perched upon cold, steel posts. Throughout the year, these posts all look the same. Except for the month of January – in which one of these posts stand out from the rest.Image

 For the past 6 years, the post on the northeastern corner of the intersection is decorated with flowers, cards, balloons, and a picture. For years, I would past by this scene and reflect  – recognizing this all too common image that we see in my city. It was a shrine for someone that lost their life at this scene. A few years ago, I finally stopped to get a glance at the picture. In some way, wanting to get to know this person that was so affectionately appreciated by her loved ones, and not forgotten. Upon approaching the post, I felt a sense of guilt and shame – I didn’t know this person. What gave me the right to approach such a sacred place. But there I stood, staring at the picture. She was young. She was beautiful. She was no longer here. When I got home, I hoped on Yahoo! – hoping to get more of a sense of who this young lady was: Up popped this article:

 OAKLAND / Drive-by victim was single mom on way to family reunion

Her name was Kikhiesha Brooks. On July 21, 2007, the 21 year-old single mother was in the passenger seat, when the car she was riding in was riddled with bullets at the intersection of 59th Street and MLK in North Oakland. The shooting happened at 1 pm. She died 30 minutes later. She was on her way to a family reunion. To this date, her killers have not been identified or caught. At the time of her death, Kikhiesha’s daughter was 2 years-old. I can only imagine the pain and anguish this child probably feels to this day.

So the next time you come across a similar scene – decorated with flowers, cards, balloons, and candles – please send healing thoughts to that person’s loved ones. My hope is that with the advent of these scenes in the city of Oakland, that we do not become so numb and unaffected by the pain that the loss of human life presents.

For Akili…

sherman pic2Every 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.

akiliOn 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.