Black prodigy provides important lesson

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Child prodigy Autum Ashante of the Bronx previously made news with a poem that got her into trouble with folks who patrol school events looking for things to be outraged about.

"White nationalism is what put you in bondage," she had recited at age 7 in a confident but girlish voice. "Pirates and vampires like Columbus, Morgan and Darwin / drank the blood of the sheep, trampled all over them with / steel, tricks and deceit."

Like a lot of home-schooled children, Autum considered Charles Darwin the bogeyman, but it was lines like the following that earned her the scorn of the right-wing blogosphere when she was a guest speaker at a school near her former Mount Vernon home:

"Black land taken from your hands, by vampires with no remorse / They took the gold, the wisdom and all of the storytellers / They took the black women, with the black man weak / Made to watch as they changed the paradigm / Of our village / They killed the blind, they killed the lazy, they went / So far as to kill the unborn baby."

One would think that whatever points Autum lost with conservatives for dissing Columbus, colonialism and slavery, they would at least give her credit for being firmly in the pro-life, anti-evolution camp. Needless to say, it didn't turn out that way.

"Meet the 7-Year-Old Racist Poet," screamed a headline at the time on conservative blogger Michelle Malkin's site. Civil rights activist Roy Innis accused Autum of imposing "her inaccurate reading of history" on other children at the school's Black History Month event.

"Just imagine that Batin [Ben] Ashante, her father, was a white man, home schooling and guiding his daughter with such palpably erroneous thoughts about black nationalism," Mr. Innis wrote. "Would there be a question of free speech? Or would the question be white racism -- as it should be?"

After Autum was told she was no longer welcome as a visitor at that Westchester, N.Y., school, she kept her head down and her nose to the grindstone for the next six years. When you haven't reached puberty, being denounced by the New York Post can be a drag.

Still, Autum used her time in obscurity well. She mastered Arabic, Swahili, and Spanish and scored an impressive 149 on the standard IQ test. A seasoned performance poet, Thai kick boxer and amateur photographer, Autum is preparing for her freshman semester at the University of Connecticut in the fall.

Not bad for a 13-year-old girl from the Bronx whose doting single father and teacher was once denounced for leaving the "n" off the end of her first name. Because Autum plans to declare herself pre-med, we can only hope she's finally made her peace with Charles Darwin or microbiology class is going to get awkward.

The right-wing freak-out of 2006 aside, even conservatives admit that Autum Ashante's story is inspiring for minority students who are rarely spotlighted in the media as intellectually gifted.

Looking beyond Autum's personal benchmarks (her father says she was walking at 10 months, reading at 2 years and reciting her own poetry at 3), she is still a living rebuke to prevailing notions of what it takes to get a good education in an era of shrinking budgets.

The reason that Autum's story has such resonance in the black community is that she effortlessly smashes stereotypes about black learning potential. She's proof that excuses aren't needed.

The fact that she was home-schooled doesn't mean public schools are useless. Autum Ashante would have excelled in the worst public schools imaginable because the key to her educational success boils down to her father's involvement.

Although Mr. Ashante, 50, a former corrections officer, raised Autum alone, he made her education his top priority. He recruited retired teachers in his neighborhood to help ignite his daughter's lifelong love of learning. She's not a freak. She's just loved.

There could be thousands of Autum Ashantes in urban school districts if more parents got involved in educating their children. You don't have to be the Tiger Mother to get results. Being a regular mom or dad who takes education seriously is enough.

The brutal truth is that if your child doesn't read at grade level or better, you failed that child. Don't blame teacher unions or the schools for not baby-sitting your kid into functional literacy.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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