Above: A chorus performance at the summer recital for the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Miami, Florida. My daughter Elsa is the third from the right.
This summer my children had the opportunity to participate in an amazing performing arts summer camp held by the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center (AHCAC). Nestled in the center of one of Miami most challenged areas, AHCAC was on a rescue mission to offer their communities’ black youth an alternative to a life of drugs, violence and poverty, to instead, express themselves, and the frustration of their lives, through the arts.
The camp was a full day, all summer long program with daily classes from 8:00a.m. to 5:00p.m.. When I picked up the kids each day they were so excited to share what they had learned. The whole program ended with a two separate recitals where the kids performed from what they had learned. The recitals were so well done and so moving that I had to write about it.
How my children came to participate in the camp was somewhat of an accident. My kids are not African-American, as the other kids in the program are, but that was never asked nor questioned when signing them up. Technically, being of Dominican-American heritage, they have African heritage too because Dominicans are a mix of Spanish, African and Taino (the native people of the island). Plus being part of a multicultural family, my kids had no issue with being surrounded by skin “a little tanner” than theirs, as they liked to say.
We moved to Miami last December and the kids were placed in the zoned school for our area which was not bad but not great either. I made it a priority to find a better school for the coming year and applied to various magnet schools. Miami, like many big cities, has so many choices that it is confusing. I wanted the kids to go to a school for the arts and there were only two options that were commutable. One was north of us and the other midtown in an area called Liberty City. I was all set to send the kids to the school north of us when I got a position at a company based in South Beach. I was concerned about the commute so I looked into the other school which was on the way. It was through that school that I was introduced to AHCAC and the summer of 2014 was changed forever.
The AHCAC camp is in Liberty City, which I came to find out, is one of the worst neighborhoods in Miami and during the summer alone, several people were shot. I never feared for my children’s safety as the school was secure and the shootings were driven by poverty, drugs and gang tension. The kids and families that were in the camp were the ones that had a clue as to what their children needed, especially in such an impoverished area — their children needed to sing.
By sing I mean metaphorically, but for some literally too. These kids who are surrounded by so much despair, so many bad influences, need to rise above, let themselves be heard, and see another way their lives could go. AHCAC offers that.
My kids are the lucky ones. They are half-white, have a good education, and live in a safe, clean home. But most of the youth that attended that camp were not as lucky. The camp was an oasis in a desert of poverty, ignorance, and negativity. It was because of the tremendous challenges these kids had to overcome that their accomplishments were that much more amazing. Here is a slideshow of just some of the recital performances.
We live in an unfair world. One where the color of your skin can impact your future. I know that most white Americans, even liberal ones, would like to think that we have progressed to the point where the color of your skin doesn’t not matter much. But that is flat out denial as the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and other areas have proven. As a mother of children who are of mixed race, I can testify first hand that skin color does still matter very much. At the camp, my kids were glaringly white in comparison and the reality is that their life was much more comfortable than the majority of the other camp participants. But in contrast, when my kids are in an all white group, their ethnicity stands out and the other kids often display a noticeable discomfort at the “unknown” culture they contain. None of this is out and out racism but rather a subtle, permeating feeling of difference on both sides.
That difference is often not helped by the families themselves, as legendary comedian Bill Cosby points out. He can say things that, as a white person, I can not, but I know it to be true. Ignorance breeds more ignorance and the problem gets bigger. Black youth, especially males, have the deck stacked against them in a big way. If they grow up without a decent education, wearing their pants around their ankles and talking like their don’t know English, their chances of escaping poverty are slim to none. At the AHCAC camp, these kids that could have easily been lost causes, were taught not only how to sing and dance but how to respect themselves and others.
If only we could replicate programs like this across the country we could have fewer racial tensions, emptier prisons, less violence, and more joy.
So as I watched these performances I was filled by such emotion because I realized that my kids were not the only lucky ones, all of these kids were. They had a chance, a hand up, a future. I am so blessed that I got to witness that.
Here are some video clips of the performances:
Learn more about the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center.