Sankofa is an African word from the Akan … in Ghana. The literal translation of the word and the symbol is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” —Carter G. Woodson Center, Berea College
Meditating on the death of a break-through mentor of mine. When I was 23, Dr. Irving S. Hamer, Jr. (January 6, 1946 – May 4, 2019) hired me to teach Language Arts to 14-21-year-old high school students at the Park Heights Street Academy, in Northwest Baltimore. I taught at the Academy from 1978 to 1980, when I left to attend the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, at UC Berkeley.
Irv’s influence started with his jazzy first interview of me, before there was even a building for the Academy. We sat in his apartment study in a high-rise across from Druid Hill Park. After he hired me for my first teaching job, I was imprinted by his quiet, but declarative demeanor, and by his erudite style – complete with a sleek brown Jaguar coupe. Then once in flow with the Academy’s rigorous faculty – which was ‘multicultural’ before the term was drained of its power – I was swept up by his demanding standards.
Our staff meetings were like graduate seminars on urban education. He led us in rich conversations designed to raise the entire staff’s IQ, to focus on actual teaching and learning, and to place our educational work within an international context. And when we were all EXASPERATED by one or more knuckleheads, he’d listen to our whining and wishes for expulsion. Then he’d smile and dismiss our complaints. ‘We’re in business to educate just that student! This is why we’re paid the big bucks! Let’s figure it out!’
No student was expendable. We earned our chops succeeding with so-called ‘difficult’ students. Chagrined, we’d take that deep breath – faculty from India, Ghana, Guyana, and African America – and dive back into each class wielding every intellectual and emotional tool we could muster on behalf of our students. I felt Irv was particularly challenging me. I was only 5 years out of high school myself. I myself had been a bright student whose underperformance exasperated teachers. If I were ready to expel a kid, instead of marshaling the energy, ideas and creative pedagogy to inspire a student, how the hell could I call myself a teacher! The Headmaster’s belief in me, his expectations of me, and his faith in the potential of so-called at-risk students fueled me then and it fuels me now.
For sure, Dr. Irving S. Hamer Jr. was a complex man. After the Street Academy, he’d go on to dynamic and controversial and innovative high-performance positions in New York, Memphis and Miami. For me, he was a formative member of a cohort of men who – after my father, uncles and big brothers – taught me to trust myself by trusting me with substantial responsibility. They hired me to teach, to write newspaper columns, to edit publications. I trace a direct line from their confidence in me to my confidence in myself.
Irv and I never worked together again, but over the years we’d swap a note or talk by phone. I’d send him clips of my writing. He’d turn me on to an editor at a NY publishing house. Introduce me to jazz and orchestral music. In perhaps the most satisfying flip for me: Irv let me publish a tender personal essay he wrote about raising his son, in Genetic Dancers, a magazine ‘for and about The Artistry Within African/American Fathers’ that I published during the 1980s.
In the spirit of Sankofa, and in honor of The Headmaster, I’ll conclude by excerpting below “The Headmaster & the Sports Editor,” an essay included in The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right.’
FROM THE HEADMASTER & THE SPORTS EDITOR:
On my first morning with The Headmaster, it was sundown in the room. The lights in his study were nightclub subtle. In the background, moody John Coltrane saxophone curled from hidden speakers…. Dr. Irving S. Hamer, Jr. was simply the suavest brother I’d ever met in a professional setting … as self contained as Miles Davis, in full effect as the Prince of Darkness… He’s sitting behind his desk with his legs crossed, as if he were Miles on break, nursing a drink and waiting for me work up my nerve to ask if I could sit-in once his band reassembled on stage. Predictably, Dr. Hamer speaks in this subsonic tone of voice that makes me lean forward to hear, and makes me speak softly my own damn self. This was the coolest and scariest job interview I’d ever had and it hadn’t even started yet!
He even asks me if I wanted some mineral water and I said, uh, sure.
I damn near choked on my first taste of Perrier carbonation.
Finally, Dr. Hamer asks me whether I could teach Black teenagers how to write.
“How would you go about teaching them? Why do you want to teach at the Academy? What’s your teaching philosophy? Do you think that Black teenaged drop outs have what it takes to be taught in an academically rigorous environment?”
The Prince of Darkness is not bullshitting!
At that moment, I swear I felt myself maturing, like in time-stop photography. I sat up more erectly in my chair. Right then and there I knew I wanted to work with this man.
Teaching was the most demanding, exasperating, triumphant work I’ve ever done as a professional. Orchestrating a classroom with 15-20 students staring at me made me a man.
… By selecting me to become a Street Academy teacher, he allowed me to contribute to the heroic history of African American education, a legacy that included grammar and cross-cultural lessons among captives on slave ships, brush arbor reading sessions, mutual aid societies, one-room rural schools, nascent public schools during Reconstruction after the Civil War, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. By hiring me, Irv also became another member of that beautiful community of Black men who have since childhood demonstrated their faith in my actual talents and my potential. [T]hey knew how to conduct my idealism, my genius, into the direction of freedom.
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right’ : “… Go head on, brother…. Maybe not triumph, just yet. But go head on and see what the end’s going to be …. In our journey to brotherhood, we’ve become thoroughly human and abundantly on display ….” www.blackmanofhappiness.com/shop