My mother was big on education because she was a history teacher. She was part of an era in which schools were segregated. In my mother’s words, she felt that was good because the education was centered around her and her community. My mother also understood the harmful effects of segregation and unequal access to education, and quickly pointed out that she was talking from her experience only. But I can understand her statement because I thought the curriculum did not speak to me when I was in school. I will use my mother’s experience to speak about how I was put on the educational pathway. She was the first person in her family to attend college. She went to Tuskegee University. She felt in that University, she was fed the knowledge she needed to make a difference in the world. That is why she became a school teacher and set out to make a difference.
My mother named me an African name because she always wanted me to know my history. Learning my name and its meaning was my first brush with literacy and knowledge. At a young age, I learned about Africa, slavery, ancient kingdoms, and things Black people contributed to building America and the world up. At the time, I did not fully understand what I was learning and how it shaped me. I was more like a parrot just reciting what I learned, while what I knew did not take shape inside me.
As I grew older, things started to happen to my mind, soul, and body. What I learned was to help me navigate a dark period in my life. I have read many books, but it was not until I read Malcolm X’s autobiography that things started to have meaning and value. In the past, I was reading but did not truly value what I was reading, and writing was not valued in my life at the time.
When I started writing and reading the words on my paper, I began paying attention to what I was reading. The exciting thing was that my first letter was to someone in prison. That opens my mind to words, reading, and valuing what I am reading. I was open to another world and challenged to dream and, most importantly, care about what I was dreaming. Thinking back, this was a turning point that would become my guidepost for my future. Right after that encounter, I made a series of bad decisions leading to prison. I didn’t know it then, but writing those letters were the moments that prepared me for what was coming next in my life.
I was attending Fort Valley State College before I went to prison and I had a plan during my first month in prison to go back to college and finish my degree. As I sat in my prison cell, plotting my next move, I heard some commotion in the dayroom. I looked out my window and saw a group of men around the bulletin board. I read the memo, and it said all college programs would be discontinued in the prison system. My heart just broke into a thousand pieces. As I was walking to my cell, a person handed me a book by George Jackson called Soledad Brother. I read a passage saying that the library is a Black university. Immediately, I went downstairs to sign up for the library.
I remember being unable to sleep because my mind was on what I would find at the library. The library is the most powerful resource for learning and researching (Miller & Paola, 2019, p.89). I remember reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and how Malcolm read the whole dictionary and decided to follow his example. I started with the letter A and began to replace words that had meaning. Then I replaced my slang, like “What up cuz” with “How are you doing today.” I started with that first. I felt I should ask for help or be understood, and I must learn to communicate effectively. I spoke many slang words and felt no one would take me seriously if I did not know how to communicate effectively. I was blessed that the library had a dictionary you could have, and I liked that because I could take my time.
I started copying the dictionary and incorporating the words into my vocabulary to better myself. I remember I used to sit down with my pencil and paper with my headphones and write my words. I thought better when I had my music in my ears, and my vocabulary seemed to grow. Music helps me see my thoughts and put them on paper to express myself more. Music can be a powerful tool to help you define yourself and strengthen yourself (Miller & Paola, 2019, p.73). All I know is that I was improving in speaking and learning more, and I can say, as George Jackson said, the library became my University.
Reflecting on the many journeys that I took in life, these are the ones that shape me the most. You can see my mother was an enormous figure in my life, not just because she is the woman who gave birth to me. She embodied the meaning of revolutionary change in mind, body, and soul. As much as my educational journey has been defined by Malcolm X and George Jackson, it was first defined by my mother.