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In Summerville, Muhiyidin D'Baha's work lives on in a free youth academy

From the Block Up

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On Tuesdays and Thursdays, at one end of the shortest strip mall you've ever seen, the unfulfilled vision of a slain Charleston Black Lives Matter activist comes to life.

Five boys and one girl form a half-moon around a table inside the compact Summerville Community Resource Center. Shortly after watching a video of men playing Fanga, a percussion rhythm from Liberia, the children are instructed to use what they've heard to bang out a beat on their own sets of drums. Two fans circulate air around the dark room. The lights have been turned off to accommodate the projector.

Johnathan Thrower, who goes by the name Shakem Akhet, holds a marker to the board while a kid raps a line from "Stir Fry" by Migos. Built of the large and huggable variety, Thrower wisecracks like a surrogate older brother as he asks the children to describe how they feel when they play the drums.

Vibration. Boom. Energetic. Peace.

"Describe peaceful," Thrower fires back.

"Inner peace. Once you get there, you can come back, or you can stay there for a long time," says one child, unsure if even he understands the depth of his words.

Muhiyidin D'Baha left traces of his plans for the Lowcountry's disenfranchised youth before his sudden death following a suspected armed robbery in New Orleans in February. In a website for "Building from the Block Up," the provocative activist laid out a noble, if tautological, plan for a resource network of young people committed to a "just and sustainable future."

On the homepage is a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war."

Thrower's Muhiyidin D'Baha Leadership Academy, which opened on June 6, is a tribute to those words and to D'Baha's legacy.

When asked what sparked the creation of the afternoon learning program, he points to a picture of D'Baha hanging on the wall.

"He coined a term, African Liberation Schools, so we would always sit down and discuss how that looked," Thrower said. "In "the Block Up," Muhiyidin stated that this is one of the things we want our children to do: culturally embrace who we really are. And on top of that, we understand that reading, math, and science play a part in understanding our culture, because we've made contributions in different areas."

Thrower says that he and Muhiyidin had sat down with school board members, community leaders, and fellow activists with early plans for the academy before his death.

Like Muhiyidin himself, the program focuses on righting innumerable social wrongs. While empowering black children by teaching them about successful African-American inventors, authors, businesspersons, activists, and athletes, it also incorporates talks about the Gullah/Geechee culture, which Thrower says is wildly underrepresented in curricula across the area's school districts. Then come the cultural and artistic elements, hence the drumming. But most of all, it's a place where black kids can learn about themselves among other black kids.

"So instead of children seeing fight videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we will be able to have a space where we can show them blacks in business, blacks in science, black Ph.Ds, black lawyers, black doctors, successful black businessmen, entrepreneurs," Thrower says, referring to videos of after-school taunts and scuffles that are popular on YouTube and Instagram. "We want to be able to provide a safe space where the mind can soak in positive imagery."

The premise echoes the prescriptions of cultural critic Harold Cruse, who in 1967 argued for self-sustaining African American communities that don't rely on white institutions to help them succeed in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Such reliance, he posited, ultimately dilutes the cause of black liberation and hampers the community's ability to build a sustainable economy.

"We want to be independent," Thrower says, promising that the school year will bring more personalized tutoring in traditional subjects.

Louis L. Smith, who opened the resource center in 2013, was on board with the academy as soon as Thrower proposed it.

"That was right after Muhiyidin was killed," Smith recalls. "We presented it to the board and the board said absolutely, no problem at all. We proudly embrace this."

For both Smith and some of the parents whose children are in the program, Thrower's doting presence serves as a counterpoint to what they see as an absence of strong male role models in black children's lives, whether due to mass incarceration, violence, or other factors.

"The system hasn't been too kind to the black males," Smith says. "And we are trying to alleviate that problem."

Outside of the community center, David Hall, 31, says that his two boys are not at risk of loitering their way down a negative path.

"But there are kids that don't have a strong father figure in their life that need something structural," he adds. "Things like this, what Shakem is doing, it's good. It has its good. You're around a whole bunch of kids who looks like you, and it's helpful."

He says he worries about the quality of African-American education taught in Dorchester County.

"I'm not putting nobody on the spot saying that this reason or that reason, but there's a lot of things you don't learn dealing with African Americans," Hall says.

Priscilla Jeffery, a board member of the Charleston County School District and an early supporter of the Muhiyidin D'Baha Leadership Academy, thinks the curriculum in her district should be updated to reflect this concern.

"I absolutely agree with the parents," she said in a message sent from West Africa, where she is working on CPASGhana, an educational nonprofit she founded in 2011 that provides microloans for women and girls to go to school.

"From what I know, CCSD does not offer enough in-depth African-American history," Jeffery said. "Because of the past and present history of Charleston, I believe we need to do a better job in this area, so all students have a better understanding of the past history as it relates to present day Charleston County."

Jeffery opined that if less attention were placed on political matters like getting rid of the superintendent, more could be done to enhance the curriculum for the benefit of all children.

A spokesperson for Dorchester County School District 2 told CP that she welcomes the idea of partnering with the academy, but that neither she nor assistant superintendent Julie Kornahrens were previously aware of it.

Back at the center, the kids are finally allowed computer time after answering questions about Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens.

One particularly intrepid child's screen plays a YouTube video showing the growth of XXXTentacion, a controversial SoundCloud rapper known for his genre-switching, chart-topping albums and charges of false imprisonment, witness tampering, and aggravated battery against his pregnant ex-girlfriend. The 20-year-old was gunned down by masked men in South Florida last month.

"Understanding that there's more to life than gold teeth, guns, fast cars," Hall says, listing off the worries that drove him to bring his kids to the academy. "There's more to life than money. What's in your head can never be taken away from you."

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