Poet, 7, Sets Off Racial Controversy


March 14, 2006 — -- A 7-year-old New York poet has fired up adults following a racially charged performance at a middle school.

Autum Ashante, who is home-schooled and lives with her father in Mount Vernon, was invited by a music teacher to present her poetry during a Black History Month program at Peekskill Middle School on Feb. 28. She has written her own poetry and performed in front of audiences since she was 4.

Before reciting a poem, Ashante asked only the black students in the audience to stand and recite with her the "Black Child's Pledge" by the Black Panther Party's Shirley Williams. It begins, "I pledge allegiance to my black people. I pledge to develop my mind and body to the greatest extent possible. I will learn all that I can in order to give my best to my people in their struggle for liberation."

Ashante then presented her poem "White Nationalism Put U In Bondage," which rails against Christopher Columbus, J.P. Morgan and Charles Darwin: "White nationalism is what put you in bondage. Pirate and vampires like Columbus, Morgan and Darwin."

"Black lands taken from your hands, by vampires with no remorse," the poem states. "They took the gold, the wisdom and all of the storytellers. They took the black women, with the black man weak."

The conflict began when the school district apologized for the performance in phone messages left for parents, which upset others who believed Ashante had a right to express herself.

Some thought it was her tone that riled the audience. "Someone so angry, the way she presented it, which acting-wise is what she did, but the way it was perceived, a lot of people took offense to it probably," said Mel Bolden, who invited Ashante to perform.

"We live in a culturally diverse community," said parent Chantell Peeples, "and I think she certainly added an element to a black history program that was maybe a little different, but I think it was certainly well received. As a parent, I wasn't upset at all."

But Peekskill City School District Superintendent Judith Johnson told ABC News it was Ashante's actions -- not her words -- that the principal apologized for.

"She's not been banned. She's not been censored," Johnson said, adding, "She came to an assembly and faced a culturally diverse group of kids and asked the black kids to stand and recite a pledge. ... Everybody, black and white, was pretty upset by it."

She said that students complained to the school's principal after the assembly. "Kids were coming into his office very, very upset that somebody would do that in a school where we never, never divide by color."

The phone messages to parents said the school apologized if their children were offended by the behavior. "No one knew that she was going to do this," Johnson said. "If this were a classroom and there was an opportunity for discussion and dialogue, it would not be an issue."

Ashante has received support from the Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Councilman CharlesBarron, a former Black Panther.

The incident is the latest free-speech controversy in public schools following the suspension and re-instatement earlier this month of Colorado teacher Jay Bennish, who compared President Bush's State of the Union remarks to speeches by Adolf Hitler.

For her part, Ashante, who has performed on Showtime at the Apollo and HBO's Def Poetry Jam, said she would like to present her poems around the world, adding that she's concerned about the reaction to her work.

"I feel confused and a little saddened about what it might do to my career," she said. "They are just making a big fuss about a poem."

Her father, Batin Ashante, said he is "really, really proud of her."

"I will encourage her to continue to do what she does and not to be offensive," he said, "not to be rude."

ABC News' New York affiliate WABC-TV contributed to this report.

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