Sentell Harper is inspiring young Black boys in the South Bronx. And it’s incredible to witness. The theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2 is using spoken word poetry to engage his students in conversations about race.
Harper found Danez Smith’s poem “Alternative Names for Black Boys” in 2014, following the death of Michael Brown. Inspired by Smith’s work, he decided to make a performance piece taking on the same title.
“With the killings of Black men and boys being in the media, it was really just scary in my world,” Harper told CNN. “I thought about the boys I was teaching. … Society won’t see them like I see them. Society will only see them as Black men.”
According to his blog post posted at Success Academies’ website, the piece he created includes works from not just Smith, but Tupac, and Langston Hughes. Harper wanted to let his students know that as Black young men, “they are a gift, they matter, their voice matters, [and] their intelligence matters.”
“We want to prove people wrong about what Black men and boys can do because we might be the future men that could get shot or killed,” performer and student Gregory Hannah told CNN.
Projects like these are why investments in the arts are so important. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts used numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Education and demonstrated that at-potential students partaking in arts courses usually had higher grade point averages and were five times more likely to graduate high school. Additionally, in comparison to 59 percent of white youth ages 18-24, only 28 percent of Black youth and 26 percent of Latinx youth reported to having any arts education.
With President Trump’s proposed cuts to arts education, programming like the theater classes at Success Academy Bronx 2 will be next to impossible to provide for students across the nation. Creating avenues for students, particularly students of color, to discuss and break down heavy issues such as race relations and police brutality are necessary to not just their education, but their overall well being.
Check out the video from CNN down below.