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Cambridge youth talk about race, violence, past, future

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A youth-led event to mark the culmination of Black History Month provoked in-depth discussions about history, race and identity in Cambridge on Saturday. Taking as its starting point a quote from Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” an array of singers, dancers and speakers reflected on the idea that “my soul has grown deep.”

Vadeline Jones, youth activities coordinator at the Francis J. Frisoli Sr. Youth Center on Willow Street, kicked things off with a question.

“What is a noun?” she asked, nodding as a chorus of voices recited, “Person, place or thing.”

“What I want us to do today is, I want us to get caught up in the noun,” she said, “which means the people, the places and the things that have brought us here today. Through dances, songs, literature, images, we want to go back to the source.”

Many of the evening’s performances, artistic displays and administrative activities were the work of the youth center’s Leaders in Action, a group of 12 high school students who meet three times a week to plan events for the community, Jones explained.

They painted colorful murals celebrating the Harlem Renaissance, compiled a timeline of historical events from the 19th and 20th centuries, and conducted interviews for a 10-minute video entitled “Does Racism Still Exist?”

The video — which featured questions about overt versus subtle racism, “acting white” versus “acting black,” and the face-off between Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who is white, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is African American, for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming election — provoked a flurry of discussion from the audience.

“People tell me I ‘act white’ because I’m always smiling or because of my hand movements,” said Leaders in Action member Doulovely Nazaire. “But … I don’t know. I don’t think I act white.”

“I don’t even know what ‘acting white’ means,” another member said.

Elizabeth Asefa, a junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) and a former Leaders in Action participant, added that such statements seemed to her tantamount to “disrespecting your own race.”

“If you’re saying you’re ‘acting white’ if you’re acting educated, it’s as if you can only be educated if you’re white,” she noted.

Cambridge resident Greg Green, 21, said that he deals with the repercussions of stereotypes on a daily basis.

“When I walk into a particular store, I’m constantly being followed down the aisle and I know what people are thinking,” he said. “‘He has baggy jeans, he has to be ghetto. Maybe he’s going to stick something in his pocket.’”

Green earned a round of applause when he said he refused to bend to such perceptions.

“That’s not me. I’m trying to get educated and just live my life,” he said.

Naima Abdullahi, a senior at CRLS and a Leaders in Action member, read an essay about Ernest Just, a black biologist who graduated from Dartmouth in 1907 but could not find a job as a professor at predominantly white colleges and universities. Abdullahi said she identified with certain aspects of Just’s struggles, citing challenges she has faced based on her gender or manner of dress.

“Sometimes I know I’m the right fit for something but I might not get it, not because I’m black but maybe because I wear a hijab [a head and body covering worn by Arabic women] or because I am female,” she said.

She said she related most to Just because of his determination to succeed and that his story reinforced to her the importance of history and of remembering the past.

“Education makes a difference,” she said. “Just talking about him now makes a difference.”

The event was dedicated to the memory of 18-year-old Cambridge resident Lucien Christalin, who died Feb. 8 as a result of a gunshot wound to the chest. Many of the performances revealed a community of youth struggling to understand his death.

Asefa, who also read an essay she composed for the evening, reflected on the words of Hughes’ poem as they resonated with her.

“My soul has grown deep, full of the sadness that overwhelms my being when I hear of another death, another loss, another soul,” she said. “My soul has grown deep and it has begun to dig a grave within my heart fearful that the consistent loss of members of my community, my heritage, my color of my Africa will make death natural.”

She closed, however, on a note of hope.

“My soul has grown deep,” she continued, “but I am determined to weep not for this soul of mine, but to plead instead that we deepen our determination to reverse today this history we are writing for tomorrow.”