M.K. Asante Jr. - poet, filmmaker, son of Temple professors - grew up among intellectuals, flirted with thug life, and has become a renaissance man.
By Annette John-Hall
Inquirer Staff Writer
M.K. Asante Jr. boasts the kind of resume that would make a writer twice his age proud.
He's that rare artist who has won awards for both poetry and filmmaking. And he's got pedigree to boot, as the son of Temple professor Molefi Kete Asante, creator of the Afrocentricity movement, and Temple dance scholar Kariamu Welsh.
All of that, and the world-traveled Asante, 23, has yet to finish his formal education. He's due to receive his master's degree in fine arts from UCLA in the spring.
To be sure, Asante's second book of poetry, Beautiful. But Ugly Too. (Africa World Press), penetrates, casting an unflinching eye on humanity through a historical kaleidoscope. But he's no entitled, intellectual snob-in-training.
It's hard to believe that the young man whose sophisticated sheen brings to mind the artists of the Harlem Renaissance was a teenage would-be thug. Not until he switched high schools did he discover his passion.
He told his father he wanted to be a writer. The elder Asante, a prolific author who developed a field of scholarship centered on blacks across the African diaspora, gave his son 25 books and said, "In order to be a good writer you have to be a good reader," the son said.
So the younger Asante (pronounced ah-SAHN-tay) read works by Jack Kerouac ("On the Road changed my life"), Amiri Baraka, and Langston Hughes, among others.
Beautiful. And Ugly Too. takes its title from a line in a Hughes essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," written for the Nation in 1926. It reads: "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too... . We stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
"That essay always stuck out," says Asante, who adds that though he has not yet attained artistic freedom, he is ascending. "When you're climbing, you never know where your art is until you take a pause. I took a pause and wrote this book."
His first collection, Like Water Running Off My Back, won the Academy of American Poets Jean Corrie Prize. The prestigious annual award for college students has singled out such notables as Sylvia Plath and J.D. McClatchy.
"He has remarkable energy and compassion," says Lee Upton, a professor of English who taught Asante at Lafayette College in Easton. His work, she says, "has a generosity of spirit and is filled with political perspective."
In Beautiful, Asante's poems are more reflective, paying homage to those who came before.
"Molefi uses history as a way to explain the present. Very few people have that," notes Philadelphia playwright Charles Fuller, whose 1982 Pulitzer Prize- winning drama, A Soldier's Play, is being reprised Off-Broadway. "He's not one of those young people whose understanding goes back [only] to the Beatles."
In the new volume, Asante introduces a form called "screen poems," which use dialogue, verse, even director's cues. A piece titled "Sinema Noir" illustrates this poetic experiment. "The goal is to eventually take the screen poems and make films out of them," says Asante, who will graduate with a master's in screenwriting.
He also addresses politics, racial identity, and misogyny in hip-hop.
"Ghetto Booty: The Hottentot Remix" is dedicated to Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman who was dubbed "the Hottentot Venus" by the 19th-century Europeans who exhibited her as a curiosity because of her protuberant backside. Asante's poem draws a parallel to the exploitation of women in rap videos:
I'm ashamed, only because, if that was then, - where was I, and the rest of our men?/ Must have been studying them, for how to treat daughters, scattered to Atlantic winds./ We've become masters.
When it is suggested that he is part of the hip-hop generation, Asante cringes.
"I define myself as post-hip-hop... . 'Hip-hop' doesn't respond anymore. It's dormant and stagnant. It's a good corporate tool for branding, not a musical genre.
"I kind of think the first step in defining who you are is defining who you are not. Right now, I define myself as a black writer writing in America."
Asante's mother isn't surprised at her son's choice of his life's work, given his upbringing.
He "grew up with all kinds of [artists and intellectuals] coming to the house," says Welsh, who was divorced from Asante's father in 2002. "He was dragged to all the seminars and book signings."
Yet he struggled to find himself. He was kicked out of Friends Select in the eighth grade for writing graffiti in bathrooms and on the building walls. "I wouldn't just tag a name. Sometimes I would write little questions or phrases that, at the time, I thought were deep," Asante says. "I felt culturally and personally invisible."
At Samuel Fels High School, he barely made passing grades.
"Basically, all the black kids wanted to be 'down' and miss class," Asante says. "Even then, I was focused - I worked hard at doing bad stuff."
It wasn't until 10th grade, when his parents enrolled him at the Crefeld School, that Asante blossomed. The small private academy in Chestnut Hill for students with artistic sensibilities made classes optional and stressed self-expression. "There was a lot of intellectual and ideological diversity," he says.
Asante created his own agenda at Lafayette College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English. Like Water Running Off My Back was published during his sophomore year. He spent his junior year based at the University of London, from which he traveled to 20 countries to write and coproduce 500 Years Later, a documentary that examines the struggle for freedom throughout the African diaspora.
Directed by Owen Alik Shahadah, the 2005 film examines the psycho-cultural effects of slavery. Interviewees include South African Desmond Tutu, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and local activist Charles Gray, better known as the "Mayor of Germantown."
This year, Later won the documentary award at the Pan African Film Festival. It also was picked as best film in the Black Berlin International Cinema competition, and won the international-documentary prize at the Harlem International Film Festival.
After Asante graduated from college, he became engaged to visual artist Maya Freelon, 22, daughter of jazz singer Nnenna Freelon and architect Philip Freelon, who codesigned the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore.
A wedding date has not been set for the Lafayette classmates, but both sets of parents are proud.
"She is perfect for him," the elder Asante says of Freelon, who is pursuing an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The next step for Asante is earning a doctorate, possibly in the Boston area. "I'd like to create my art from an academic base," he says.
And though he plans to be an academician, Asante says he feels no pressure to live up to his family's legacy of achievement.
"I feel more pressure to be a good citizen. A good person for my race, for my community, for my country."
For Asante Sr., that validates "what I tried to teach. The joy for me is seeing someone who understands his mission."
keep from falling;
keep from crying;
keep from calling;
keep from trying.
by not flying.
- M.K. Asante Jr.
From Beautiful. And Ugly Too.