I remember cracking open my first history textbook at Hickey Elementary School and seeing the first image of someone who looked like me. It was an image of a black man, silenced by a muzzle, blinded by a black eye, and scarred by a whip during the Atlantic slave trade.
A few years later, I witnessed my first drive-by shooting walking home from Yeatman Middle School. In broad daylight, as students were being dismissed, two black men fired off rounds at another group of young black men.
During my years at Soldan High School, I had great teachers; however, I often thought about how much more empowering my experience would be if I had a black male teacher. Back home on Penrose, I was blessed to be raised by a praying grandmother and a hard-working single mother and, although they did a spectacular job, I was longing for a king.
Before I went off to undergrad at Mizzou in 2009, my grandmother read to me 1 Peter 2:9 and reminded me that I was a "chosen" someone from a “royal priesthood” with the blood of a king running in and through me. But within my first year, I encountered several racial incidents that made me second-guess my belonging.
One morning, I woke up to “go home ni**er” written on the bathroom mirror. The next morning someone spread cotton balls across the lawn and entrance of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Later that day, a professor asked students what city and high school we came from. When I said I had graduated from Saint Louis Public Schools, he paused and said, “Wow, we should all give you a round of applause – you must be the best of the worst.”
These incidents motivated me to start iGUIDE, an organization dedicated to increasing the retention and graduation rate of first-generation college students from inner cities.
I was always passionate about education, so I applied for and was accepted by Teach for America-St. Louis. I started my career as a teacher just days after the police killing of Michael Brown. I could see myself in my students. At the time, I did not know that many of them were seeing themselves in me. They were longing for a king. Many of the young black males began to view me as a role model, mentor, and father figure.
Those relationships ultimately inspired me to create Kings of Distinction (KOD). KOD is a male mentoring program at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School that focuses on building and sustaining academic excellence, leadership development, and community service.
We discussed what it meant to be a king and how one can become a king. We talked about the importance of being a king and being surrounded by other kings. James Baldwin reminded us that our crown has already been bought and paid for and all we have to do is wear it. Our longing for a king came to a revelatory end. We realized that we were the kings we were longing for.
Here is how you can help us reveal the king within every young black male in St. Louis.
Stop teaching us grit and applauding our resilience without fighting against the issues that require us to have these characteristics. Advocate for schools to adopt a culturally responsive culture and curriculum that advocates for social justice. If you are a black male, consider education as a profession. Support established and data-proven programs that are genuinely doing this work. Stop telling us to become successful just so that we can neglect the ‘hood.
Love and nurture all black males by realizing the king within each of them.
Kaylan D. Holloway teaches at Saint Louis Public Schools and is an adjunct professor at Harris-Stowe State University and doctoral candidate at Maryville University.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.