I’ll grow up and one day, come back to the place that made me who I am.”
—Owen O., Young Authors’ Book Project student author
Excerpts from Manual Arts Senior High School student Owen O.’s interview with author and former Manual Arts educator Donald Bakeer for the 2018 Young Authors’ Book Project anthology Through the Same Halls.
Donald Bakeer was a teacher in the 1980s. He came to South Central to teach. He taught at several schools but the main one he liked was Manual Arts High School. Donald struggled when he first came to Manual Arts because many students were lost. Those students often sat in the back, but Donald was determined to find ways to reach them. He reached them through poetry—rap music and rhymes. He believes in the power of poetry. He used poetry or rap as a way to express the way he sees things and what he’s going through. He used poetry to gain peace in the eighties because the gang wars were really violent.
Donald has interviewed over 500 gangsters over the period of eleven years. The gangsters were Crips, Bloods, and Mara Salvatrucha. In the eighties, near Manual Arts High School, if you were in a gang, you couldn’t be caught with a book. Literacy was out of style. During his time as an English teacher, he interviewed gang members to learn how they got around. One of the main things in life that motivated them was loyalty.
Owen O.: What were your challenges as a teacher at Manual Arts?
“In my class, I didn’t tell them we were going to write poems. I said we’re going to write rhymes.”
Donald Bakeer: There was a very silent revolt against literacy, where they were anti-literate; they weren’t illiterate. [Students] read at a fourth or fifth-grade level, but they had taken a vow to never read another book again in their lives. The smart kids started writing to them, trying to get them to come back to class, but the gang war was inevitable. It became World War Gangs. I lost literally dozens of students. I had a wall full of students’ pictures that I had lost at Manual.
Sun City Songs was the first book we wrote at Manual Arts; it was an anthology. It was in 1987. It was empowering for the students to write these feelings. The only other way they were being expressed was in rap. Rap, in the late eighties, was forbidden on this campus. So I started a hip-hop club. These anthologies were the beginnings.
We were on the front page of LA Weekly, two editions in a row. What was going on here in Manual was planting the seeds for some dramatic changes. I had the hip-hop club here. Some of my rappers became very famous, internationally. I told them rap was poetry in the 1980’s. I started making raps to show them what those seeds were. It bred a lot of poets. In my class, I didn’t tell them we were going to write poems. I said we’re going to write rhymes, make them drop their differences.
OO: What do you want teenagers today to know about life?
DB: I think for the ones who don’t know that work is the panacea for all problems— we come to school and expect the school to teach them, but don’t realize that they have to teach themselves; they are responsible. They’re the ones who are going to suffer the consequences of how good the education was.
All I want them to know is work works. Work is the only thing I know; it works all the time. Work is the key. If I had to put all the things I think I would like to say to them into that panacea, that would be it. Work your way out of your problems, if it didn’t work out, put a little more work on it. Have confidence in your ability to work things out. “I didn’t want to be a teacher, I was a writer, but the need was so great. It became the reason I got up in the morning…”
“I didn’t want to be a teacher, I was a writer, but the need was so great. It became the reason I got up in the morning…”
DB: Politically, African Americans were second-class citizens in those days. We’re always striving to be upwardly mobile, to do better. My generation was supposed to be the generation that brought us our dreams. I come from that—Martin Luther King, I have a dream, Langston Hughes, “a dream deferred.” This dream of the African American was freedom, justice, and equality. Politically, we did not have it. We suffered years, decades, centuries of slavery. After being free, we found ourselves only partially free.
Many of us were still caught up in illiteracy. Illiteracy is a form of slavery, because illiteracy leads to—in this society—criminal behaviors. If you can’t read in this society, you’ve got to steal. If you steal, you’re going to the penitentiary and you’re going to be, by virtue of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a legal slave. The only legal slaves are those imprisoned in America. There’s a substantial number of us politically, who are still enslaved because we can’t read. We are functionally illiterate. It’s a horrible blight on the African American community. I set out to change it.
We couldn’t create the will to read among these youngsters, they didn’t want to read. I had to appeal to them in the medium they did respect—television and movies. Politically, I foresaw what was getting ready to happen in Hollywood. I saw that the politics of gangs was going to force a genre, so I wrote a gang film. When the gang film came out, it motivated the same anti-liter¬ate kids to see that reading was hip from what they saw in the movie because that was one of the scenes, several scenes. My book began to be stolen from all the libraries, I couldn’t keep them in when I read them in class. It became hip to read. “Politics is people. Politics is moving people, changing traditions, establishing acceptable, civil behaviors.”
“Politics is people. Politics is moving people, changing traditions, establishing acceptable, civil behaviors.”
Levels of violence are determined by high levels of illiteracy in this society. Where there’s high illiteracy, there’s high violence. Now, since literacy is becoming higher and higher, violence in our community has dropped. 1,100 murders a year when I was at Manual. 1,100 gang members a year. I was motivated by the politics. You can’t put it in a Democratic or Republican kind of thing. Politics is people. Politics is moving people, changing traditions, establishing acceptable, civil behaviors.
My religion says, if you see a wrong in society, you should stop that wrong with your hand. If that’s not possible, you should raise your voice against it. If that, too, is not possible, at least you should set your heart against it and realize this is the least of all. I felt like, this is my community. All these kids, they look up to me. I needed to do something. I didn’t want to be a teacher, I was a writer, but the need was so great. It became the reason I got up in the morning.
I relate to my elder as an equal because we’ve been through so many things. We have seen loved ones die. Everybody has seen the violence in the streets and how people don’t care about each other. People think it’s fine to kill anybody. Now is not the same as it was before; you can see any-body with a book and not get beat up like before. People are trying to get out of the hood the fastest way they can. One of the similarities between Donald Bakeer and I is that we have been through the street life, not exactly by being in it, but seeing what people do to each other and why. We both see how careless the violence is around us. We should all help each other succeed as a community. Donald Bakeer and I also have our differences; he was a teacher and I want to be an engineer or a rapper and help out my community. I’ll grow up and one day, come back to the place that made me who I am.
About the Author
Owen O. would like to to go to Cal State Long Beach and become an engineer. Ever since Owen was young, he always liked building things with Legos and fixing things at home. In Owen’s spare time, he likes to make music or write about how he feels through rap.
Photos courtesy of Star Montana and Las Fotos Project.