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The new cool kids

Part of a rising counterculture, smart, black teenagers are flexing their intelligence instead of hiding it.

By Meghan Irons
Globe Staff / March 22, 2009
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There was a time in Myriam Piquant's young life when she refused to admit she was smart.

So she kept quiet about her good grades to her neighborhood friends. In elementary and middle school, she didn't let on to fellow students about where she lived (Mattapan) or her cultural difference (Haitian), or her goals in life (lawyering).

Today Piquant is not afraid to show her achievements.

"I don't care," the 17-year-old said one evening as she sat in her family's small living room in Mattapan. Her father, Jacques, a taxi driver, was nearby, arms folded and face swelling with pride. "My parents would tell me that 'you go to school for an education, not for your friends,' " added Myriam. "I was smart. And I knew I was smart. . . . Now I surround myself with people who want to go somewhere."

So on Saturday mornings, you won't find Piquant, a junior at Beaver Country Day School in Brookline, loafing around in front of the TV. Instead, she heads several times a year to Harvard University, where she and other like-minded black high schoolers in a group called the Du Bois Society meet to grapple with scholarly work.

One recent morning, more than a dozen teens discussed the text of "We Who Are Dark" by Harvard scholar Tommie Shelby.

They tackled black solidarity, how Barack Obama has affected their lives, and the impact of their own experiences growing up in neighborhoods like Mattapan and Dorchester, where some teens still think getting a C in class is just as good as getting an A.

After the intellectual jamfest, 16-year-old Darnell Normil of Hyde Park described the Du Bois program's appeal.

"It brightens my ideals," said Normil, who attends Community Academy of Science and Health in Hyde Park and joined the program last fall to improve his knowledge of literature.

As for the Obama effect, Normil said: "Once he became president, it put pressure on me to work hard and strive more."

Youth trend specialists say groups like the Du Bois Society are part of a rising counterculture that is aiming to break the stigma among black kids that being smart is uncool.

"This is not the culture of low expectations" anymore, said Neil Howe, historian, demographer, and co-author of "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation." "What's new is the fact that you have these growing islands of active resistance, the refusal to accept that."

The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, who co-founded the Du Bois Society in 2001 with his wife, Jacqueline, and facilitators of the program say their aim is to build young leaders by breaking down the "social isolation and feelings of conspicuousness" often associated with high-achieving black kids.

"One of the developments of the last 40 years has been the evolution of an antiintellectual culture that . . . rejected academic achievement as at best corny and at worst white," said Rivers. "What we are really dealing with in the Du Bois Society is not others' opinions of our kids, but their opinions of themselves, of each other, and of their culture. Our objective is to transform their image of themselves. . . . The fact that between 25 and 30 black students come together on a Saturday morning to study the work of such a distinguished collection of scholars is in and of itself revolutionary."

Smart kids, no matter their color, are nothing new. Many have triumphed against insurmountable odds - single parents, broken homes, crime, and poverty - to develop businesses, head establishments, govern a state, or lead a nation.

But some have paid the price as kids, suffering ridicule and rejection by their peers. In past years, and perhaps even now, smart black kids would hide their good grades and proper diction under a cloak of souped-up bravado, high fashion, and slang.

That is changing. Now, perhaps riding on the rise of prominent post-civil rights black leaders including Obama, more and more black kids are stepping up the smart quotient with a new level of pride.

Those who track youth culture are taking notice of this segment of the millennial generation - the name for today's youths who are raised to be confident and to believe they are special, and told they have the power to change their world. These observers characterize millennials as far more engaged than their Generation X predecessors.

Author E. Kinney Zalesne calls them "black super-achievers," teens rising under the radar and shattering stereotypes.

When it comes to indicators of good citizenship - voting, volunteering, and religious participation - many black teens are succeeding, with little notice, said Zalesne, who co-authored "Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes."

"The notion of achievement is [more ] deeply embedded in the African-American culture than most people give it credit for," Zalesne said in a recent phone interview.

Tim Turner, a Harvard student and a Du Bois Society teaching facilitator, said the program and others like it help pair motivated teens with kids who also have their eyes on the prize.

"It's a nice way to show there are black students who are achieving in the classroom. I'm sure people are familiar with the acting white phenomenon," he said, referring to the term used to define high-achieving black teens. "Some students are excluded from their black peers because they are doing well in school."

Overcoming the odds isn't easy. From 2004 to 2008, black college enrollment increased, but a dismal 55 percent of African-Americans who enroll in college do not graduate, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Blacks have yet to significantly close the achievement gap, lagging behind whites in virtually every measure of achievement - national math and reading test scores, high school completion rates, and - even with the recent enrollment increases - college graduation rates, according to the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.

That's not the only troubling news. Black-on-black youth crime remains a huge problem. The Globe recently reported that many city youths no longer feel that being young is a refuge against crime.

Those teens, the perpetrators and the victims, are often dominant figures in the news, filling newspapers with stories about youths run amok.

Despite those stories, the specialists say there is a renewed and hopeful push for achievement, particularly with the rise of charter schools and groups like the Du Bois Society, named after W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African-American to get a doctorate at Harvard.

"It is less and less about how black youth have gone wrong," Zalesne writes, "and more and more about how they have gone right."

Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, said that for years, discussions about young blacks were negative, even though the data proved otherwise.

"They were seen as this big problem," he said in a recent interview. But "that was an exaggeration because there have always been impressive kids. Now the pendulum has swung."

At the Du Bois Society, high school teens - from public, private, and parochial schools throughout the area - meet six Saturdays each year at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research or at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester's Four Corners to discuss assigned readings.

This year, 35 teens are participating in the program.

"For the kids who come here, we are able to create that sense that it doesn't deny their identity as black teenagers to do good in school . . . or to grapple with readings like this," said Jacqueline Rivers.

During a break on that recent Saturday, Taylor Parker , a 17-year-old from Grove Hall, said she learned about the program at her school, Milton Academy, and thought it would improve her studies.

When asked if she thought she's a super achiever, Parker simply shook her head.

"I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," she said.

"There is nothing super about it."

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

W. E. DuBois Society

Co-founded by the Rev. Eugene Rivers and his wife, Jacqueline.

In its eight years, more than 300 have gone through the program.

Students who have graduated have gone to Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Northeastern, Boston College, Yale, and Duke.

The aim is to enhance high school students of African descent who attend public, parochial, and independent schools.

Hosted by Dorchester's Ella J. Baker House and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.

SOURCE: W.E.B. Du Bois Institute website

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