A person. A photo. A story.
“Everyday, I deal with so many young people of color who have not been bred. They were born, but not bred. They don’t have manners and they don’t respect themselves or others. They say or do whatever they want and have no shame and just don’t care. When I ask why they don’t care, they say that no one taught them that they should care.
“All these kids want to do is go off and make that money rather than be educated and have a nice quality of life and appreciate the beautiful things they find in the world. Problem is that when they do make that money, they don’t know how to spend it. They find themselves embroiled in addictions: human, substance, alcohol, sex, robbery, lying, and cheating. That is why you see so many public officials and people given the trust in our communities doing what they do. It is all because they have not been bred.
“Sadly, many of the people who did try to raise their kids right were made to be pariahs in the neighborhood. People here think that everybody has a right to be free and do what they want all the time. Well, freedom is not free. You have to be responsible for your behavior. Things used to be different. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. If you didn’t do well in school, you were scared to go home. Now, there doesn’t seem to be consequences any more in the home.
“Parents, if kids here are lucky enough to have them, are living this paranoia of wanting their kids to have more than they had when they were young. They don’t want to put their kids through what they went through. Well, if you don’t, they are not going to be as responsible as you are because no one is going to teach them about manners and discipline. This does all of us a great disservice and these parents are letting kids get away with murder, literally. I see it every day.
“As a cultural anthropologist, I have studied all of these issues in our communities through my interest in dance and music. When I started in ballet and modern dance in 1958, my ballet teacher at the Northeast Academy of Dance told me that I would never be a successful dancer because I was dark skinned black. That led me to start doing research on the kinds of dance and cultures my people had before they came to America. Remember, this was the 50’s, so finding this information was not easy. I camped out at every library and went to every international soiree I could to learn about my people. From there, I went to Howard and studied dance and then went off to Africa eight times to travel the villages and meet dance people, musicians and even, cannibals. The whole time, I kept my finger and foot in the community. I did all of this research and travel to help reclaim our culture and bring it to the at-risk youth in D.C. I have committed the last 54 years of my life to that.
“Kids will come in here with the most horrific stories. When I hear them, I can only say that God sent that child here so that I can heal him. When children are here practicing and performing, they don’t think about their problems. They let the music and dance take over and feel like they can accomplish anything. That means that these kids feel like they are something. So many people around here have just given up and feel nothingness in life. If you don’t have anything, then the nothingness that you experience becomes something. Many people fill that nothingness with crime, addiction, and poverty. We try and fill it with hope.
“I can’t tell you that all of the kids who come through here are saved. I have some who went on to commit murder or who stole from me or others, but you don’t give up. You never give up. You keep on your mission that God has given you until he sends you upstairs.”
Melvin Deal is a dancer, musician, choreographer, cultural anthropologist, administrator and teacher. He runs the African Heritage Dance Center at 1320-B Good Hope Rd SE.
“Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. Every Thursday he’ll share a favorite story with us”