Activist encourages kids to stand up for others
Published 1:38 pm, Wednesday, January 20, 2016
After drawing laughs as New Canaan Country School students stumbled at his challenge to repeat his African name, Omekongo Dibinga turned serious.
As a child, Dibinga said his name made him an easy target of racist taunts from children in the Boston suburb where he grew up.
“Part of the reason I make jokes and play games with my name now is because when I was in school and I was your age I couldn’t do that,” Dibinga said. “People hated me simply because of my name . . . I would come to school with an African necklace and get punched in the face.”
Elementary school in suburban Boston was a daily trial of being called names and bullied because of being the son of parents who came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, his family’s poverty, and cultural characteristics such as his hair and clothing, Dibingo told the students. More memorable than the taunting was that those who might have helped him were more numerous than those who tormented him, Dibinga said.
“At the end of the day we will remember less the words of our enemies than the silence of our friends,” Dibinga said, quoting the Dr. Martin Luther King. “I remember more the people who did nothing than the people who hurt me.”
Dibinga, a poet, established hip hop musician, and professor of cross cultural relations at American University, recounted his experiences of racism to an audience of fifth- to eighth-graders at Country School he urged to be “upstanders” rather than “bystanders,” during a motivational speech at the school to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 15.
“I didn’t have fellow students who were looking out for my well-being . . . How do we create an climate in which we’re looking out for each other, and helping each other,” Dibinga said. “We’re going into a weekend that some people look at as a holiday weekend but it is also supposed to be a time of great reflection on how you can be more present in the lives of the people next to you.”
Earlier in the morning Dibinga joined the school’s faculty and staff for their second annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast.
Dibinga said his childhood dread and insecurity was fueled by the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic on African-Americans in his neighborhood.
“It was predicted by the media me as a black man would not live to be 25 years old and if I did I would serve jail time,” Dibinga said.
Dibinga’s parents were academics and put a premium on learning, and Dibinga eventually was able to see past his ostracization and study at Harvard, Princeton, and Georgetown universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It was hard for me because the students around me were being bystanders and not upstanders,” he said. “So what I want to ask you is when you are in this school, are you allowing people around you to be empowered, or are you allowing them to be disempowered by your action.”
Dibinga also hosts the TV talk show “Real Talk,” which focuses on issues facing young people, and appeared regularly as a commentator and poet on CNN, National Public Radio, and the Black Entertainment Network among other channels.
“Even when people are talking down on you, you still have a choice,” Dibinga said. “… My focus became school and education and also became rapping and poetry because I wanted to share my experience through my music.”
Even if the children don’t speak up directly in response to bigotry or bullying, they can take action to support the targets of abuse like people who were active in the civil rights movement spearheaded by King, Dibinga said.
“Give them your ear, your time, and listen to what they are going through,” Dibinga said. “When I was going through the worst times of my life all I needed was somebody to ask, ‘how was your day?’”
Dibinga said another lesson King taught was forgiveness of injustice and mistreatment from others, but also the need to cut loose those who mistreated you or have attitudes you disagree with.
“You are the direct reflection of your five closest friends so if your friends around you are racist, you are racist,” Dibinga said. “If you’re tolerating these things what does it say about me?”
Eloise LeClerc, a 13-year-old eighth grader at the school, said Dibinga’s message of being aware of the people around you and their struggles was powerful.
“It was amazing to hear him talk about his background because I am from a different place,” said LeClerc, who comes from Darien. “It was good to hear the message it is good to stand up for people because it will make you feel good.”