Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur – A Call For Action

I recently finished watching the 5 episodes for the documentary, Dear Mama and I am happy that I digested it in parts because it has evoked many emotions out of me. As a person that grew up with Tupac as a part of the soundtrack of my life, it felt like I was also watching the scenes of my life in parallel with Afeni and Tupac Shakur. When I heard “Brenda’s Got a Baby” in the documentary, I transported instantly to my childhood where I too was experiencing the trauma of systemic oppression. While unknown at the time, I have many parallels to Tupac’s life (not as extreme) and the opportunity to reflect on his and his mother’s lives demands that we must take action and continue their legacy. As Afeni re-stated the words of Fred Hampton in one of her public talks, “you can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.”

I grew up in an economically depressed neighborhood that had several layers of complexity. My family was educated and was one of the founding members of the area during segregation. At the time, there was quicksand everywhere and it was an undesirable place to live.  Today, my city is

69% black, but the neighboring and larger city is only 34% black. As a child, I felt my city was 90% African American. Like Tupac, I had to witness and experience poverty, drug infestations and violence. Yet, despite our struggles, we still had community. During all the chaos, I still somehow felt safe. I didn’t realize how important it was at the time, but I grew up in a community that had options. I watched some people choose the fast life path while others chose the slow one. Regardless, we were able to express ourselves, even if it led to self-destruction.

While I didn’t grow up in the era of the Black Panthers, I was in the generation after it. Despite being a latch key kid, I had outlets of youth programs that were a direct descendant of the programs the Panthers offered. I had no idea when I was listening to Tupac’s music (usually on the radio or Jukebox) that he had such a culturally rich and complex upbringing. While I was not a huge fan of rap like my older brother, there was something about Tupac that pierced through the noise of 2 Live Crew and 69 Boys. Tupac made you pause and truly dig deep and listen to what he was trying to say. Even when I saw Tupac in movies, I admired his acting skills thinking he only had a natural gift not knowing that he was a trained thespian.

When I went to college, my roommate ended up being from Los Angeles. When I look back at that time in my life, I was going through a lot of anxiety just being in a new place. In addition, I had just experienced the Atlanta Olympics and missed the explosion by an hour. I was trying to find my place in  black mecca after matriculating at a majority white arts high school. Tupac was killed the same month of my 18th birthday. Having someone that I lived with that knew him personally added an extra layer of grief. I can barely remember many things that year, but I remember exactly when he died. Little did I know how many times over the years he would keep popping up throughout my life.

Many years later, one of my friends from my performing arts school started impersonating Tupac because they looked related (especially in the face). Initially, it was fun and helped pay his bills between acting and writing gigs but he was being called to do more with this gift that he had. His impersonation was also special because it was my first-time seeing black people have a conspiracy that a black celebrity didn’t die. In truth, Tupac did not die but he did physically.

I remember my friend mentioning meeting Afeni and talking about some amazing things they planned to work on together. He is one of the smartest people I know so I was not surprised that they had strategic plans for impacting the community. I believe what seemed like a superficial impersonation job turned into a calling. He didn’t get the part to play Tupac in “All Eyes on Me” but divine alignment would have him be in the Dear Mama documentary which I find was more meaningful because it incorporated Afeni. We would not have the gift of Tupac if it was not for her.

There are many parallels between Tupac’s mom and my mom. My mother encouraged me to live in my truth, despite being the oddball in my family. I was able to experience a lot of things that she did not. My mom always taught me to be a critical thinker and never just blindly follow anyone. When I needed to be transported to youth programs or plays, my mom found a way to get me there, despite having 2 jobs most of my life. While she did not use drugs, she had to help me navigate dealing with family members with addictions. She also shared a lot of pain and guilt like Afeni. Their generation witnessed many violent deaths due to the fight for integration and equality. They were able to instill in their children that we have the right to choose, and they tried to support our unique gifts.

“Your children are not your children;
They are the sons and daughters of
Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you
But they are not from you
And though they are with you

They belong not to you.”

“On Children” by Sweet Honey in the Rock

When I was in 6th grade, a group of people visited my neighborhood public school. My primary years ebbed and flowed between public and private schools. I typically went to my neighborhood school when my mom couldn’t afford the tuition. My home life was toxic and when these visitors showed us a video of the future School of the Arts magnet school, I knew I had to attend. I auditioned and was originally waitlisted and I felt like my entire dream exploded.  When I got the call in the summer that I had a spot in the theater program, I knew in my soul that it would change my life forever. The public-school arts program not only changed my life but also many children including Tupac Shakur.

Like Tupac, I was able to escape my life through acting.  Embodying characters became a source of survival. I used that skill often when I was in situations where I could not escape. I learned meditative thinking before I even knew what it was. I completely understand how devastating it must have been for Tupac to have to leave the Baltimore School of the Arts to move to California as his theater teacher pointed out.

After watching Dear Mama, I feel fueled to continue this fight to provide access to all children to be able to creatively express themselves. As budgets continue to be cut in our education system and we are fighting over which book should be banned, children are being left behind to fend for themselves without any outlets to release. If I did not get anything out of Dear Mama, it was the glaring call to lobby for art in schools, especially public schools.

Another parallel of the universe working is I recently took a trip to the Bay Area (from an auction benefitting No Kid Hungry). I stayed at Cavallo Point Lodge for a day and was in awe of the closeness we had to the Golden Gate Bridge. The clouds hugged the bridge like a mom embracing her newborn child. There was a bit of discomfort for me when I learned the lodge was a former army base (founded in 1866) yet I learned later that it was also originally inhabited by the Miwok tribes.

I decided to rent an electric bike to ride to Sausalito for lunch. Prior to my trip, I had not heard of Sausalito except from the pepperidge farm cookie. I am not an avid bike rider, especially with the hills of the Bay Area. Nevertheless, I decided to take a lunch ride alone and ended up opening myself up to strangers along the way. A woman from Australia took my picture at the bridge. The discomfort I felt at the barracks all lifted when I went to Sausalito. I had lunch alone on the Bay and even took a call while at lunch. Yet, unbeknownst to me, I was in the same town where Afeni passed away. On the way back, I decided to get sophisticated and not use GPS. I panicked when I had no service, but I felt a serene calmness overcome me. I said to myself, ‘you will find your way home.”

 Dear Mama reminded me of that moment, and I now wonder if Afeni helped me get home. I mean there is no reason I should not have been scared because I almost ended up in the national park with 0 cell signal. I was going almost 40 mph on the bike at some point in a panic to find my way, but the spirit reminded me to surrender. I can completely understand why Afeni would go there to heal because there is something special about that place. I did make it back to the hotel safely, with only 10 mins to spare for my massage.

I want to send honor to our ancestors Afeni and Tupac for not letting their light die. I appreciate their friends and family for opening their hearts to share with the world the beautiful complexity and brilliance that was in their lineage. Most importantly, while I continue the fight to protect the babies that are often overlooked, I want to call all of us to make sure we are providing creative outlets for children where that may be their only source of survival. While I am saddened that Tupac couldn’t physically stay with us beyond his 25 years, I want us to remember that we have baby Tupacs all around us. They are being misunderstood daily and it is our job to make sure they have the support to be free.

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