Editor’s note: Valen Siddhartha Shankar-Brown of DeLand wrote this essay for The Beacon for Black History Month. His sister, Romila Sitara Shankar-Brown, also wrote us a Black History Month commentary, which was published in the Feb. 25-March 3 edition.
There are so many Black Americans who have helped shape our world and make it a better place for all of us. I believe the contributions of African Americans and Black communities should be celebrated 365 days a year, and not just during the month of February.
I am grateful for so many Black role models who shine brightly in my life and give me hope, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was a transformational leader who peacefully devoted his life working for economic and racial justice, and his legacy continues to challenge and inspire people around the world to mobilize for social change.
And Claudette Colvin, who at the young age of 15 courageously refused to give up her seat on the bus and helped inspire Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
And Maya Angelou, an amazing writer, storyteller, dancer, singer, filmmaker, mother, scholar and civil-rights activist.
A current inspirational figure in my life is Robert Rihmeek Williams, who is better known as Meek Mill. He is a powerful musician and social activist. He lost his father when he was 5 years old. He and his sister were raised by their mom, who had lost her mother when she was young and also grew up in poverty.
Meek Mill grew up in North Philadelphia, and their family financially struggled, with his mother sometimes having to shoplift food just to support her family. In the face of hardship, Meek Mill turned to music.
As a teenager, he would fill notebooks with rap verses and ideas. He worked super hard and eventually launched his own label, Dream Chasers Records, with the goal of advancing equity and opening up doors for the next generation of artists.
In November 2017, he was sentenced to prison, in spite of maintaining his innocence and being ruthlessly beaten up by the police. Today he is a leading advocate for criminal justice reform in the United States, and, with fellow artist Jay-Z, he has co-created a nonprofit organization called the REFORM Alliance Foundation.
According to the foundation’s mission statement, it seeks to “dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system — starting with probation and parole.”
While there are choices that Meek Mill has made in life that I certainly do not agree with, I do find his resilience, determination, creativity and vision to be inspiring. I also fill up notebooks with verses and love creating music. Like Meek Mill, the arts are a healthy outlet or form of expression and a means for activism in my own life.
I also appreciate the significance behind many of Meek Mill’s songs, which challenge us to think, question, and take action for justice. For example, in his song “Shine,” he discusses racial-justice issues, including profiling, poverty and incarceration. He also says, “Wasn’t for this music, I’d prolly be dead.”
I am thankful for Meek Mill, who shines through his life story. I admire his incredible resilience, especially since the violence and trauma of poverty impacted Meek Mill’s childhood. I also appreciate his dedication to the criminal justice reform movement, and that he continues to work hard and chase his dreams. He inspires me to channel my emotions creatively and use my art for activism.
I want to give a special shoutout to my Grandma and Mom, who are my No. 1 daily inspirations, and also to leaders like Dr. Felicia Benzo, Dr. Patrick Coggins and Dr. Joyce Cusack, who have helped me learn histories and stories that are so often left out at school.
I think it is critical we honor and uplift diverse stories and voices, and we need to listen to the wise words of another one of my role models, civil-rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, who said, “Be bold, brave, and courageous,” and “Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never lose that sense of hope.”
All the individuals I have mentioned (and so many more) offer the valuable gift of inspiration, and call on us to create a better world.
— Valen is an 11th-grader at DeLand High School.