Vividly, I can remember my introduction to art. It was in the kindergarten classroom of Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School, in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where I was instructed by a sweet, portly Caucasian teacher. She wore fashionable cat-eyed eyeglasses, having two diamond studs affixed where the right and left arms of the eyeglasses were connected. She instructed me to smear yellow paint around on paper with my fingers. "Finger painting," she called it, so I began moving my fingers through the paint, swirling and gliding from one edge of the paper to another, lost in what I felt was a messy use of the thick, musty-smelling paint, but it was fun nonetheless. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a glob of blue came down right on to the center of my great work. I looked up and it was my teacher and the way she looked now was not so sweet. In fact, the look in her eyes made her appear quite sinister. I thought that she must have been waiting for this moment to commit this evil act against my work and me.
With a twinkle in her eyes and a toss of her head, she indicated for me to look back to my work. When I turned back to my painting, I noticed that I was no longer swirling and gliding. I was moving my fingers in an up and down motion, and I could also see, to my chagrin, that the blue paint was turning my yellow paint into what would become my favorite shade of green. It was at five years old, at Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the classroom of a heavyset woman who fancied cat-eyed glasses and whose name I remember only as "Teacher," where my love for the arts was born.
In my preteen years, during the summer months, school was out and all of our days were filled with whatever fun activities my friends and I could find in our neighborhood. During those long, hot summer days children in the community who had musical instruments would unite and form bands. Some groups had lead singers and backup singers. Of course, these young musicians and their singers honed their talents in the local churches that seem to be on every street corner in our exclusively Black community, utilizing the musical instruction they learned during the school year. They would practice all summer, preparing for the school's annual talent show competition.
By the end of junior high school, I was certainly able to discern the difference between the aspects of a violin and a viola, a harpsichord and an organ, a bassoon and a tuba, and so on. That grammar school education in the arts gave me the ability to appreciate music genres beyond the wonderful black music that I grew up listening to. It also provided me with a way to cope with the uncertainty that surrounded me when I was a boy. I think that it is unfortunate that school age children are not afforded the benefit of the arts in public schools as they once were.
African American children are the descendants of the chattel slaves of the United States, whose forefathers ultimately brought the world gospel, blues, jazz, doo wop, bebop, soul, rock and hip hop, the instrument called the human beat box and more. This music was born out of the pain and suffering that African Americans have endured since arriving in America nearly five centuries ago. There is nothing more haunting than hearing the hateful stories as told by an old Delta blues singer to express the discrimination of Jim Crow laws against the African American. Hip hop music picks up were the blues left off, lyrically illuminating racial discrimination and brutality against African Americans in modern times. The descendants of those marvelous people are able to persevere, having used the arts from as far back as the day that they were first brought to these shores. They have used the arts as an ointment to soothe a deep, dreadful suffering.
These days, usually without formal instruction in public schools and with most parents unable to afford private music lessons, the African American child is relegated to creating replicated sounds of musical instruments through the use of computer programs, loops, guitar or piano samples and synthesizers. If they look to their souls and through their experiences, just like their ancestors, they will always find a way to the arts, inventing a new music genre and a new dance to go with it.
Artistic expression unlocks and strengthens the imagination. It enlightens, enriches, and heals. Through painting, writing, poetry and music, the arts have provided me with an ability to express my feelings, thoughts, ideas and imagination in ways I am certain I would not have been able to in my life otherwise. The arts have been my companion from the time I was a child, preparing me early in my life for the work in the arts that I enjoy today. It is my hope that visual and performing arts be restored to public schools so that young people can have the advantage of unlocking their imaginations and sharing their talents with the world.
This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 28 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.