African American Ethnic Academy Observes Kwanzaa
by Jonathan Gramling


For the past year, the existence of the African American Ethnic Academy (AAEA) and its students has resembled the African Black butterfly. For AAEA, its transformation into a creature of beauty has been fraught with danger and some risk. It didn't hold a spring session this year due to funding shortages. Its growth was also restricted because of the tight space it shared with Project Bootstrap on S. Park Street.

This past summer, AAEA secured funding to operate for the 2004-2005 school year. And, through the intervention of Andre Bernard, it moved into new quarters on S. Gammon Road in the old Eagle School building that now houses the Wisconsin Youth Company.

AAEA is now poised to soar to new heights and now serves an average of 65 children every Saturday morning. "One of the things that has happened is that many families that had children in the academy now have younger brothers and sisters enrolling," said Dr. Virginia Henderson, a founding member of AAEA and a board member. "The older ones don't want to leave. So, we have a lot of middle school students now whom we didn't have originally. We've become a family program. We have teachers in the schools that are recommending the program because they know about it. The program is so original. We're told that people can tell who goes to the academy. It's the reading and learning. They have stories to tell about their heritage. So, we're getting a lot of support in that way."

The students have transformed into African Black butterflies through the academic skills they have acquired and the knowledge of their heritage they have absorbed. Throughout the past semester, the students have learned both skills and knowledge through a curriculum based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa. "The principles are something we can live by every day," emphasized Andreal Davis, the lead instructor and spark plug for AAEA. "Our reading instructor chose books that exemplified each of the principles throughout the semester, so that kids weren't just thinking about the principles from Dec. 26-Jan. 1. We wanted them to think about how they could incorporate the principles in their lives every day."

Each year, a theme is selected as a vehicle to present the Kwanzaa principles. This year's theme was "High Expectations and Rising to the Top." And the cornerstone of that theme was the African Black butterfly. "In the reading class, they read several fairy tales that included black butterflies," Davis said. "The butterflies were actually children who were supposed to carry on the messages of the ancestors. Then, they learned the black butterfly dance. They performed it to Denise Williams' 'Black Butterfly.' We looked at what the words meant and what we were trying to portray when they were dancing. It also helped us with our Rising to the Top theme because the butterflies rise above and they reach the top."

The butterflies are symbolic of you have a duty to carry on the work the ancestors started," Davis continued. "With them being butterflies, the message in Denise Williams' song is 'Black butterfly, sail across the water. Tell your sons and daughters what the struggler brings.' Your duty is to keep the message going. What is your duty" What are you supposed to doing? What has come before you? And from that, how can you gather strength to carry the message to ensure future generations know how our people have struggled, but through it all, we have been able to rise to the top. You have a duty to do that. There is also an element of transformation involved, which was a big part of the dance. Through your dreams, you can achieve if you believe and remember what has gone before you in the struggle and what your duty is to carry through and be strong and reach your goals."

On December 18, the staff, students, and parents of AAEA soared to new heights as they celebrated the culmination of the semester's work at a Kwanzaa celebration at the Wisconsin Youth Company. In addition to the presentations on black butterflies, there was drumming by Rockameen and Katharine Goray. Arlington Davis, Andreal's partner in life and the management of AAEA, gave background on AAEA. Corine Brown and other staff introduced segments that exhibited the skills the students had acquired. And there was an appearance by Soul Santa and his helper (Stan and Yolanda Woodard). And the gym was lined with exhibits of the students' work. Many Black butterflies had indeed been transformed this past semester. And AAEA is poised to fly from its new home to new heights in service to the academic excellence of African American students.