"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, August 08, 2005
The Nkiru Center for Education and Culture
By Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

"You were looking crisp on the tube", chants a poet from England over a beat that sounds like a fusion of HipHop and House. He seems to be a bit nervous after being informed just before walking to the stage that he, in fact, is standing on the famous/infamous soil of Brooklyn. But he goes on to give a banging performance that earns him a hefty round of applause and a couple of headnods and aiights. D, who is visiting from Toronto, goes next. He recites his literary creation sans music but with plenty of arm and hand gestures to make up for it. His long thick locks add a dynamic to the performance as they sway from left to right across his back. After D, there's a long list of poets awaiting eagerly to share their poetry with us. It¹s the last Saturday of the month- Foundations night in other words. A night where aspiring poets and MC's to show their mastery of the spoken-word to their fellow peers at Nkiru Center for Education and Culture. It's Nkiru's signature event that never fails at bringing and moving a crowd.

Don't fret if you're not into poetry slams. Foundations is just phase one of the ascension to higher heights for this non-for-profit organization. Nkiru Center for Education and Culture (Nkiru: an Ibo word for the best is yet to come), began as a bookstore ran out of the apartment of its founder, Leothy Miller Owens in 1976. Soon after, the bookstore expanded into its first commercial location on St. Marks Place in the Park Slope Section of Brooklyn. Ms. Miller-Owens passed-on and her mother took over the business. Business went well for some time then Nkiru took the route of what seems inevitable to all mom-and-pops stores today- the path of acute financial crisis. There were two visionaries who cared enough for the community to save Nkiru from defeat. These two were the MC's of the dynamic Hiphop group Black Star- Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

The BlackStar Duo purchased the bookstore in 1999 and Nkiru went on to thrive once again as Brooklyn's oldest Black bookstore. It provided books and merchandise that reflected the black Diaspora and experience and became a beacon for literature and enlightenment for Brooklyn. In time, despite all its success with the community, Nkiru looked down that familiar road of eviction. Nkiru packed up and relocated to the neighboring community of Crown Heights. And with this move came a name change makeover, going from Nkiru Books to Nkiru Center for Education and Culture, changing its format as well. Now Selling books primarily through Volume.com and special orders via telephone, the store-which still has some books there- is used for events that "promotes multicultural education and awareness" through literary workshops, seminars, lectures and the like.

Although the New site of Nkiru, modest in size, is not as roomy as its former location Park Slope, it provides a calming atmosphere to read, relax and reflect. It's a comfortable environment where anyone can easily feel at home. Earlier a few days before the Foundations event, I visit with Dr. Brenda Green, the Executive Director of Nkiru Center of Education and Cutlure. She is preparing for a book reading that evening at Nkiru. Mumia Abu Jamal's long time friend, Terry Bisson, who is also the author of his Mumia's Latest biography On a Move : The Story of Mumia Abu Jamal (Litmus Books) will be reading excerpts from his latest book. Mumia's first wife will make an appearance as well.

"It fills the voids that is created in schools" Dr. Green, a English professor, and mother of Talib Kweli, explains about Nkiru's importance to the community, specifically the referring to the youth, "[it's] a meeting space that provides a platform to perform." There are theatre workshops free of charge for middle school children, where they come and learn the basics about theater like voice and diction exercises, and scene and script development. Along with the theater workshops, Nkiru hosts story time hours at the end of the week, with appearances by the authors themselves.

Adults can, too ,come Nkiru to sharpen their writing skills at the writing workshops held on Thursday nights. For those who are big on dialogue they may engage themselves in discussions on intriguing topics at the Intergenerational Conversation Series or analyze a movie shown at the independent film series. Nkiru collaborates with the near-by Brooklyn public library and Medgar Evers College for larger community events.

Keep your eyes on Nkiru. As the meaning of its name advises - the best is yet to come. Being the catalyst that it is for positive change and progression - it is destined to become a Brooklyn landmark, as Talib Kweli envisions it to be. Maybe Foundations will hone the skills of the next big MC or help an aspiring writer find their voice. In any case, all who come through will leave empowered and reaffirmed of the richness and complexity of their African heritage.

Nkiru Center for Education and Culture
732 Washington Ave (between Park Pl & Prospect Pl)
Brooklyn, NY 11238
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