by Jane Wallace
“Ameer Baraka helps wherever possible to encourage kids to aim for more long-lasting, legitimate goals. He especially seeks out and advises kids who may be dyslexic and meets with them. He is committed to spreading the word about dyslexia.”
Ameer Baraka deliberately chose to read his testimony on his struggles with dyslexia to the first ever Senate committee hearing on dyslexia: “Understanding Dyslexia; The Intersection of Scientific Research & Education.” It has taken him more than 23 years to become a reader, and he was proudly determined to demonstrate it. Elegant, self-possessed, and very handsome, actor/producer Baraka is a familiar face to viewers of HBO’s Treme and Fox’s American Horror Story. Baraka has appeared in 28 other shows as well as produced four films of his own. What may be most remarkable about him is how at odds the actor/producer’s poised self-presentation now seems from his own tough, compelling past, emanating from his undiagnosed dyslexia that has impacted negatively on his behavior and, indeed, his life.
Before the committee, Baraka described dyslexia as a “lifelong curse that can force people into the shadows and rob them of their god-given potential.” His own darkness began early in school and extended through his second stay in prison. His dyslexia not only defined him, it hijacked his future, and nearly got him locked him up for life.
Born to a fragmented family in the most notorious housing project in New Orleans, Ameer was three when school started. It was the same year his father “disappeared,” and his young mother started “running around.” Grandmother seemed to be in charge of education for his family. Baraka can’t even remember why he dreaded school. He just recalls the baggies of his favorite Fruit Loops his grandmother held out as bribes to attend, and crying uncontrollably at the sight of the school door every day in spite of them.
With first grade came reading. The whole notion was torture. Ameer remembers feeling like the rest of the class was catching on to some language he would never understand, read or write. Numbers made sense, but not this garble. “I did so poorly in school. It got to the point that I had no interest in going because I was lacking in even the basic skills. I never learned simple phonics, so everything else seemed foreign. I would spell they as ‘tay.’”
The further school moved forward, the farther Ameer fell behind. The effort was increasingly hard. But he got nowhere. The name-calling started at home. The most hurtful labels came from his mom. She “knocked the wind right out of him,” with “jackass, stupid, and dumb.” Ameer’s brother and sister, living in the same household, did learn to read and did not experience the same difficulty in school—his siblings do not have dyslexia.
Third grade brought on the predictable pummeling of Friday spelling tests. Young Ameer tried everything he could think of to deflect the disgrace. “I couldn’t spell, man. I couldn’t read. And I was ashamed. I was sleeping in project hallways, avoiding school altogether. I clowned around. I acted stupid all the time to hide my not reading. I wanted to be the bully of the school or the class clown. Later on, I learned that my symptoms were classical signs of dyslexia—but, unfortunately, my school did not identify me or even try to figure out why I was struggling so.
“It was much too late for me to catch on to reading then. I was so far behind…. My mother’s boyfriend was whipping me with a belt for an F on a spelling test. This is exactly what I needed. I needed someone [a father figure] to care about how I was doing in school. Each night he would go over my schoolwork with me, but for some reason I was just never able to grasp any of it. Dyslexia was still an unidentified secret within me.”
Ameer managed to finish fourth grade, then fell into genuine despair when he failed again, in fifth. “I cried like a baby. The kids all laughed at me, so my hatred for school increased. I became bitter and frustrated. I would take it out on other kids in the projects by getting into fights. My behavior was so bad my family would not take me anywhere in public. Just because I could not read, I was made fun of by the other kids and neglected by my own family. My family called me dumb, and I began to believe that about myself. I spiraled out of control with hopelessness. I never believed that I would finish school or anything in life, so I just acted out. I wanted to be better than my brother and sister at something, so it was at just acting out.” Ameer later came to know that this sequence of events is far too common in students who have dyslexia that is unidentified and untreated.
Ameer was edging toward a point of no return even though he was only a thirteen-year-old. He managed to enter seventh grade, and had found a real girlfriend—the anticipated-first-kiss kind of girlfriend. But they were assigned to the same English class. The first week of school, the teacher asked Ameer to read out loud, girlfriend in attendance. His palms sweat, his forehead ran with what felt like blood, and the teacher insisted he continue even when it was obvious he couldn’t read. There was staring, uncomfortable laughter and utter, naked humiliation. There went the girl. There went school with it.
Later that year he stole his first gun and stayed “strapped.” Men who came out of prison in the projects were respected (like college graduates might be elsewhere). The drug dealers were the only successful men he saw. They made real money. Ameer was determined to rule the projects. He was smoking weed and studying drug dealers. Every incursion into his “territory” was a challenge to his “manhood,” every challenger had to be defeated.
“You had the power to stop a nigga in his tracks if he f*#ked with you. There was no going back from this point. Looking back, I really should be dead. I was crazy. The cycle got worse and worse. I do not know how I got through junior high. My life was jacked up. School never kept me back. I never passed any tests. I was a kid who could not read and hated school—a connection missed by all my teachers.”
He made rare appearances at school, sometimes just to terrorize the girls with stolen pit bulls at the gate at the end of the school day. By age fourteen he started snorting powder up his nose—cocaine and heroin. Almost overnight he became an addict and a dealer. Dealers didn’t need to read, they just counted hundred dollar bills. For the first time in his life Ameer was “feeling like a real man.”
“The streets became my classroom, and looking back, the lessons I learned were shameful. I shot and killed a young person because the street taught me that that’s how you resolve conflict.” Ameer was only 15 when he murdered another young drug dealer “in cold blood.” Then he “killed his resultant conscience with more drugs.” The going phrase in the projects was, “I’d rather be judged by twelve [jurors] than carried by six [pallbearers].” Ameer was tried as a juvenile and did just a year in “juvey jail,” at a Boys’ Home—a punishment nobody took particularly seriously. When he was released, Ameer went right back to dealing drugs.
He had a brief, unusual, happy period in high school because he was great at football and fell in love, but when he turned eighteen, his dad was released from jail and the two began dealing drugs together. It would be the closest to father-son time they ever had.
Then Ameer got busted again—this time for larger quantity drug dealing. No longer a juvenile and now a potential career criminal, Ameer Baraka was facing a sentence of up to 60 years in prison. He went on the lam, hiding out at his brother’s home in California. There, he got lucky. While working for a friend’s production company, Baraka got to observe successful black men who were not drug dealers for the first time in his life. They taped genius rapper/songwriters Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, and through them, Ameer realized each had a plan and an education.
Yet Baraka was still shoving powder up his nose, with his addiction growing more and more out of control, so his own plan and education were out of reach. He may be the only black man in Los Angeles to refer to the police as “angels,” but when officers tracked him down and knocked at the door to arrest him, he believes they saved him from himself.
Extradited back to Louisiana, he got lucky again. His brother scratched up enough money for a private lawyer and sent him a life-changing copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ameer struggled through his harsh drug withdrawal on his own. Awaiting trial, he shared his cell with an extremely well-spoken white art thief. Ameer noticed the articulate guy got what he wanted. Ameer decided it was time to dump the Ebonics (which in his case had become heavily weighted with “bitch,” “whore,” and “f@ck” anyway) and replace it with the King’s English. He didn’t care if he was accused of “acting white.”
Ameer also found his God. So between the Bible, a dictionary, cellmate tutoring, and working his way word by word through Malcolm X, Baraka was too driven to get mixed up in prison fights—though the place was filled with provocative friends and relations of his victims. Baraka recognized that Malcolm X’s start in life was as horribly destructive as his own, but Malcolm X did a complete turnaround. With high motivation, and unrelenting determination, Baraka could actually sight read whole words. And with equally intense work on his expressive language he could learn eloquence. He decided he was done hanging out with dumb people. He learned from the smart ones and was flattered when they accepted him.
When his court date came up, Baraka’s newfound ability and earnest goals were the defense’s secret weapons. When Ameer opened his mouth, “The courtroom was silent…[and] I could see hints of surprise on the jurors’ faces as I clearly expressed myself. My lawyer turned to the jury and said, ‘Does this young man sound like someone who needs to be locked up for the next 60 years?’ …Speaking in the correct vernacular and showing them I was hardworking and had a vision for my life helped save my ass.”
Ameer Baraka got off with four years of hard time. It would be just long enough to earn his way into the prison GED program (by working in the fields and maintaining good behavior). Once in, he sat in the middle seat, front row, every class. At 23 years old, in prison, a teacher finally had him tested, and told him he had a reading difficulty called dyslexia. He was also told if he was willing to work really hard he could still learn to read. Four years later, with a total absence of pomp, due to his circumstances, he was awarded his GED.
“Prison [allowed] me to dream, and prison did for me what all those years of public school did not. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, and I learned to read and write—which school neglected to do for me. I could attend a real university. I had a vocabulary.”
“Prison [allowed] me to dream, and prison did for me what all those years of public school did not. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, and I learned to read and write—which school neglected to do for me. I could attend a real university. I had a vocabulary.” Ameer Baraka emerged from prison a new man committed to a new life on the strength of those dreams. For all his life savings and blessings, he promised God that he would devote the core of his being to helping high-risk young men as he’d been and to spreading the word about dyslexia.
In order to do that, he also had to make money and become a black man they could see as successful. Baraka started working in front of the camera, modeling for Nike and Diesel clothing lines, before breaking into show business. After several years in Los Angeles, he returned to New Orleans to more easily combine his acting and activism. When he is not filming, he is speaking to, mentoring or scooping up middle- and high-school boys in the projects. His goal is to get the boys to “see life through a different lens.” Because of television, he says he is a “magnet” there. He helps wherever possible to encourage kids to aim for more long-lasting, legitimate goals. He especially seeks out and advises kids who may be dyslexic and meets with them. He is committed to spreading the word about dyslexia. Ameer believes there is even more ignorance about it in the black community than among whites.
Most of his old dealer buddies are dead now, including his father, who got a little more precious time outside of prison with his son, but at least in the long prison stretches got to brag on “his boy the big star.” His older A-student siblings, who grew up in the same household but were not dyslexic, graduated from college and helped him out. Ameer was able to return the favor when his brother broke his back in a football accident, and through his faith and good works, Baraka sought forgiveness from them and extended understanding to each. They remain dearly loved and close, including his mother.
Ameer tells his story as a cautionary tale. He has written it as a book, The Life I Chose. He opens with an important disclaimer: “I am not that boy. That kid died years ago. He is sorry for the life he took and the people he shot. I hope my story helps those I hurt find forgiveness with my actions.”
Only one adult along the way who recognized his dyslexia could have saved him so much pain, yet he takes responsibility for himself. As a guy who barely survived his childhood he is crystal clear on how he wants to be remembered: “You’re not really living unless you’re willing to give your life to something. But if something happens to me, if I die, just remember me, Ameer Baraka, as a person who helped kids, a person who reached back.”
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