Jonathan Zeno is a complex young man.
He enjoys theater and performing arts. In one of our classroom activities on nicknames, we learned that he is a dancer, although a knee injury kept us from seeing his moves. Zeno contributed deep, provoking and passionate ideas to each of our sessions. During the brainstorming week of "Changing the Narrative" he went back and forth with topics that interested him, but would always manage to circle back to Fred Hampton. He spoke of Hampton as a mentor or a sage elder who had life all figured out. To many of our questions, Zeno had a Hampton quote or reference. Fred Hampton, you may know, was the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party who was murdered at the young age of 21.
Twenty one is significant. Fred Hampton was 21 when he was slain in 1969 - nearly fifty years ago. Jonathan Zeno is 21 years old in 2019. Two young, black men living 50 years apart, seeing the same challenges and struggles in their lives and communities.
Those students who had worked with Zeno knew of his admiration of Hampton - they had heard all of the references before. During one brainstorming session in particular, in front of the white board that stretched from the floor to the ceiling, the "Changing the Narrative" students encouraged Zeno to go beyond Fred Hampton, and to share what he thought. "What do YOU think about this neighborhood?" What do YOU think about the struggles young men of color face today? What do YOU think, Zeno?"
As a historian, I could relate to Zeno. I could see that he was the historian of the group. Indeed, Zeno commented to me later that he would like to pursue an MA in history someday. Historians need context. Historians need to know time, space and place to understand any person or event. That's what makes historians tick. I could see the wheels turning in Zeno's head as the cohort challenged him to dig deeper, to go further; as they dared him to apply historical context to his current experience.
"Power Anywhere Where There's People"
Zeno decided that his segment would be a reading of Fred Hampton's speech, "Power Anywhere Where There's People." It is a favorite speech of his, and one Zeno had researched before, yet he continued to study and prepare. During recording week, the feeling of pressure of "doing the piece justice" or of "living up to Fred Hampton" was thick in the sound booth. Zeno read the speech and felt the speech, but was very critical of himself, feeling that he could be doing more. Zeno had lent his voice to other segments of the podcast with ease. He playfully impersonated Jay-Z in the credits and played the role of "Grandfather" in Blu's Fairytale (Episode 2). He is skilled as a performer and voice actor. But in reading the speech, Zeno was afraid he would not measure up to the historical icon. It is a feeling I know we can all relate to - the idea that somehow we do not or cannot measure up to the mentors we study and admire. If I could speak to my younger self, I would say that the mentors I admired are human, just like me. In working with Zeno, we hoped he would realize the knowledge, power and agency he possesses is profound.
"A Place That Has Always Looked Like Me"
Jonathan Zeno grew up in Inglewood, CA. He has attended diverse schools in pursuit of his performing arts education; schools outside of his neighborhood. This experience has given him perspective and insight, which he shares in his segment. Listen to his impassioned reading of "Power Anywhere Where There's People," but listen to what comes after as well. He unpacks what the "mountaintop" means to him. He recognizes, although many others have paved the way before him, fighting systemic inequality is his fight, too. What I saw in this young man is a deep understanding and connection - across time, across cities, across people - with a firm footing in home, in "a place that has always looked like [him]."
In the end, Zeno performed an eloquent and passionate reading of his piece, and gave an equally passionate analysis of circumstances young men of color face today. In listening to his segment, I am reminded that we are influenced by so many that came before us, and also, that young people can deeply influence our ideas and direction now. It is one of my favorite pieces from the Changing the Narrative - Inglewood series, and I know you will be inspired as well.