On the streets of ‘Killadelphia,’ ‘Buck’ finds hope: MK Asante on the emancipation of language

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

It was while looking at his suicidal mother filled with tubes and wires on the hospital bed, post-overdose, that “Buck” author MK Asante finally agreed to go back for his high school degree, he told the crowd in DPAC April 3.

Asante, then a repeat dropout, wasn’t new to hardship. With a brother in federal prison, a murdered best friend, a distant father, and a sister institutionalized for schizophrenia, tragedy was a way of life on the streets of North Philadelphia, he said. But seeing her in such a state, he couldn’t say no.

“She was this close to death,” the doctor told him. “I didn’t want to rattle her… I didn’t think she’d find a school, anyways,” he said. “I’d been kicked out of one of the worst schools in Philadelphia – once you get kicked out of there, it’s a wrap, you know what I’m saying?”

“The jail my brother was staying at was better than my school,” he said.

But at the new alternative school his mother pushed him towards, one of the few that would accept him, Asante reached an “epiphany” that forever changed his philosophy on life, literature, and learning.

Looking at the “blank page” for a creative writing assignment, Asante said he realized language and self-expression could be a tool to provide “emancipation” from his bleak circumstances – eventually culminating in the writing of his memoir.

“Now, I see why it was illegal for black people to read,” he said, drawing upon the American legacy of slavery and oppression. He explained that knowing new words gave him the power to express new ideas, thus explicating struggles and enabling people under “unimaginable circumstances” to fight back.

“Buck” deals heavily with the “school to prison pipeline,” and flaws in education among inner-city schools. “Some schools prepare you for higher education,” he said. “Other schools, in other neighborhoods, prepare you for incarceration.”

With overcrowded student populations, chained windows, and “militarized” armed guards patrolling the halls, school was a place of misery and dejection for Asante. “At no point did anyone from those schools sit me down and ask me what was going on at home,” he said.

Asante said some Philadelphia judges were known to receive “kickbacks” for choosing to send students with behavioral issues to juvenile detention centers instead of more lenient options, such as suspension, reinforcing the pipeline and cycle of poverty.

Just as well, though, “Buck” charts the journey of Asante’s “re-education.” “What you learn in school isn’t always the same thing as education – it’s like the difference between sex and love,” he said. 

Part of Asante’s re-education and renewed relationship with literature was finding books that connected to his struggles. The theme reverberates throughout the text.

“Buck’s” Philadelphia was a vibrant but dangerous world with its own language and customs, he said, and it was essential he accurately portrayed their vernacular. 

“Language is such an important part of where you’re from,” he said, and hip-hop was inseparable from it – it gave people from the inner city a way to express the realities of life around them. Rap and hip-hop lyrics interweave his writing, giving voice to the streets.

“I spit lyrics to songs all day, every day,” he said. “It’s like I got hip-hop Tourette’s.”

The word “Buck” carries many meanings – from “bucking the system,” to “getting buck,” to the “buck-naked” vulnerability of his writing, and was once a term for slaves on the auction block, Asante said. 

In Philly, he also said it’s slang for a young black man – the people he strived to speak for in his memoir.

“Why isn’t there no book that’s real, that’s raw. … Written for kids like me when I was young? It’s because you haven’t written it yet,” he said.

“I’ve seen the senselessness of it all … I wanted to tell the stories of people that basically couldn’t tell their stories because they’re not here,” he added, recalling the long history of violence that surrounded him.

Asante carried this philosophy throughout the rise of his meteoric career. He’s published books of poetry, an album of music to accompany the memoir, and produced a documentary on Kwanzaa, “The Black Candle,” which he worked on with the acclaimed Maya Angelou, who became his mentor.

Angelou taught him the power of vulnerability in his writing and giving the most authentic story of his life in North Philly. 

Writing “Buck” was a painful process, he said, in which he had to relive the trauma of his experiences all over again. After publishing, Asante found his outspokenness had alienated him from some people in his circle – but Angelou told him to speak his truth regardless.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to put all this down. I came to Dr. Angelou and asked, “What advice do you have for me?”

She said, “Just tell the truth.”