The 10-part documentary series America to Me, which aired last year on Starz, plunged into the complex depths of Oak Park and River Forest High School’s long, layered struggle with race. The series was, in many ways Shakespearean in its dramatic range and pathos.
Charles Donalson, then a 16-year-old poet with a sword-sharp wit, was a Falstaffian character. Jester-like, seemingly nonchalant and somewhat aloof, Donalson is often seen on camera walking the halls with his headphones on, tuning out the madness of the crowd. He often provides some much-needed comic relief, but the viewer quickly learns, though, that Donalson is wise beyond his years.
“Every activity, every assembly, everything is made for white kids, because this school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids,” Donalson, then a junior and a precocious member of OPRF’s Spoken Word Club, tells the audience. “They have to realize that some things just have to be ours.”
Donalson, now 19, is currently back in Oak Park, “taking a gap year,” he said. When he isn’t reading and writing, he’s working with area young people through Friday Night Place — a recreational program in Oak Park.
On Dec. 27, Donalson released four rap songs in which he muses on race “in less censored ways than I did in the documentary and in most interviews.” He added that he isn’t “writing the same way I was at 16.”
The album project, “For Whatever You Do,” (it was produced by Donalson and his friend Antwon Billups, and the duo goes by Dhazi and Twondon), earns every inch of its Parental Advisory sticker, but if the listener can endure the profanity, she’ll likely delight in Donalson’s deft ability to blend the social and the personal.
“Grandma told me go to school and ask them who the Panthers is / Suburb teachers wasn’t prepared for this,” Donalson raps on “Fight the Power,” a nod to Public Enemy’s 1990 protest anthem and a radical, real-life litmus test of just how far Oak Park’s racial enlightenment extends.
Donalson raps that the experience of being told “all my heroes was terrorists” by a white teacher tore his heart “to pieces,” effecting his current emotional equilibrium (“still ain’t got no peace today”).
The lyric ably demonstrates how racial bias and historical ignorance in the classroom can reverberate from childhood to adulthood.
Back in December, Donalson — who was born in North Lawndale and grew up in Austin before moving to Oak Park when he was 3 years old — sat down for an interview, during which he riffed on the content that he references in his songs, which are available on a variety of streaming platforms, including SoundCloud, Apple Music and Spotify.
To listen, visit: http://hyperurl.co/v0wpoa.
On being angry
It is really hard to actually stand up and be serious about your anger. People definitely don’t see me as angry, but I’m angry as hell. When it comes to black men and anger — they want to make people think we’re monsters. They know that when we get angry, that’s when stuff changes. They know that about black people, in general. When we get upset, stuff is going to happen.
On being told his ‘heroes are terrorists’
When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher tell me that the Black Panthers were terrorists. I’m, like, 8 years old and very impressionable.
If you want to make change, [white people] monopolize how you’re supposed to go about doing it. This is why we read books outside of school, because if I just let them teach me about Martin Luther King — don’t get me wrong, I love King. He was very, very important to where we are today — but white people weaponize nonviolence. Not only do they weaponize it, they only teach you about the people who got killed. In school, we didn’t learn about Assata Shakur. You want to know why? Because she’s still alive!
On learning about micro-aggressions
By the third grade, I knew about slavery and the mistreatment of blacks, but in the North, we got these things called micro-aggressions (laughs).
My mom introduced me to the fact that racism isn’t something that’s not necessarily always shown through acts of violence by buying the first three seasons of Different Strokes, and telling me, ‘Watch this.’ I was like, ‘Even though they act like they like Arnold and Willis, I think those white people are secretly scared of them.’
On being nervous about releasing material that confronts race so candidly
I’m nervous to put out the EP. It’s scary but it’s like jumping into a pool. That’s with anything in life. It’s scary, a shock, when you first do it, but when you’re under the water it’s cold, but not that bad. It’s better than being above the water.
On his most consistent habits
One of the best pieces of advice I got from a poet was, ‘Don’t stop writing.’ I write or read every day. If I’m not in the writing mood, I force myself to read something.
On being 19
I am a teenager while also not being a teenager, while being grown and not being grown. It literally depends on the time of day you catch me. I’m 19 and probably going through an existential life crisis (laughs).
On reality and The Twilight Zone
I’m always wondering about the concept of existence. I watch a lot of sci-fi. My activism is influenced by The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was putting us on some straight game!
Actually, I wouldn’t say activism. I’m a vessel. As far as we know, none of this stuff matters. The only thing I can really account for are my thoughts and feelings. Despite what a lot of people want you to believe, those thoughts and feelings are important; regardless of whether they’re right or wrong. If I never talk about them, I’ll never know them. That’s a realization I had watching Ground Hog Day. Literally, the only thing that matters is how you treat people.