A mother’s addiction, a family’s compensating love, a burning desire to graduate from Howard University, and frustrations over racial ignorance among fellow teachers led Tuyeni Akanke to her current mission. The West Humbolt Park resident is speaking her truth and coaching professionals toward a broad-based literacy that includes emotional understanding and cultural competency.
Born Lakendra Smith in 1987, Tuyeni (pronounced Tu-YAY-nee) came into the world just as her mother lost her own mother and grandmother, then descended into addiction. Tuyeni’s father’s family made a home in the neighborhood around Division and Pulaski, pumping faith and effort into Tuyene’s education. She lived in two worlds — Lincoln Park at a privileged magnet school while dwelling on the West Side, nights and weekends.
By age 12, Tuyeni was aiming for Howard University — a top-flight Historically Black College. Her teenage academic success belied the family and social traumas she’d absorbed. Her overweight body betrayed unexpressed emotions.
In college, Tuyeni gained knowledge and confidence — and lost weight. She graduated, volunteered for Americorps in education, and earned double master’s degrees at Urban Teachers in Washington D.C. She learned to tell her own stories in spoken poetry — even the bitter ones that need to come out in order to heal. She taught in the D.C. area for seven years, then felt called at age 28 to return to her neighborhood and teach in Chicago.
In the city’s upheaval over charters and school closings, she saw many black teachers being replaced by white instructors who lacked knowledge of black culture and brought their own emotional insecurities. Some of these teachers strongly objected when a young black principal tried to train them in cultural competency. The principal threw up her hands and left the job.
Tuyeni spoke out. Determined to address the problems, she formed her own consulting business, TruthInspiresYou.com, to train teachers, social workers and journalists — professionals of any color who work with people — in how to free themselves from racial and emotional baggage.
Some of her workshops are aimed at creative expression. Others go back to basics, such as learning grammar and parts of speech: “Some white teachers don’t demand enough of black students. Everybody needs to learn standard English. That little black boy in your class needs you to correct his speech, just like the little white child on your own block.”
At the same time, she points out that Black English is its own language: “What we call ‘slang’ is really ‘African-American vernacular.’ We had to develop the language for ourselves. During slavery, nobody sat us down in a schoolroom to teach us.”
She challenges everyone to undertake journeys of self-knowledge. Emotional and cultural education, spread through society, she believes, can overcome racism: “The only reason discrimination lives,” she says, “is because ignorance lives.”
Join Tuyeni Akanke next Saturday, June 8, at 2:30 p.m. at her book talk for mature teens and adults at Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., featuring her poetic memoir, Let Me Be Free.