She holds the world in her grasp.
She is the grass in the field.
She is the comet in space.
She is the sound of the ocean.
And the fertility of the black human race.
The African woman...
Osita Omotola began writing poetry in her first year of high school as a way of getting over a broken heart, and the habit stuck. But most of what she writes now, like “The African Woman” above, is what Osita calls " cultural” poetry.
Her Spanish teacher calls her a young Maya Angelou. But Osita, a rising senior at Richmond Community High School, prefers the poet Nikki Giovanni as a role model.
A product of one of Richmond’s roughest housing projects, Osita is long-limbed and lean. She wears her hair in a profusion of African-style braids gathered loosely with a plain rubber band. Her glittery, silver-toned nails are cut short.
It bothers her when other teenagers, usually friends from earlier school years, accuse her of “acting white” because she knows an answer to a question that no one else does.
“It’s like how can another black person call you that?” she says. “It’s like degrading African-Americans by saying we can’t be at the top of the class, that we’re always supposed to be at the bottom like people want us to be.”
Osita says she has never been tempted to sacrifice academic achievement for the sake of fitting in with her neighborhood friends. Some of those childhood friends use drugs. Others have gotten pregnant.
Osita, instead, travels around to schools exhorting younger students to postpone sexual activity.
“I knew it was a wrong choice. It’s something I never thought about doing,” says the 17-year-old.
Besides, with her homework, her volunteer activities, her part-time job at a local theme park, and her poetry readings, Osita doesn’t have much time for hanging out.
She lives in a four-bedroom, brick box on Bruce Street, the thoroughfare that separates the Hillside Court project from a neighborhood of tired, single-family homes. In the projects, clothes hang on lines and patches of grass and weeds wilt in the early summer sun.
Osita’s mother, Patricia Robinson, does not like to drive her dilapidated car any deeper into the project than this street. At night, she stays inside for fear of getting caught in the gunplay that the family can hear nearby.
“I wouldn’t want to be here when I grow up,” Osita says of her home.
She acknowledges that growing up in the projects has been a strong motivator. “I’m a strong person. I’ve not been sucked in by all the stereotypical stuff that people say about places like this. Most of the people here want to get out and help others get out.”
She is not yet sure how she might provide that help. But, she says, children’s thinking fascinates her, and she is thinking about child psychology or clinical psychology as a profession.
“Not many people know this but I used to cry and pray every day,” she says . “Now I think there is a purpose in us being here.”
Despite her environment, Osita has had some pretty good role models. She is the middle child in a family of nine children. Her older sisters and her brother all went to college. A younger sister, Chisa, has been named the outstanding student in her elementary school’s graduating class--an honor also bestowed upon Osita a few years ago.
“A lot of people ask me what did you do for all your kids to be so smart?” says Robinson, who is divorced. “It was just talking to them, letting them know it was important to get an education and to treat their brothers and sisters with respect. ... I can’t explain it.”
Robinson has taken a few college courses herself and she plays an active role in her children’s schooling when she feels the need.
When another daughter was getting taunted at school for her high grades, Robinson arranged to have her transferred to a different school. She also serves as secretary of her children’s elementary school PTA.
“A lot of kids here in the projects are very intelligent,” she says. “But if you don’t push them they’re not going to accomplish anything.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week