From vice, MK Asante finds his voice

MK Asante: author, filmmaker and professor at Morgan State University.
MK Asante: author, filmmaker and professor at Morgan State University. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Young buck. Buck wild. Make a buck. Buck the system. The buck stops here.

"Buck" stops here.


In his office at Morgan State University, MK Asante, the youngest professor ever to receive tenure at the school, is reflecting upon his teen years in the city he calls "Killadelphia, Pistolvania," and that are chronicled in his acclaimed recent memoir, "Buck."

"Buck" never was his nickname. Asante chose the title because he lived through nearly every variation of that "short but loaded" word and acted them out in roughly the order they're presented above.


"At my core, I'm a rebel," the 31-year-old Asante says. "What I've done with my life is learn how to channel my rebellious spirit into something that wasn't self-destructive, something positive."

Between the ages of about 13 and 16, young Malo (Asante's nickname) watched his beloved elder brother go to prison and his parents divorce. His father moved out of the family home, and his mother battled mental illness. For a time, Malo lived on the streets. His best friend was murdered. He dealt drugs and ended up on the wrong side of a narcotics kingpin.

So great is the teen's peril and so lyrical and perceptive is the voice that's describing it that the memoir can make readers feel almost unbearably anxious. You want to reach through the pages, grab Malo by his shoulders and physically pull this mule-headed kid out of various roach-infested crack dens and into someplace safe and warm.

Miraculously, Malo rescued himself.


"When I was in college in the middle of all of these preppy kids, I never wanted to talk about my mom and brother," Asante says. "I pushed it out of my memory. It took me many years to realize that the stuff I was ashamed of actually was the source of my strength."

Once Asante got on track, there was no stopping him. His memoir was one of last year's sleeper hits. Essence magazine lauded him as "the voice of a new generation." He has appeared on CNN, NBC, CBS and the BBC.

This winter, he said, he was named a feature film fellow at the Sundance Institute, where he's working on turning "Buck" into a movie. This coming Saturday, he'll learn whether he'll receive an NAACP Image Award in the literary biography category.

His competition includes his mentor, the poet Maya Angelou.

"I'd love for him to win," Angelou said in a telephone interview.

"I think he's brilliant. There are artists who've been given great gifts but who don't bother to hone, polish and then share them. Mr. Asante works very hard at his art without letting people know he's working hard."

Asante's boss, Morgan State President David Wilson, said the professor's analytical skills match his poetic gifts. He admires Asante's nonfiction book, "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop," which was released in 2008 when the author was in his mid-20s. Asante used the music to examine larger social and cultural issues.

"In my estimation, Professor Asante will become to his generation what Skip Gates was to my generation," Wilson said, referring to the scholar and literary critic Henry Louis Gates. "He's well on his way to becoming a household name both nationally and internationally."

What's terrifying about "Buck" is the speed with which a solidly upper-middle-class family can collapse.

Asante's father is Molefi Kete Asante, who went from picking cotton in Georgia to becoming dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Philadelphia's Temple University. He's known widely as the father of Afrocentrism, or an African-centered view of history and culture.

Kariamu Welsh, Asante's mother, went from scrubbing toilets at age 8 for wealthy Long Island families to become a Guggenheim fellow who served as founding artistic director of the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe. She is on Temple's Dance Department faculty.

The family lived in a big brown and white Tudor house in a quiet, residential neighborhood, and the boys attended private schools.

"People thought I had it made," Welsh said. "They assume that if you have a good job and your husband has a good job and you have 2.5 children, that automatically makes you happy. Not so."

As a teen, Malo's older half-brother, Daahoud, succumbed to the allure of thug life and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His incarceration put enormous pressure on parents, who already were battling demons from their own troubled childhoods.

"The truth is that we were already broken," MK Asante says.

He was reeling from the loss of his brother when his father moved out, leaving the boy (at least, in his mind) responsible for taking care of both himself and his deeply depressed mother, who had a history of suicide attempts.

"All these experiences were painful as hell, but they had to happen," MK Asante says, and quotes the ancient Roman poet, Ovid:

"Be patient and tough; some day this pain will be useful to you."

Like all parents, Welsh and her former husband probably made mistakes while they were raising their boys. But both have had the courage to stand aside and allow their son to tell his story as he perceives it.

Neither asked to read the memoir before publication, Asante said, and neither has sought to defend their child-raising decisions in subsequent media interviews.

Welsh even permitted her son to include long excerpts from her private journals in "Buck" that poignantly describe her heartbreak as her children spiral out of control.

"I am very exposed in that book," Welsh says.

"It was painful to read, without a doubt. But that's OK. It was very cathartic for my son, and it was necessary for him to move forward. It didn't harm our relationship; it strengthened it. Perhaps my journals can help other women who are suffering."

If "Buck" is a meditation on what went wrong in Asante's family, it also more subtly is a meditation on what went right.

"He always went right to the precipice," Welsh said. "But he always seemed to know when to pull back. I don't know where that voice inside of him came from, but it prevented him from going over."

Asante credits his father for not giving up on their relationship.

He recounts how Molefi Kete Asante pulled his car over to the shoulder of a North Philadelphia highway after having bailed his son out of jail. The pair grappled and threw punches until Malo finally surrendered, let go of his anger and acknowledged that his father loved him.

And Asante credits his mother for finding the alternative school that fueled his love for writing. In "Buck," he describes what it was like for him to begin his story:

"My hand shaking, trembling like it's freezing.

"Then it hits: a silence louder than all the music I've ever heard in my life.

"All the light in the world, in one beam, before me."

The first thing he wrote when he was confronted with that blank page was "buck."


For Asante, that four-letter word encapsulates much of what it means to be a young black man living today in the United States, in all its racially charged connotations.


When it came time to name his memoir, "I wanted a title that was short but loaded," he writes in an email. "That had substance but wasn't academic."

After he chose the title, a poem came to him that riffed on and reappropriated terms attached to the word, from "buck shots" ("the gun violence in Philadelphia") to "slave buck/ black buck" ("the derogatory buck that slave owners would call African-American men").

The most revealing pages of his memoir may be the ones Asante hasn't written yet: the story of the first 12 years of his life.

When "Buck" starts, "my family was intact, and my life before that was less dramatic." he says. "My foundation was strong. I knew right from wrong. My parents taught me from a young age who I was and to be proud."

A few years ago, Asante embarked upon his own family life. He married a former classmate, and he and his wife, Maya, have a 3-year-old son.

"I decided that being a true rebel didn't mean ending up in prison," he says. "It meant bucking the status quo. It meant bucking the stereotypes about who a young black man is supposed to be in this society."

Buck, up.

MK Asante

Age: 31

Career: Morgan State University professor, author, filmmaker

Born: Zimbabwe

Home: Baltimore

Education: Bachelor's degree from Lafayette College; MFA from UCLA's School of Film and Television.

Oeuvre: Two books of poetry, one book about the hip-hop movement, one memoir. Three films.

Personal: Married, one son.

Catch him: At the NAACP Image Awards 8 p.m. Saturday on TVOne.

About the book: "Buck: A Memoir," published by Spiegel & Grau. 272 pages; $25.