Sitting in his 10th grade English class, Columbus resident Demarius Donelson watched a Tik Tok titled “the danger of a single story.”
The short video on the social media platform highlighted the dangers of forming a single narrative about a single place or group of people. After watching the clip, Donelson’s class had a discussion with Columbus High English teacher Colleen Keefe about the stereotypes the students had encountered in their lives. The conversation quickly turned into an assignment.
They were asked to write a poem with a template featuring three stereotypes about themselves, then to flip those around to write something empowering and a more accurate description of who they were.
Most of the 60-something poems turned into Keefe touched on subjects such as musical interests, shyness, their hometowns, a misleading smile, attire and more.
Donelson had a lot to say. There’s so much he’s experienced already. The past year alone has presented all sorts of challenges for the sophomore. Along with his two younger siblings, Donelson moved in February 2020 with his mother, Valerie Moore, from Greenwood to Columbus, a place where he had no friends initially.
“It has been very difficult for him,” Moore, a single parent, said of the move to Columbus. “I even asked him one time ‘Do you just want to move back?’ As a parent, it can be heartbreaking to see your child struggle. I have two younger children as well and a child older than him but she’s in college.
“The adjustment for (the younger two) is just fine, however (Demarius) keeps saying, ‘I don’t know these people and you’re always telling me to be mindful of the company I keep because the company you keep sometimes justifies who you are.’ So it’s been very strenuous on him trying to make friends or whatever.”
After much reflection, Donelson penned his first verse: Just because I am a teenager, I am not a child. I am not disrespectful. I am not a junkie. I am a growing individual.
“I just was thinking,” Donelson said of his identity poem. “I was thinking about these past two years and the situations and stuff that I’ve been through with me moving to Columbus from my hometown.”
Moore said Donelson has consistently told her in numerous conversations although he may “dress differently,” he’s not a thug. And so, the second paragraph was penned: Just because I am black, I am not a gangster. I am not a bad influence. I am not a thief. I am a hard working young man trying to figure out life.
“It’s sometimes easier to write it down then say it out loud,” Donelson said of his thoughts. “Things I can’t say out loud, I write down. I feel like it has a better meaning.”
Racial stereotyping has always been a conversational topic with Donelson and Moore. Moore consistently lets Donelson know he’s not a product of his environment and his skin color has nothing to do with what he can accomplish in his life.
“I try to remind him your life is your own, whatever you choose to do with it is going to be up to you,” Moore said.
And thus, the third and final line was written: Just because I am a product of my environment, I am not a threat. I am not a thug. I am not a scammer. I am THE HOPE.
Keefe called Moore to share her son’s poem with her last week, which came as a surprise to Moore because Donelson had not talked with her about the assignment when he was writing it.
“He is kind of quiet and keeps to himself, but I knew he was a really strong writer,” Keefe said of Donelson’s poem. “He’s submitted a lot of things before that were impactful and he does have a way with words. Nevertheless it still blew me away when he did write it.”
On the other hand, Donelson had no idea his written work would eventually reach his mother.
“I didn’t expect the poem to get that far, I just expected to pass the assignment,” he said.
Donelson continues to adjust to his new community, even meeting a new friend recently according to his mother. One of his stronger passions in life is football, a sport he’s had interest in for the majority of his life.
After not participating last fall, Donelson has spent this offseason weight training for this upcoming season and hopes to play linebacker for the Falcons come August.
“He’s funny, he’s very curious and quick to ask questions about things about the school, or questions like ‘Why do we do it this way?’ in a very polite way,” Keefe said. “He does like to keep to himself and doesn’t necessarily love participating in class, but with a small class he’s kind of forced to, so he handles that role very well.”