Amistad actor speaks about social pressures on children
By COURTNEY BOYLE
Derrick Ashong, an African American who starred in Amistad, spoke to students about the social pressures kids face in a Black History Month lecture Wednesday.
Moving from place to place while growing up, Ashong discovered what was cool in New York was not cool in Saudi Arabia. Moving in and out of the United States, Ashong had to learn to adapt to what was termed as cool in the society where he was living.
"I was always the outsider," Ashong said. "As soon as we went to a certain place and I figured out what was to be cool we picked it up and moved to another place. Different societies have different views."
What it means to "be cool" is an issue kids have to face in today's society.
"While kids will say that being cool means being yourself, people will just say it because it has a nice ring to it," Ashong said.
He believes, however, being cool usually has a lot less to do with people as individuals, but more to do with a certain society and what its expectations are.
During Ashong's high school days he realized he did not fit into any of the defined groups of Americans, British or the Arabians.
It was at this time that he realized he needed to be who he was.
"I don't fit into any of the groups solely — let me not worry about fitting into these groups, let me just be who I am," said Ashong.
"The idea that I would be my own person had a profound impact on my life."
When Ashong returned to the United States to finish high school, he realized that he would not fit in because he had a different background than the closely-knit group of students at his high school.
As he perused college opportunities Ashong decided to apply to Harvard.
"I applied to prove to everyone. I couldn't understand why anyone would look at me and decide I was less qualified. Brown was my safety school," Ashong said.
Ashong again faced the challenge of fitting in when no one in his high school thought he could get in to schools such as Harvard and Brown.
"I put on the face of confidence to the world," Ashong said. "I was completely thrown in a loop because the people in my high school didn't think I was smart enough to get into Harvard. The fact that anyone in my high school told me I wasn't smart enough was mind boggling."
In December of his senior year, Ashong received an early action letter from Harvard welcoming him to the campus.
It was at this time that he really wasn't sure if he would make it to being a student at Harvard.
"I went to freshman weekend to see what it was all about," he said.
The fall of 1993 was a trying time for him, once again struggling to fit into a new society and to "be cool." The reactions from students were baffling to him.
Because he was too short for basketball and too skinny for football, other students reasoned he must be on campus because of affirmative action.
"I remember feeling so bad because I thought I'd proven myself and that I deserved to be there," Ashong said.
Ashong did prove himself by receiving the Harvard Foundation Award for outstanding contributions to intercultural and race relations and the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences‚ Award for Outstanding undergraduate work, the highest award for undergraduate thesis.
"I'm not going to worry about what people think of me, I'm going to do what I think is right," Ashong said. "At every juncture of me growing up, had I done what society had expected of me I would not have gone very far. It is not just about how you walk, talk, and dress."
All News Stories for Thursday, February 8, 2001