Shenyah Ruth, 17, the St. Petersburg Metropolitan National Council of Negro Women, Inc., Black Pearls president for the past two years, seen here during a Sunday service at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.
BY INDHIRA SUERO ACOSTA, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The path to becoming a confident teenager started some time ago for Shenyah Ruth, 17, ever since she was one of the few black children in an all-white school.
As the current president of the local Black Pearls, a group of young ladies organized by the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., she’s always looking for ways to improve herself.
Unlike African-Americans during the time of Jim Crow, Shenyah has never had to experience segregation. She didn’t have to use a separate drinking fountain or occupy the back seats on the bus. However, she did attend an all-white middle school knowing that they only had black students thee to fill a quota.
According to the teenager — a rising senior at Northeast High School in the Academy of Finance — the experience allowed her to see “the other side.” A significant change for a girl, who attended a majority black elementary school, lived in a black neighborhood and spent her Sunday mornings in a black church.
That reality changed when her parents sent her to a fundamental middle school, especially when her mom told her to prepare for the worst.
“That definitely shaped me as a person because I’m not just a south side person anymore. I’ve been in that predicament of being the only black, and that definitely did open me up as a person,” Shenyah said.
Being far away from her neighborhood and her friends, she had to set the bar high. At the same time, she had to deal with some teachers that wanted to “babysit” her. For example, when she was in the eighth grade and the class was reading the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her teacher suggested that she read a different book because of its themes of racial inequity.
Despite a few obstacles, she didn’t experience the name calling or the bullying. She never got into any fights or altercations.
“It has to do with my personality and my character,” she said. “You have to give me a reason not to like you. I always try to see the good in people.”
Girls getting pregnant and boys selling drugs — these are how black youths are portrayed in the media. Shenyah, on the other hand, is planning to attend college at Florida A&M University and major in business communications or international business.
For her, to accomplish that goal has to do with her maturity level and also how she was raised. She has fun like an average teenager does, but she also has goals. However, she thinks that her community could do more. Shenyah said black teenagers could take part in more educational programs instead of only engaging in recreational activities over the summer.
From her perspective, those changes would prevent the youth from growing up with a distorted image of the African-American community. She also regrets that many young people are not interested in academics.
“That’s not even a big thing for us anymore. It’s like, OK, I’ll get my GED, I’ll drop out of high school or whatever.’ I [also] feel that our high schools could be better. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to stay in my neighborhood,” Shenyah said.
She also isn’t afraid to have friends or date outside of the black community. Shenyah feels that there’s an expectation from older African Americans “to stay in your race.”
“I’m like that multicultural type. If a guy likes me, I’m not going to be like, ‘oh, you’re white, or you’re Mexican, you’re not black,’” she explained. “I can always teach my kids the history. You can’t get rid of the history because you’re not fully black.”
For Shenyah, everyone has something different to bring to the table. That’s why she considers it essential to always be you and better yourself.
“Go to whatever college you want to go to; study whatever you want to study. You don’t have to be the cleaning person. You don’t have to be working at the drive-thru,” Shenyah said.