Farouk Seti Olajuwon was a remarkable man.
He was the epitome of a man that in our language we call with the sacred label of “soul brother.” He was a fellow who hailed from Clarendon, Ark. and early on was raised in Memphis, a place that is deeply rooted in the grits and gravy style of Black American culture. Olajuwon’s parents Geraldine and Floyd Yates gave him his birth name of Alonzo Benjamin Yates. He was the oldest of seven children. In junior high, he changed his name from Alonzo to Lawrence. He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Memphis. Early in life, Olajuwon was one from among the masses of our people, who was tied to the life of the streets. There, he earned the nickname of “Smooth Black.” Olajuwon was loyal to family and friends without judgment and forgiving. He truly believed in accepting the shortcoming of others and focused on the good in all. Like so many of our brothers and sisters, he was entangled in the maze of American madness (That is to say, white supremacy) and it transformed his life.
On May 26 Olajuwon took a walk in the night and passed to that silent continent of eternity. Cancer was the culprit; undeterred by the natural/medicinal treatments Farouk engaged. Those of you who knew him joined hands in struggle with him and whom had our lives enriched by him; we will miss his person, but not his spirit. We will not forget the essence of a man who led a committed life in our community and shared wisdom well beyond his 67 years. To all that knew him, he was generous, kind, thoughtful and loving with a terrific sense of humor with a contagious laugh. For all that hung out with him talking and watching our people gather in positive ways, excel at building our community or simply doing their thang of being and becoming, he would always say, “Now that’s a beautiful thang.”
It is a truism that an individual should be measured by his good deeds and the basic content of their character. Farouk came to the Twin Cities in the early1980s to study history and business economics at the University of Minnesota. However, his studies at the U would not be purely academic. Our brother was armed with a newfound consciousness and in fact changed his name to reflect this new consciousness of Afrocentric thought and practice. Farouk, an Arabic name, meaning “one who compensates for their faults or bad aspects of himself.” Seti comes from the ancient Egyptian/Kemetic King Menmaatra Seti I, who was known to re-establish the kingdom back to its prior beauty and traditions. Olajuwon, a Yoruba name from West Africa, meaning “with honest struggle comes the exaltation of triumph, producing blessings of wealth and honor.”
In following the guidance from his new name, Olajuwon immediately made his presence felt on campus and in the community as a creative and active participant in our glorious and on-going struggle for Black people’s freedom, justice and human dignity. He engaged himself in a remarkable number of actions while a student. Perhaps his most significant contribution was his almost single handedly revival of Black student activism at the University of Minnesota. The Afro-American Action Committee or the Black Student Union lay dormant after the glory days of the Morrill Hall takeover by militant Black student leaders such as Rosemary Massey, Horace Huntley and Marie Braddock Williams.
It was Olajuwon who rekindled the style and spirit from those days by reawakening their moral responsibility to struggle and not allow the valiant and dangerous work of their predecessors’ die in vain. The centerpiece of his work was to revive political action among students through political education. Thus, he set out to design a program to educate Black students and the Black community at large politically and culturally in an academic and communal setting. This was a wondrous thing to see and be a part of. For almost a decade the University of Minnesota held one of the most intelligently directed, dynamic and mind lifting African-American History programs in the country. This opinion comes from good authorities from all over the country. Scholars, artists, progressive political activists and lovers of Black people such as John Henrik Clarke, Ifé and Jacob Carruthers, Maulana Karenga, the Hon. Louis Farrakhan, Joyce Ladner, Molefi Asante, Leonard Jefferies, Steve Cokely and Khalid Muhammad were commonplace and their lectures provided intellectual challenges, healthy debate and stimulating conversations. Olajuwon was not a public leader, but a humble assertive servant leader. Yet he was the man with the plan. It was said while he was the Director of the Black Student Union he quadrupled its budget through advertisement and sponsorships from around the campus and community. He was a strategist and underground thinker. He borrowed a page from the leadership of Nelson Mandela in that he led from behind and he walked softly and carried a big stick.
The work of Olajuwon on behalf of Black people didn’t stop there. He connected “the town and the gown” with his programing and work while he was at the university. He was a gifted entrepreneur. One connection he made in the community was with Beck Horton, one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities who shared his success by providing jobs to Black residents, hoping to help revitalize our community. Olajuwon, with the guidance and investment from Horton, started an apparel company producing the most attention grabbing Black History Month and Afrocentric T-shirts, sweat shirts and sweat pants in the nation. His Black History Month posters were a work of phenomenal art that were scattered throughout the community and nation. One of his Afrocentric shirts was displayed on national television by none other than the rapper, singer, and actress Queen Latifa.
Olajuwon was an author leaving us a book of proverbs and thoughts about Black empowerment. His book, “Bootstraps and Metaphors: Black Power Economics” by Lawrence “Smooth Black” Yates was published in 2010. In this book you see the thoughts and ideas that many of us discussed with him over the decades. When reading his words, you see Olajuwon as a champion of Black people’s dreams, wishes and visions. He passionately believed in the greatness of Black people and in a prosperous Black future built by Black people. He loved applying his visionary abilities to Black problem-solving and Black nation building. Olajuwon loved to play chess and thought solving the most complex chess problems was exciting, but he found Black problem-solving to be even more exciting. His understanding of history, along with his strategic chess skills and abilities in Black problem-solving, helped him to make everything simple, practical and logical. His self-designed book cover adorns some of his hallmark artistry that was renown in his apparel and poster designs.
Now let it be said on behalf on the friends, associates and fellow workers to the life, legacy and legend of Farouk Olajuwon in your name, the struggle continues. You have taught us a life lesson that must be embraced by all of us; and that is.
“The chief aim of life is not simply to be happy,
The chief aim of life is to be useful,
To be responsible,
To be compassionate,
To count for something
To make it matter that you lived at all.
Now that’s a beautiful thang.”
– Farouk Seti Olajuwon