article by Michael Cavna via washingtonpost.com
JUST LAST month, Akilah Johnson was “surprised and overwhelmed” when she learned that she was a national finalist in the “Doodle 4 Google” contest for grade-schoolers.
Akilah, a sophomore at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast Washington, has just been named Google’s big winner in the national contest, topping the 53 state and territory champions, whose work had been culled from about 100,000 student entries.
“It is really overwhelming,” Akilah tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, minutes after receiving the news Monday during a ceremony at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. “I was so excited, I started crying,” Akilah says. “I didn’t even look at anybody — I was just looking at the framed copy [of the Doodle] they gave me.”
Akilah is the contest’s first winner from Washington, as D.C. was not eligible to enter the states-only competition in past years. (The Post’s Comic Riffs had joined the chorus of voices urging that the District be included.)
This year’s contest theme was: “What makes me…me.” Akilah drew a box-braided Doodle titled “My Afrocentric Life,” using color pencils, black crayons and Sharpie markers. The Doodle includes symbols of black heritage and signs representing the Black Lives Matter movement. “Although it felt like forever making this picture, it only took me about two weeks,” Akilah told Comic Riffs last month.
“I based this picture off my lifestyle and what has made into what I am today,” she stated as part of her entry, which today is featured on Google’s home page. “As a child, I attended Roots [Public Charter School] and Roots [Activity Learning Center], so I was raised in the ‘Afrocentric lifestyle,’ ” Akilah told The Post, referring to educational institutions in Northwest Washington that tout “culturally relevant curriculum” and the aim to serve “the specific needs of children of African heritage.”
“One of my teachers from Roots, Baba Camera, is really what made me look at art in a different way,” Akilah said. “As I grew older, I had realized that the black people that came before us has made us into what we are today, so of course I has to include them in some way.” (“Of all the things I chose to include,” Akilah writes on Google’s site, “the six most special to me are the Symbol of Life (the ankh), the African continent, where everything began for me and my ancestors, the Eye of Horus, the word ‘power’ drawn in black, the woman’s fist based on one of my favorite artist’s works, and the D.C. flag — because I’m a Washingtonian at heart and I love my city with everything in me!”)
Another art teacher crucial to Akilah’s creative journey thus far is Zalika Perkins, who personally urged Akilah to enter Google’s contest. “She just went with it,” Perkins tells The Post of Akilah’s response. “I thought she would do a great job. She made deadline … and created a beautifully layered piece.”
Perkins’s only concern: “I thought it was so culturally rich that I didn’t know if people would appreciate it.”
Akilah’s composition reflects bright childhood themes on the left, then moves into more serious reflections on society. “Just as we read from left to right, my goal was to make the picture turn heads from the color to the meaning,” Akilah told Comic Riffs last month. “I have a book that I use that’s full [of] quotes, and the one I went by for this picture was: ‘Be the type of person that’s not only turns heads, but turns souls.’ ”
And today, all eyes were turned toward Akilah, who brought her mother, Tikecia Johnson, and Perkins along on the trip to California. “I never imagined we would be here,” Perkins says today, “but she totally earned it.”
Besides seeing her work spotlighted on Google’s home page, Akilah will receive a $30,000 college scholarship, and her high school will be awarded a $50,000 Google for Education grant “towards the establishment and improvement of a computer lab or technology program.” She also will get to meet with professional artists at Google’s headquarters.
“I’m excited about the scholarship,” Akilah says, “and I’m excited about [being on] Google’s home page even more.”
And what does she hope that the home page’s millions of viewers will take away from viewing her Doodle?
“I hope they feel inspired,” Akilah says, “and try to understand the picture as I want them to understand it.”
The contest’s celebrity judges included athletes Steph Curry and Alex Morgan; astronaut Yvonne Cagle; performers Julie Bowen and B.J. Novak; and animator Glen Keane (“Tangled”).