She’s a sergeant in the Army. She became a mother at 16. She grew up in inner city Chicago – one of 12 siblings. She was a member of one of the oldest and toughest street gangs in the country. She was stabbed and beaten – and she beat up other people. When she sings the national anthem, nobody is safe from goose bumps. She’s self-published a book about her life. She can braid your hair like nobody’s business. And she’s just 29.
Kitara McClure is the multicultural director at Spokane Community College, a job she took two months ago. Her husband, Ross, an Iraq war veteran, stays home with the couple’s four sons in a house they’ve just bought.
“I feel so rich,” says McClure, like she can’t really believe the family actually bought a house. “My husband is truly the best thing that’s happened to me.”
As a teen mom in Chicago, McClure explains, there were two ways in which you could make a living: “You either sell drugs or you sell your body – so I realized I had to find a different way.”
She braided hair. At $10 a head, one session could almost take her through the day.
“Pampers where four for a dollar at the corner store. A can of milk was $2.78, and I got really good at asking people to borrow a quarter here and there,” McClure says. “One day I made $13. I shopped a lot at the Dollar Stores; they were popping up like crazy all over the place.”
McClure grew up surrounded by violence. In her book, “Stepping Stones to Success,” McClure describes hearing her mother come up the stairs in the middle of the night: “She walked pretty heavy, so we knew she was coming. There were six of us kids at the time, and somehow we all woke up and ran down the back stairs. Mommy was so hurt that we were that afraid of her that … she made us tear the stairs down. That way we were stuck and could not run from her anymore.”
McClure frequently lived with aunts and uncles, friends, a boyfriend’s family, yet her mother somehow remained a steady influence.
“My mom practiced what they call Pentecostal Holiness. I mean, we prayed morning and evening, and we weren’t allowed to wear pants. She whipped me with an extension cord, but I didn’t really know that was unusual.”
McClure still talks to her mother and gives her credit for fostering resilience.
“Boy, she had a quote for everything. Mostly she’d say, ‘Be the best at whatever it is.’ ”
It was a boyfriend who introduced McClure to the Black Disciples street gang.
Initially, she didn’t want to join, but soon most of McClure’s circle of friends was from the gang.
“You don’t have to kill anyone to join,” McClure says matter-of-factly. “People think that’s the case.”
She recites the code gang members follow in a hurried and low voice, making it sound like a quiet, often repeated prayer.
“I do it real fast. I don’t want the kids to be able to memorize any of it,” she says.
In her book, she describes getting stabbed with a bottle after having “violated” her best friend because the gang told her to do so.
Bleeding from a wound in her neck that later required surgery, she found that none of her gang friends would let her into their cars. “They didn’t want me bleeding in their tricked-out Cadillacs.”
Soon after she returned from the hospital, she says, a gang member accused her of stealing $100, a ridiculously small amount in a drug-dealing world, where dealers bring in thousands of dollars by the hour.
Gang members showed up at her house, hauled her outside and broke her hands with a baseball bat.
“I said to myself, ‘Kitara, you have to make some changes.’ ” McClure joined the Army on a challenge from her mom, who said that’s where all the “really bad people go.”
Before long, she was on her way to Germany. She obtained the rank of sergeant in less than three years.
The military had the rules and structure just like the gang – without the drug dealing and forced beatings of course – and that appealed to McClure.
But the time in Germany was rough.
“I kind of got lost. I was drinking so much to hide the pain; I was away from my children. I was 21 years old and helping people get ready to deploy overseas – there was a lot of deep, deep sadness going on inside.”
McClure says she didn’t encounter any racism in the Army.
“In the Army, everyone is green,” she says.
Yet being appropriately “ghetto” was a big part of McClure’s personality.
“I mean, I was afraid of dating a white guy because I knew I would get my ghetto pass revoked. It’s funny how it doesn’t work that way when a black guy dates a white woman.”
Then she met Ross McClure, 26.
“From the moment I saw him I just knew he was my husband. White, from Davenport, Wash., and raised a Mormon – the two had many differences to overcome.
“We didn’t even speak the same language,” McClure says. Ross McClure talked about saving for college for the children, of family, of a future with goals and dreams. The couple married in 2003, and he was immediately deployed to Iraq.
“I don’t know how we made it through those first years,” McClure says.
When Ross McClure returned from Iraq, the family moved to Davenport – yet another huge change for McClure, who found she was pretty much the only black in town.
It was difficult for her to make friends, and that didn’t change when McClure complained to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that her son, Terrence, was called racial slurs by other students.
That was in 2005. A year later, the Davenport School District was cleared of any wrongdoing.
“I didn’t expect that outcome. I mean, I made a lot of sacrifices in the United States Army and so did my husband. I couldn’t believe the whole thing was just let go.”
By then, McClure was enrolled at Spokane Community College, and the daily 100-mile roundtrip commute combined with taking care of her family and school work became too much.
The McClures and their four kids, Terrence, 13, Manuel, 7, Gabriel, 6, and Matthew, 4, moved to Spokane.
She completed her bachelor’s degree and is working on a master’s degree in management and leadership.
A trip with other SCC students to the United Nations last year brought a reunion with McClure’s father.
“My dad was in jail almost all my life, and there he was in the hotel lobby,” McClure says. “It was the first time I saw him since I was a very little girl. He looked sick. He looked like his life had caught up with him.” The memory brings tears to McClure’s eyes and a sense that though she says she’s healing, there’s a lot of pain left under the scars on her neck and arms.
“I also visited my great auntie in Brooklyn. They lived in the same place, in the same building, as when I was little. I mean, they have shoes now, but everything was still the same. I knew that day I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree.”
She has sporadic contact with her dad, whom she says it’s not safe to have visit. Her mom, on the other hand, may make it to the Northwest soon.
“My mom lives in Alabama now. When I left, gang members came after my siblings. She had to move.”
A lot has happened in a life that’s not even three decades long.
McClure volunteers and helps out with groups like AHANA whenever she can, and she has created a youth services program she calls Pony Tales.
For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, McClure put on an “MLK vs. Hip-Hop Forum” that filled the Garland Theater with spirited discussion about hip-hop and black entertainment stereotypes.
“I think what you want to do is be the change you want to see,” says McClure. “What people need to learn more so than anything else is how to get along even when they are different.”