Young, Gifted & Black Series
By Taki S. Raton
It is the mission of this YG&B series to highlight exemplary and accomplished profiles of African American youth locally, regionally, nationally and global.
An objective is to provide models of excellence and personalized paths to goal attainment such that our young people can be further inspired and directed to discover, embrace and cultivate their own unique talents, skills and genius towards becoming masters of their own destiny.
And within this revolving cycle of Black brilliance as so inspired, it is envisioned that our young people will grow and they too will successfully become exemplary and accomplished models for the next generation to follow.
Rochelle Ballantyne is one such model of youthful brilliance and excellence.
Still Young, Gifted and Black, this 18-year-old was first featured in this series nearly one year ago on November 1, 2012.
She was then on her quest to become the first African American female to attain the title of chess master.
This accomplished talent is now in the final phase of her quest as she has been invited to represent the United States at the World Youth Tournament this December 17 through the 19th at Al Aim UAE in the United Arab Emirates.
As reported in the November YG&B edition, Rochelle grew up in a single parent home in the working class neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Her first chess lesson was from her grandmother as a third grader when she was 8-years-old.
The elder did not want the neighborhood environment to limit or prohibit her granddaughter from reaching her fullest potential.
At the time of the November writing, the then 17- year-old high school senior never strayed from that beloved formative vision.
Quoting Steve Kastenbaum of CNN Radio Soundwaves, noting herein her personalized path to goal attainment, Rochelle plays chess the same way she walks through the streets of New York, “determined to reach her goal without letting any obstacles slow her down.”
It was through her grandmother’s tutelage where she was introduced to the prospects of being the first African American female chess master.
“I’ve never been the first anything.
So having that title next to my name is going to feel amazing,” she said.
To Rochelle, “it seemed like an impossible feat and I didn’t think it could happen.”
The youthful competitor shares that she was not as dedicated then as she is now and reveals that one of the reasons her grandmother urged her in this direction was because, “I was really active as a child, and she wanted to find a way to keep me relaxed and get my brain going.”
Although others around her thought she was a “natural” at chess, Rochelle was not fully inspired mentally towards its pursuit.
Her commitment, however, would soon be redirected with the passing of her grandmother.
“After she died, that really affected me, because she was the one person that always had confidence in me,” says the Brooklyn teen in a Sierra Tishgart “Teen Vogue” interview.
“She never pushed me and she always respected me for who I was. I have to reach that goal for her.”
An early victorious moment on her path towards this goal was in fifth grade where she won fourth place at the Girl’s National Chess Championships.
Of this accomplishment, she remarks that “This is when I thought I could really be good at this.”
When it came time for middle school, she enrolled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318, an inner-city school where more than 65 percent of the students are from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level.
However, as fortune would follow – along with perhaps the guiding spirit of her grandmother – I.S. 318 also has the most winning junior high school chess team in the nation.
Over a multi-year period, I.S. 318 has won 26 national chess titles, more than any other junior high in the country.
The school has trained many of the highest ranked chess players and as cited in a Brooklyn Film Festival notation on the film “Brooklyn Castle” – “If Albert Einstein who was rated 1800 were to join the chess team at I.S. 318, he’d only rank fifth.”
It would be through the lens of “Brooklyn Castle” that America would first learn about this aspiring African American female becoming a chess master.
Filming began in April of 2009 during that year’s junior high division of the U.S. Chess Federation Supernational competition.
The 101 minute production follows the chess team through an entire academic year and highlights Rochelle because, as noted by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “she is such a charismatic figure” and the only girl in the documentary.
Assistant principal and coach John Galvin oversees the chess program and says of Rochelle that she “was one of our best players that we have ever had in our school.
She won several individual national championships while a student here at I.S. 318.”
During the time of the filming, this would be the last year for the 13 yearold eighth grader who was then looking forward to starting high school at the elite Brooklyn Tech in Brooklyn, New York. While a sophomore at Brooklyn, Rochelle won the All-Girls 18 and under championship sponsored by the Garry Kasparov Foundation in cooperation with the University of Texas in Dallas.
YG&B mentioned Rochelle yet in another writing when featuring the chess skills of Justus Williams.
Under the headline banner “Awesome chess talent among the world’s best,” Justice at the age of 12 became the youngest African American chess master in history.
In this August 3, 2013 update, Rochelle became the highest-rated player at I.S. 318 but took a little time off from chess to concentrate on her academics.
Apparently, her studies coupled with her chess talent paid off.
She won full scholarships both to the University of Texas-Austin and to Stanford University.
The talented teen additionally competed in the 2012 World Youth Chess Championship in Maribor, Slovenia.
According to a United States Chess Federation descriptor, players qualify for participation in world tournaments by achieving a minimum overall rating; by earning a Personal Right (PR) in winning a medal at the previous World Youth competition, and by achieving top spots at designated National scholastic events.
As noted in a recent fundraiser “giver” posting, Rochelle recalls the time when as a third grader that she was “loud and really annoying.” She adds: “Eleven years ago, my grandmother found a way to keep me calm and to get my mind going, she taught me chess.
To this day, I still can’t believe how far I’ve come. Being one of the very few girls in the field of chess, I’ve always wanted to stand out.
I can’t think of a better way to do that than being able to represent the United States at the World Youth Tournament this year in the United Arab Emirates.
Coming from a low-income family, I’ve never let that stop me from achieving my goals.”
The 3-time Girls’ National Champion is seeking funds to assist her travel needs. As an 18-year-old, this is the last year that she will be able to represent the United States in this prestigious tournament.
She has thus far raised $2,870 towards a $5,000 goal.
YG&B would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Carol Adams, President and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago for sharing this story on October 5 in facebook. Were it not for this writer’s browsing on his fb news feed, this writer would not have been apprised of Rochelle’s updated success.
With the exception of this past September 14 YG&B article on Sumayyah Muhammad (“8-year-old equestrian has sights on Olympics”) where the primary informational source was Eric Muhammad’s writing in The Final Call Newspaper, more often than not, story leads for this series celebrating exceptional Black youth achievement generally emanates from origins outside of our community.
Thank you again Dr. Adams for your sharing.
As for Rochelle in closing thoughts, we will close this writing most appropriately with the same ending phrased in November where she says: “I don’t want to reach the mark of becoming the first African American female chess master for other people.
I want to reach it for my grandmother.”
We will all be hopeful this late December or early January when “Young, Gifted & Black” can feature the story of our first African American female ever to attain the tile of chess master.