The first time Derrick Barnes laid eyes on the woman he would later marry, he couldn’t have drawn a more perfect picture. From Kansas City, Missouri, he went off to Jackson State University in Mississippi with goals of a marketing degree and "maybe, just maybe I’d fall in love with one of those thick, thick, super-thick country girls,” he recalls his Freshmen thoughts.
Tinka Anne Wells, born in Southern California, is by no means "country." When she met Derrick, she was heartbroken from a past relationship and just wanted to focus on getting her Biology degree. But just when a girl wants to be left alone, the future father of her children walks up.
Derrick, determined to meet her, coerced one of her friends to introduce them, “…the one with the gap in her teeth and the big afro…the chocolate one.” Tinka had no desire. Her friend urged her: "Come on Tinka! Just meet him. You don’t have to marry him!"
“Let me explain, Derrick was the poet on the yard, with the overalls, choker, [no drawers] … that dude!” Tinka laughs as she recalls her husbands college days. Obviously quite confident, he made her feel the same way. "This is the thing, Derrick made me comfortable being me. He loved all of me. And I liked him because he always looked me right in the eye. He was always sincere,” she says.
Tinka has been a West African/Caribbean dancer for 12 years. Wearing an afro for most of that time, she decided to lock up or, grow dreadlocks. Her dance teacher, however, disapproved of the idea— which made Tinka question it herself. She consulted Derrick. “He looked at me and said, without hesitation, ‘You can shave it all off, Tink, I love whatever.’"
While they were dating, she entered the venue where Derrick was in the lineup at a poetry reading. He was already on stage on the mic when she got there. He saw her come in and he hit her with surefire way to get a girl in and of the 90’s to love you forever: ‘My lady just walked through the door and I’m gonna spit this freestyle…’ On that beat, Tinka was inspired to start writing poetry and Derrick fancies himself her muse into “cool”. “I hipped her to jazz, poetry and I’m still teaching her Hip Hop 101!” he boasts.
After Tinka graduated from JSU, she attended medical school at the University of Kansas. Derrick graduated with his Marketing degree and moved back to Kansas City. In 1999 he was hired at Hallmark Cards making him their first black male copywriter.
In 2001, they married and Derrick and Tinka Barnes had their first son, Ezra.
“I’d never seen a father growing up so I didn’t have an example. My mom did it all. All my friends were in single parent homes. So everything was really new to me, being a dad and a husband,” he says.
They moved to New Orleans in 2003 for Tinka to begin her residency at LSU. Their second son Solomon, whom Derrick calls their “dirty South baby,” was born in 2004.
Together in 2005, this foursome went through the Great American Ordeal – Hurricane Katrina. Affected and relocated by the catastrophe, Tinka recalls with a sighful, “Lord have mercy…And we wouldn’t be here if wasn’t for that”. Young parents focused on their goals, they had no idea of the detriment. “I was studying for the boards and Derrick was writing his book, we were paying no attention to the TV,” Tinka says. There was obviously a bad storm, but they didn’t know until they saw super dome being occupied that they had to evacuate. By the time they turned the TV on, the second levee had broken. “Seeing all these brothers and sisters piled up like that, I knew it wasn’t going to end well.”
Tinka continues, “We didn’t have much gas and all of the gas in the city was gone. We had to get out of New Orleans and we had less than a half tank of gas. Derrick is diabetic and his insulin was running low. On top of that, it was Ezra’s birthday…I happened to have a cake and brought it with us.” #momsrock.
Derrick took $200 out of the ATM and they went to a hotel for safety. Before things got worse, they had the minds to charge their cell phones.
“After all the lights in the hotel went out, they said we had to go. We didn’t know where to go.” Tinka admits that she did not know if they would make it, but her fear didn’t trump her faith. “I believe in the power of prayer, and I was praying! My momma was praying. My sister was praying.”
They ended up in a ‘one-horse town’ called Bulkie, Louisiana where Tinka’s uncle was waiting for them on the road, like the liaison to their new life.
The family has returned to Kansas City and rebuilt their lives. They purchased a five-bedroom house in 2011. Derrick Barnes is a book author of the Scholastic series called Ruby and the Booker Boys, as well as, We Could Be Brothers, a novel based on a conversation between a thirteen and twelve year old. Dr. Tinka Barnes is the lead physician at a Family Practice in Missouri. She speaks to inner city kids on obesity and the importance of nutrition and exercise. She and Derrick are planning their tag team lecture series inspired by a young woman in Tinka’s dance class whose father was a pimp and whose mother was a drug addict. “When she showed up pregnant at sixteen, I told Derrick that we needed to do more.”
Derrick also has a blog on the outstanding website MyBrownBaby.com. He dedicates his column to his children, called My Four Sons, whom he authentically calls his tribe, whom he’s dubbed with nicknames to accompany their personalities:
Ezra (Pretty Boy McCoy), the brainy one who likes the mirror, is 11. Tinka describes him as the nicest person she ever met. Solomon (Solo), 7, is the prankster with New Orleans Saints football dreams; Silas (Nestle Snypes) age 5 is the sweet charmer; and the baby, Nnamdi aka Phe-Nnam (nine months) is busy being ‘super cute’.
The tribe even has their own call and response. Derrick: Who can beat the Barnes boys? Boys In Unison: Nobody!!
“Everything I do is centered around my family," says Derrick. “My first job is raising these boys and loving this lady. They are my everything.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, "The Coolest Black Family” is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider that family does not always mean mother + father + kids. What we know is that what defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we criss-cross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love.
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 90's urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her @editorialgenius.