Inspiring greatness from black graduates

  • Article by: IVORY A. TOLDSON , The Root
  • Updated: May 23, 2013 - 12:50 PM

Graduates listen to President Barack Obama deliver a commencement speech as it rains at Morehouse College in Atlanta, May 19, 2013.

Photo: Doug Mills, New York Times

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During a graduation speech this month at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, first lady Michelle Obama told students, “When something doesn’t go your way, you’ve just got to adjust. You’ve got to dig deep and work like crazy, and that’s when you’ll find out what you’re really made of during those hard times. But you can only do that if you’re willing to put yourself in a position where you might fail, and that’s why so often failure is the key to success.”

She used several examples of people -- including her husband, President Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey -- to illustrate that triumph is a natural byproduct of adversity.

According to the U.S. census, about 2.6 million African-American boys and girls attend high schools across the United States. If current trends continue, a little more than 80 percent of the males and 84 percent of the females will complete high school or obtain a GED diploma.

Although the vast majority of black children complete high school, most do not complete college. Many first-generation college students have fewer financial, family and community resources to persist through the more challenging aspects of college, such as dealing with financial obligations, meeting academic requirements and finding opportunities for postbaccalaureate life.

High school graduation speakers meet students at a critical juncture. Many black high school students have persisted through an environment that often felt unwelcoming. Studies show that black students are more likely to attend schools in a high-security environment and less likely to perceive care and respect from their teachers. In addition, most black high school graduates have had to adapt to a racially biased curriculum that undermines their culture’s contribution to any field.

Within this context, graduation speakers have a unique opportunity to impart wisdom and inspire postsecondary success among African-American students by reaffirming black culture and helping students create a personal narrative of success. Unfortunately, many graduation speakers use the opportunity to denigrate and dispirit black students through a mind-numbing recital of poorly sourced statistics, which imply that, for example, black students have a better chance of going to prison than to college and have a corrupt value system that attributes being smart to “acting white.”

These types of speeches elicit a range of emotions from students, ranging from boredom to unease. Students who internalize such messages often conclude that the only path to success is to distance themselves from their peers, community and even their culture.

Here are suggestions to graduation speakers and others, including teachers and parents, who have the attentive ear of one, or more, of our nations’ black high school graduates.

-- Black graduates need to understand their greatness

Recently I asked a group of teachers and school administrators if their black students would be more inclined to revere Gen. Andrew Jackson or Gen. Garson. Most of them had not heard of Garson. Garson was a free black man who was the commander of a British outpost known as the “Negro Fort” on Prospect Bluff in Spanish Florida in 1814. After the War of 1812, British troops left the fort to Garson and a militia of about 400 black militiamen.

From the outpost, Garson provided refuge to Africans who had escaped from plantations in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Eventually the militia organized attacks on plantations to rescue other Africans held in slavery. After much angst among Southern plantation owners, Jackson illegally sent troops into Spanish-occupied Florida to attack the fort, killing at least 200 free black men, including Garson, by firing squad.

One must acknowledge the humanity of black and Native people to understand that the battle between Garson and Jackson, along with the ensuing Seminole Wars, was a civil war, not unlike the War Between the States. This is only one among hundreds of lessons omitted from black students’ curricula. True U.S. history involves black people making a material contribution to the development of this nation as well as to the liberation of black people, often through armed resistance and social diplomacy.

Contrarily, black students are constantly confronted with a cultural mythology in education that embraces historical figures who were complicit in victimizing their ancestors, against a faded backdrop of black victims, bystanders and a few isolated black protagonists. One of my students for life -- a gifted conscious hip-hop artist from Oklahoma named Marcel P. Black -- once told me that he left home to attend college at Southern University before he learned of his home state’s legacy of “Black Wall Street.”

He firmly believed that if he and his peers had learned their history in school, more of them would have aspired for greatness. Graduation speakers have the ability to help black students realize their prominence by revealing rich information about their legacy. If we want black students to be serious about education, we need to be serious about educating them about who they are.

-- Black graduates need help defining themselves for themselves

During in-service training for staff members at an inner-city high school, I asked participants to describe the neighborhoods of their students. I heard phrases like “crime-ridden,” “broken homes” and “drug-infested.” I then asked if anyone had grown up in neighborhoods that were similar to their students’.

After several raised their hands, I asked, “How did you grow up in such a neighborhood and still become successful?” This question spurred a more meaningful dialogue about inner-city neighborhoods that considered community assets, hope and resilience, against a more measured examination of community challenges.

Black graduates are keenly aware of the problems facing the black community. They are less clear about how to capitalize on the unique opportunities for character building, leadership and civic engagement that germinate in imperfect living situations.

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