What Black High School Grads Need to Hear

Show Me the Numbers: Graduation speakers often opt for tough love. Here's what they should say instead.

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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.

This concept is very difficult for many to grasp who have grown up without struggle. For example, after I told a group of school administrators in a large metro area that they have to impart success within the context of their students' environment, one participant suggested that I was promoting lower standards for black students. She assumed that a "standard" that is unique to the black community is, in essence, "lower." To the contrary, the standard I was suggesting is much higher.

Western culture imposes a value on avoiding problem behaviors and disconnecting from undesirable circumstances. This is reflected in the rather guileless advice we give to teenagers to "stay away from the wrong crowd" -- a near-impossible objective for children in densely populated communities.

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