(The Root) — During a graduation speech this month at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, Tenn., 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 black 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 (pdf) 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 black students by reaffirming black culture and helping black 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.
For this graduation edition of Show Me the Numbers, I offer 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.