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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The standards of success for many black students are learning with purpose, applying knowledge to the real world, creative problem solving and verbal acumen. Therefore, when a black student asks, “What does this have to do with me?” when confronted with a difficult subject in school, he or she genuinely needs an accurate response. Graduation speakers can help black students redefine their personal and cultural standards of success so that education can become less passive and abstract and more affirming and relevant.  

Black Graduates Need to See Us for Who We Really Are

I recently had the honor of sharing a panel with Raymond Lucas, an executive at a youth-development nonprofit, and president of 100 Black Men of Maryland. I was humbled when he told the audience that my research had influenced him to revise his speeches to black students. He said that he abandoned the trite statistics and chose to focus on what had motivated him to beat the odds. This strategy helped him develop a deeper connection with his listeners.

I also use this strategy. Last February I delivered a keynote address entitled, “You Have the Right to Remain Educated” for the Wisconsin Association of Black Men at the University of Wisconsin. About 20 black male teenagers from Urban Prep Academies traveled from Chicago to participate in the program.

After my speech, a senior at Urban Prep enthusiastically embraced me and said, “I go to church every Sunday, and I’ve never felt like this … You woke up something in me, and I’m ready to be heard!” I was humbled to receive such accolades from the teenager, and elated that my words had inspired him to tell his own story.

In many ways, we are selected to be graduation speakers for all the wrong reasons. Our material success gives people the illusion that our lives are, and always have been, perfect. To the contrary, most of us who have achieved success have endured many uncertain, disorderly and painful periods. However, as quantum scientists suggest, chaos is the natural order of life, from which all things perfect spring forth. From that perspective, the mission of a graduation speaker is not to impose order on imperfect lives but to clarify the very essence of success.

As Michelle Obama said, “Often, failure is the key to success.” I was designated a “slow learner” in the fourth grade. I graduated from a public high school in Baton Rouge, La., that was marred by drugs and violence during a significant portion of my high school years. I consistently scored within the 20th percentile or less on every standardized test I took, including the ACT and the GRE. So I proclaim “happy graduation” to the Class of 2013, from a man who is successful not despite the blemishes of his past but because of them.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor at The Root. He can be contacted at itoldson@howard.edu. Follow him on Twitter.

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