Category Archives: Race & Ethnicity

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

As I attended to the beautiful voices and faces of four Black Student Government presidents representing The Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Purdue University, and MIT, the song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, came to mind.

The young leaders who were presenters on the Chronicle of Higher Education webinar, “Race, Class and Student Voices,” are the embodiment and manifestation of the second line in the song: “Oh what a lovely precious dream.”

In 1970, when we first heard Nina Simone sing this song, we, as young people, already knew that we were the realization of the dream of so many who had come before us. Now, our dream was to live during a time when the reality of that dream would be recognized as ordinary for all Black people and not extraordinary for a precious few. 

Thinking of ourselves and our children as gifted and Black made us proud and unapologetic about all the ways that our Blackness set us apart. We used the power of the words “gifted and Black” to destroy the stereotypes of our intellectual inferiority, to push back against behavior that demeaned us, and to lift up the truth of our value. Hearing the finality and emphasis Miss Simone put on the word “Black” in the refrain of the song was our inoculation against the disease of racism and all its side effects.

Accepting that we were the agents of our future, we put our faith in ourselves. It was the kind of faith that propelled us to expand our imagination to include our own success as well as the happiness and success of our gifted Black children for generations to come. Hearing Miss Simone sing this song assured us that we had potential as individuals and, as a collective, we would internalize our right to be free and liberated because we were “young, gifted, and Black.”

The increase in the numbers of Black Student Government leaders throughout higher education is a continuation of the reality of that precious dream.

Our Story, Our Song, Part 2: The Black Church in Chicago

(read pt. 1: Our Story, Our Song)

After living in Memphis with my Daddy, his wife, and my baby brother for several years, my Daddy sent me back to Chicago at the age of 12 to be with my mother and her family.

In Memphis, the two Black churches I knew were large, elegant, traditional religious structures in which members could feel a sense of pride. The first church I experienced in Chicago was a “storefront church” on the West Side of Chicago. It was on Fulton street surrounded by manufacturing industries and crisscrossed by “L” trains.

On my first visit to this storefront church, I thought it was not a real church because of its name and how it looked. There was a large showcase window to the right of the entrance with the name of the church painted on it. It read “West End Baptist Church.”

I soon came to realize that what West End Baptist Church lacked in traditional religious ambiance, it made up for in the religious fervor and dedication of its small and loyal congregation. Because of the loyalty of members such as my family who scraped together money, the congregation was able to rent a space shortly after my arrival in Chicago in a modest “real church” structure a few blocks away on the same street.

To say that my family was very involved in the church is an understatement.  My grandfather was on the Deacon Board and the Usher Board; my grandmother was in the choir and on the Mother Board; my mother was in the choir and the “poet laureate;” and I was in the choir. On Saturdays, my grandfather and I cleaned the church.

Some of the most exciting times at church were the Sunday afternoons when another church would visit. The choir, minister, and some of the members would represent their church. It was really fun when more than one church visited because it was like the battle of the choirs as each choir would have an opportunity to sing its best songs before the minister began the sermon. While I claim not to have any artistic talent now, I was quite proud of the banners I made to welcome visiting churches. Our dining room and car never seemed to be free of the glitter I used for my creations.  

On one occasion when West End Baptist Church was hosting visiting churches, the person who usually gave the formal welcome to visiting churches was not available. Since my mother was the resident poet who wrote poems for every special occasion, reciting them from memory most of the time, the thinking was that I, her daughter, should be able to give the “Welcome Address,” as it was called on the program. Apparently, the welcome I gave met expectations and, from that day forward, I was the most frequent designee to welcome visiting churches.

This storefront church challenged children in many ways. Church members were the encouraging audience for whatever any child wanted to try. The members praised my tacky welcome banners and responded to my welcome addresses as if they were something special. They gave me the courage to keep doing what I didn’t believe I could do. And, as challenges became successful efforts, my faith in myself and something bigger than myself continued to grow.

Our Story, Our Song

I recently watched “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” a PBS documentary that creator and narrator Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes as a message of “race and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing.” 

Indeed, my Black churches revealed me to myself. They helped me to see who I was in relation to others. They showed me models of women I could strive to emulate. They challenged me and gave me the opportunity to try. They gave me the concept of faith as an enduring value.

The first church I remember is Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, TN. My mother and her parents loved this church. It was the first church they joined after leaving the Mississippi Delta. To see how they dressed and the sophisticated manner in which they carried themselves when they attended this church, one would not believe that it had been only five or so years since they had been sharecroppers.

In addition to Sunday services and other religious programs and meetings, the church was also the meeting place for charitable fraternities such as the Masons of which my grandfather was a proud member. My grandmother and mother were members of the women’s counterpart to the Masons, The Eastern Star, to which they were dedicated and seemed to be always involved in raising money for one cause or another.

The “Royal Court”

One of these fundraisers was a pageant where a little girl was crowned princess and a little boy prince depending on how much money their sponsors raised. My most vivid memory of Mount Gilliam Missionary Baptist Church is the night of the pageant when I was six years old. I remember being sleepy and my folks kept me awake so I could be in the pictures that would be taken that night. Apparently, my folks had not raised enough money for me to be the princess, but I was part of the royal court standing next to the princess and prince. Being in the royal court and not the princess may have been the first experience that made an imprint about who I was in relation to others.

The other Black church in the Orange Mound community of Memphis I became familiar with was Mount Pisgah Church, where Miss Bailey attended. Miss Bailey had a standing taxi appointment for my Daddy to pick her up early in the morning to take her to work. I think she was a nurse. I could tell that my Daddy respected her a lot, and he asked her if I could go to church with her on some Sundays when he picked her up to take her to church.

Miss Bailey was a kind lady who had manners, dressed nicely, carried herself in what people called a “dignified manner,” and seemed to have the respect of all who knew her. I felt good standing next to her in church with hymn book in hand singing “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” “Blessed Assurance,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and my favorite song, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Singing these songs and being in the presence of Miss Bailey, though I was only nine years old, I could feel the love of God, and I knew that Miss Bailey was the type of woman that I wanted to be.

The Black Church is, indeed, “our story, our song.”

(Next Week: The Black Church in Chicago)

Affirming Educational Opportunity

In 1965, I—a descendant of enslaved persons—was the first in my family to graduate from college with a four-year degree. One can see this as a significant advancement over the course of several generations and/or see with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why [after 100 years] We Can’t Wait” to be able to exercise our full rights and take advantage of the opportunities afforded in this “land of plenty.”

It was around the time that I graduated from a state university that the policy of Affirmative Action began to gain traction in regard to hiring in federal jobs and awarding federal contracts to minority-owned businesses. Following the federal government’s lead in mandating hiring without regard to race, colleges and universities began the practice of acting affirmatively to increase the number of Black students admitted. This proactive behavior on the part of higher education, particularly among elite colleges and universities, began trending in the late 1960s.

The backlash against Affirmative Action in college admissions was swift and endures today. After 30 years of a national controversy, the California Board of Regents voted in 1995 to no longer consider race and gender in hiring and admissions decisions. This decision was the impetus for opponents of Affirmative Action in college admissions to increase the pressure to abolish the practice across the country.

In the meantime, Black students and professors were singled out as part of the problem and became victims of White backlash. For those who have not walked in these shoes down this same path, Ron Susskind gives a stunning biographical portrait of what student life was like for some “Affirmative Action” students. He records the following conversation overheard by Cedric, a Black student on one of his first days at an Ivy League university:

Cedric, settling at a table inside [the café], orders a ginger ale and trains his ears to a table immediately to his right. Two professors, both white, are leaning in…. ‘Are we doing a service to young people to boost them above their academic level and then not offer the services they need? Asks the squat one with flying gray hair. ‘Because who really can? Who can offer that sort of enrichment? You can hardly blame the university. It would take years, and money, and a whole different educational track to bring some affirmative action students to a level where they could compete. There’s no choice but laissez-faire, sink or swim. They should be going to middle-rung universities. There’s no right, as far as I can see, to go to an Ivy League institution. If they work hard, their kids can come here. Hell, it’s what everyone else had to do.’…

It’s all Cedric can do not to respond…. He imagines telling them about his long journey, that his struggle has built in him a kind of strength—a conviction about his ability to overcome obstacles—that other kids don’t have.  But of course, that strength is hard to measure, and lately he’s become uncertain if it will be enough to get him where he needs to be….

The professors, meanwhile, have moved on to the companion controversy about hiring minority faculty members. ‘It’s a mockery,’ said the other professor, a tall distinguished-looking guy, spits, ticking off the names of a few minority professors around campus. ‘A lot of them are good teachers, sure.  But they’re unpublished, not respected, not scholars. What do they bring? Their passion, oh-so personal ‘perspective.’ Nothing special about that. Jesus, everyone’s got one of those.’…

Throughout the day, the overheard conversations at lunch echo in Cedric’s head. More than specifics, he recalls the intensity of the dialogues. At this point, affirmative action is the last thing he wants to hear or think about…. So, he got in. If he fails, he fails; if he makes it, he makes it. Why does everyone have to draw conclusions about an entire race from that, or take sides. He wanted a chance, he got one (A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, 191-193).

Unlike our ancestors who were given a hoe and forced to chop cotton, Cedric, myself, and many other Black students and Black professors were given a ladder of opportunity through higher education. The ladder, however, was covered with grease. It was slippery, and we were on the bottom rung.

Affirmative Action, to some extent and in some places, replaced the slippery ladder with real steps upon which new-to-college Black students could begin, but there were no handrails, and the steps were narrow and winding. There was no recognition and subsequent adjustment for the fact that preparation for college was often inadequate and the psychological toll of being “the only one” was more than just distracting. This combination of obstacles knocked many aspiring Black students off the steps.

Now, after 50 years of Affirmative Action being a “thing,” it is still being challenged with the subtext that indigenous and other disenfranchised students are not deserving, don’t belong, and are receiving an unfair advantage. The upside is that during these many years, some colleges and universities have realized that students who are the first in their family to attend college need not only steps but steps with handrails for support.

Progress is slow. One step forward and two steps backward is the norm. Hopefully, it will not take another 100 years for descendants of Black enslaved persons to realize true equal opportunity, full civil rights, and nondiscrimination in admissions to colleges and universities.

The Prime Need of the Hour

Mary McLeod Bethune

In promoting the importance of education, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)—educator, activist, African American hero, and founder of Bethune-Cookman University, among many other notable accomplishments—said, “Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”

Whether in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century, knowledge continues to be the prime need of the hour. Considering the dark hours we have seen recently, it is particularly alarming to read that “Degree-seeking enrollments in U.S. higher education have been down for 10 consecutive years” (Brandon Busteed, “21 stats for 2021 That All Higher Ed Leaders Should Know,” Forbes, Jan 4, 2021).

Notwithstanding this ominous trend, and despite the criticism about how both K-12 and higher education are failing Black students, “almost half of Black high school students reported that they were ‘very sure’ they’d go to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Among students in the lowest income quintile, Black high school students were the most likely to express that certainty” (Sara Weissman, “ACE Supplementary Report Paints a “Stark Picture” of Higher Education’s Racial Inequities,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Nov 19, 2020).

Reading about Black students who, against all odds, have a desire for pursuing higher education should be the impetus for a shift in the dominant way of thinking about low-income Black students. If a student wants to learn and makes it to a campus, it must be the duty of higher education to create the conditions for the student to achieve. Of course, we must not ignore the barriers students encounter along the way, but we can, perhaps, take a moment to be encouraged and take a break from obsessing about statistics that focus only on achievement gaps and noncompletion rates of low-income Black students.  

U.S. Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona

U.S. Education Secretary Nominee Miguel Cardona echoed these thoughts in his nomination acceptance speech, saying, “For far too long, we’ve let college become inaccessible to too many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with their aptitude or their aspirations and everything to do with cost burdens, and, unfortunately, an internalized culture of low expectations.”

Abandoning perpetual psychological pessimism and encouraging hope at this hour are dimensions of a new reality for Black students and higher education.

Learning in Community

It didn’t matter how little sleep we had had the night before, we made ourselves get up in order to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. on the two days in the fall when we would attend The Atlantic Festival of Ideas in Washington, D.C. Most of the time, the weather was beautiful, but sometimes there would be rain and flooding. On the occasions when there was heavy rainfall, we had to leave home even earlier in order to get to the parking garage and find a spot near the front of the lines waiting to get into Sidney Harman Hall where the Festival forums would take place.

We liked sitting in rows close enough to the stage so we could see the faces of the guests in real life rather than on a screen. I was always eager to see the journalists from The Atlantic and NPR, as well. After so many years of reading their work or listening to them on radio, I felt as if I knew these journalists and I wanted to see if my preconceived notions of what they looked like panned out. Never did. I was always way off in how I thought they might look.

We saw members of Congress, journalists, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, environmentalists, and many other thinkers who were asked questions about their take on a wide range of current events and the future issues. I was amazed at how all of us were able to just sit for hours and listen to one guest after another chat about the world and our place in it.

Because of the COVID pandemic, the Festival was virtual this year. The guests were just as interesting as when we could be in the same room with them, and we were up close where we could clearly see their faces on the screen, yet the virtual experience was less satisfying for me.

I tried to get at what made the experience less satisfying than being in Harman Hall in person. For example, although I’d be taking notes furiously on the questions interviewers posed and the responses offered by the guests, I could, at times, look down the row from where we were sitting or look at the people in the row in front of us and try to guess how they might be judging what they were hearing. There were people of all ages at the Festival but not much racial diversity. Over the years, I would look in wonder at the many rows of people who shared the same skin color, but not mine.

When there were breaks, we would seek out other people who looked like us to start a conversation, exchange cards, and sometimes promise to follow up. The people who planned the virtual Festival were aware of the need for people to interact, so they set up chat rooms so people could make connections. This didn’t appeal to me. I remained silent.

Treats of the onsite Festival included exhibits of up-and-coming innovations, an opportunity to see documentaries and films that may not be shown in many theaters, and the “Food for Thought Break-Out Lunch.” These lunches were sponsored at different restaurants in D.C.’s Penn Quarter or might be a box lunch at Harman Hall. The lines were too long at all the eating places and there was a scramble to find a place to sit, but it was well worth it because speakers such as the initiators of Black Lives Matter were there to have a conversation with us. The crowds of people—all eager to learn—evoked a vibe that I could not feel during the virtual Festival.

It was during the many hours I spent online getting a lot of information from the speakers that I had the best understanding of what students probably experienced as they took their course work online this past year. For some of us, just because the material presented virtually is the same as that presented in the classroom does not make it comparable. My learning is more than just the transfer of information from someone to me; it’s the feeling of engaging in a common quest with others that stimulates my desire to learn.

Along with students and teachers all over the world, I hope that in the next year and the years to come that learning in “community” will again be the norm for those of us who need it.

While there is something missing when the Festival is virtual. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the Festival despite not being able to be there in person. The fact is, without the virtual opportunity, I would have missed the Festival altogether this year because I no longer live in a place where I can just get up and drive to D.C. whenever I like. I hope that when people can congregate in one place to enjoy the Festival, those of us who are not in proximity to the event can still join in virtually. In the meantime, following are some of my notes from the 2020 Festival. The quotes may not be exact, but they are accurate enough for my purpose here:

September 23

  • “1.3 million people would not sign an agreement not to discriminate.” – Brian Chesly, CEO of Airbnb
  • Author James McBride and actor Ethan Hawke talking about the film based on McBride’s book The Good Lord Bird:
    • “The blood has already been shed, the path has already been cut, now we just need to put on our hats and go on down the road.” (McBride)
    • “To do well by people, you have to not do what society wants you to do; you have to break the box.” (Ethan Hawke)

September 24

  • Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, on “Finding the Funny During a Pandemic”:
    • “You have to prove that you’re vital, so I had to keep doing the show.”
    • “There was a lot of innovating and building new systems and trying to make things more visual rather than a flat experience.”
    • “This form of entertainment is our planting our flag on what’s right and what’s wrong.”
  • Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on “Antiracism in America”
    • “Trump’s denial of racism has become a mirror for other Americans to see themselves as deniers of racism.”
    • “We’re in the midst of a time when writers, organizations, and Black Lives Matter are making people aware of racism.”
    • “Removing Trump from the White House will not be a postracial time.”
    • “The path forward is to replace racist policies, structures, and systems with antiracist policies, structures, and systems.”
    • “On the interpersonal level, make sure we’re seeing racial groups as equal.”
    • “Racist ideas deflect us from what’s preventing us from coming together as a human community.”
    • “The resistance gives me the most hope.”
  • Echelon Insights Research—“Opportunity for Young People to be Successful”
    • Only 13% of those surveyed think the next generation will be worse off than the current generation
    • 43% think higher education is too expensive
    • 40% worry about health care
    • 35% worry about racial inequality
    • The American Dream consists of a husband, wife, white picket fence, opportunity to better lives where people are equal; freedom and financial stability.
    • Key Themes: Importance of the environment 74%; importance of education 72% (want more career and life skills)
  • Journalist and author Bob Woodward
    • “Trump was elected to break norms. His voters loved the lack of decorum.”
    • “We’re in store for a quadruple train wreck after the election.”
    • “Trump has no moral compass.”
    • “Dr. Fauci says that Trump is obsessed with one thing and that’s to be re-elected.”

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.