African Americans: Education and Visions
As I was thinking about writing this article, the thoughts of two visionary African American leaders came to mind. Malcolm X wrote “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” At the beginning of the 20th century, WEB DuBois wrote, “Education and work are the levers upon which to build a race.” The words of these two African American thought leaders are as true today as they were when uttered years ago.
Starting the first decade of the 21st century, Black Californians must ask ourselves where is the vision so desperately needed to guide our educational future and shape our destinies in the worlds of work, politics, and other elements of life in the communities in which we live?
Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago in the dismal days of slavery and during the subsequent inhospitable period when we enjoyed our newly emancipated status, education was cherished and nurtured by our fore bearers. Then, our vision was clear for we truly understood that the pathway from slavery to freedom and equality could never be successfully traveled without the liberating qualities that can only be acquired through the enabling process of education.
While there may have been differing ideas about what type of educational objectives African Americans should pursue, over the last 145 years, from slavery to farms to cities, the lives of African Americans have been enhanced and enriched by our visions. In five generations, at least four visions have shaped our aspirations and achievements.
Our first collective vision was a vision of freedom, a vision best articulated in songs fondly remembered as “Negro spirituals” but which, in reality, were songs of protest. Typical of the lyrics of the songs were these words, “Oh freedom, Oh freedom, Oh freedom over me, and before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my lawd and be free.”
Next came a collective vision for overcoming the debilitating effects of 144 years of slavery and trauma of becoming free people without freedom. The operating credo for African American people during this period was “get an education for that is something that no one can ever take from you.” In order to transform this admonition into reality, between 1872 and 1899, 18 black colleges were established in each of the southern and Border States.
It was from the public Black colleges and a similar number of private ones that a new generation of Black visionaries would emerge; Black men and women who would create our third collective vision, that of being “somebody” – a vision given concrete reality by the writings of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks; the educational achievements of Benjamin Mays and Mary McLeod Bethune; the music of Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker among others; the founding of the NAACP and the Urban League and the ministries and self-help programs advanced by our churches and social organizations.
The fourth and last collective vision shared by African Americans was that expressed in the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the struggles of the 1960s was to be epitomized by boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, mass marches and urban rebellions, the fundamental issue which gave rise to these struggles was the judicial sanction of the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
African American leaders throughout the land had long understood that equality involved more than the opportunity to work, travel, play and, most of all, learn in a situation or environment presumed to be equal though separate from others. At the forefront of our vision of civil rights were demands for unimpeded opportunities to experience the full range of intellectual and social growth and the patterns of participation that are possible only in a society which is truly an open one.
While the legal battle for equality, including the right to an unfettered education was won, the evidence is now quite clear that in the arena of education, far too many African Americans have confused “right” with “responsibilities.” It is a well-known fact that at every step of the educational ladder, African American students are being lost in ever increasing numbers.
It is this fact that compelled the California State University to initiate a special effort to attract, retain, and graduate more African American students. Currently on the 23 campuses, 26,000 African America students are enrolled, but we are determined to do better than that. In partnership with nearly 100 African American churches throughout the state, we are carrying the message articulated by DuBois that “education and work are the levers upon which to build a race” and we will not rest until a new vision for children of color is reached, and full participation in all aspects of education in California is realized.
Herbert L. Carter is Vice Chairman of the California State University Board of Trustees