Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Black History blunder: More evidence of dropping the ball

February. What some call Black History Month. Others, Negro Employment Month -- especially those in the arts. After all, historically, it's been an annualized opportunity to create their own series of "Black Fridays" -- landing gigs singing, dancing, and otherwise sharing their cultural outlook as part of proclaimed attempts at multicultural inclusion, and buffering otherwise bleak bank accounts for the year in the process.

Increasingly there are debates as to whether this designated time is proper, needed or even respected. Certainly, what has arisen today isn't what Carter G. Woodson could have envisioned way black when, when his "radical" concept of "Negro History Week" helped kickstart the whole matter. Even he probably never foresaw a black man leading the most powerful nation of the world -- or the rates of self-inflicted mass murder, all existing in tandem.

Black History Month
Dr. Carter G. Woodson: scholar, journalist,
father of  black history study as a discipline
Yet, equally striking is an examination of the most recently announced list of Pennsylvania's lowest performing schools, released by the state department of education. There's the usual kerfuffle around the list, the hand-wringing, shoulder shrugging and bolstered furor on both sides of the school choice movement.

Peeling the list back further brings a sadder realization, though. It comes from not only examining the locations of those schools, but also their names.

There once was a notion that if people had a role model, an example of someone who started in similar, if not worse, circumstances and could rise above, it would be enough to inspire similar if not greater achievement. It was also an impetus to have buildings named after those who achieved great feats, a legacy that would continue to reap tangible benefits.

For African Americans, garnering such respect in society had been a hard-fought affair, as the name on a building represented a demanding permanence, a declaration of being through this edifice and its reminding namesake source that required respect from everyone who passed it. For centuries, that was a respect not so accorded. After the turbulent '60s and '70s and the burgeoning economic and political power amassed in the '80s and '90s, that sort of architectural reverence has become more commonplace. Perhaps it's because of that, the names on buildings -- particularly schools, places at one time most attributed to having the keys to a better future for a struggling people -- have a reduced sense of power. It's all so banal, apparently.

Or we've just completely fallen down on the job, as black folk.

As a youngster in class, it wasn't just the eyes and expectations of my teacher and my family I felt as I approached my lessons. It was the hopes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary McLeod Bethune, Alain Locke, Leslie Pinckney Hill, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even Dr. Ethel Allen that flowed through my fingers, that helped push me whenever a bout of laziness would strike. Thinking of the obstacles they overcame and the trails they blazed made me want to do as much, if not more, as not to let them down. It was as if I had my own academic council, generations removed, perhaps, but just as real -- and relevant. Never did I attend a school with any of their names, but walking by their buildings reinforced that presence in my mind.

Then again, my family took pains to constantly expose me to their stories, their legacy, to plant seeds of curiosity so that I would explore further and interpret more. That's what Black History meant for me, and no, it was not confined to one month or one class. It was part of our lifestyle, much like the pride of building a personal library or getting a museum membership card. That didn't make us special. We simply carried the torch others already had lit, and made it about more than just dates and factoids. It was applied learning.

Today, it's almost an accepted joke -- if not fact -- that places named for our heroes are run down and raggedy.

Indeed, there is a school named for each of those icons in Philadelphia. The children attending those schools primarily are African American. And each school shares in the distinction of producing the lowest academically performing students in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Mull that a minute.

You can point to money, declaring resources for "our" schools -- from better teachers to computer labs -- always are subpar in comparison to others. You can underscore socioeconomic realities -- that the families of these children make less money, thereby inadvertently deprive kids of everything from meals to enrichment opportunities. Yes, those things play a role. But it's past time to look inward and call it for what it is.

Last I checked, libraries are still free, as is PBS. And if the moves of Beyonce or the Real Housewives of Atlanta can trend on Twitter, Internet access isn't the problem it once may have been.

Our forebears weren't necessarily wealthy -- or even exposed to much. Yet many of them not only managed to function, they also defiantly produced some of the greatest minds the world has seen, then or since, often facing far more precarious circumstances. They had a fortitude, a belief, and a will to achieve greater, for themselves and for their progeny, direct or otherwise. Failing to acknowledge that we, as a people, no matter our "station," have abandoned that outlook in larger numbers than have cherished it, is a start. Much like taking the time to learn and share the stories of the people whose feats forced a less lenient society to speak their names, to declare them for generations. Except many of us have stopped listening, robbing our children in the process.

There is power in speaking the names of our ancestors. Maybe doing it more frequently could help re-focus us on the opportunities we simply squander. Because no matter how wretched, the fact that a child can walk into a building where knowledge exists in some form gives that child a leg up so many before never had. If those generations could scrabble and make glorious, it's hard to see why we can't.

That truth holds no matter whose name is on the building. We should take it to heart when those names are our own.

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