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I had the good fortune to spend a portion of my birthday in the grandest fashion I could have ever imagined; I was invited to speak about Malcolm X’s timeless speech ‘The Ballot or The Bullet’ at the Edgar M. Gregory School located in Houston, Texas’, 4th Ward. This location is commonly referred to as Freeman’s Town by those who have any knowledge of the Bayou City’s history of terse racial dynamics. The location that I was speaking the Gregory School has special significance as it is the location of the first public school for Black Houstonians; it now houses the African-American Library.

After completing what can only be termed a well received presentation that revolved around one of Malcolm X’s most memorable moments, a retired teacher posed the following question to me. “What is wrong with African-American males? Why are the fighting against receiving an education? Many of them just sit in my class totally disinterested, even when I am talking about African-Americans. What is wrong with them?” 

As you well know, the answer to this query is not only intricate, but also expertly tailored to individuals on a case-by-case basis. To this retired teacher’s dismay, I refused to offer a one-size-fits-all answer to this convoluted and complex matter.

All that I could reasonably relate to her was that I had seen similar action by a wide-swath of Back males in my African-American History courses; courses that focused exclusively upon them. Now that I think about it, the disinterested gaze and refusal to engage what is most certainly engaging and pertinent content reminds me of one of this nation’s most infamous citizens, President George W. Bush.

Although I can neither tell you where I was nor what periodical I was reading, I do remember that I was somewhere reading a random news story about former President George W. Bush. The article, told from the perspective of those who knew the former President personally, verified much of what I, and the rest of the world, intuitively knew about him. According to those from his past, the scariest thing about old George was that he had no interest in anything. According to his close friends, his intellectual past contained neither a ‘Eureka’ moment nor an epiphany that sparked his interest in any topic or subject matter. Put simply, according to his collegiate counterparts, Bush was intellectually dull, uninspired, a damn imbecile.

I am certain that you are wondering why I am broaching this topic of President Bush’s well documented intellectual feebleness, particularly as my usual intellectual terrain are issues dealing with African-Americans, it is not flowing from a sadistic desire to ‘beat a dead horse’ by reiterating the intellectual inadequacies that under girded everything that the former President thought or said, rather it allows me to address a similar evil that is rearing its head within the Black community; the appearance of a significant portion of African-American youth who are consistently exhibiting an intellectual curiosity that would make our former President appear scholarly; put simply, they have no interest in anything beyond some droning popular culture topic, reality show, or niggardly event posted on the internet. I cringe when I think of what the world has in-store for this next generation of African-Americans; I wonder, yet already know the answer to my query, are they preparing themselves to live within a hostile and unforgiving America?

As a historian, I recognize that the current listlessness infecting African-American collegians is a historical anomaly. The alluded to disruption began when African-Americans unwisely attempted to assimilate with a hostile, politically organized, and economically formidable ‘white’ society. I refer to this moment as being historically peculiar because it fails to reflect one crucial aspect of the African-American struggle, that being that proud people’s indomitable pursuit of education ‘by any means necessary’. Put simply, stolen Africans, and their descendants, maintained both their humanity and an obvious belief that “after the darkest night, always comes a brighter day.”

When enslaved African-Americans emerged from chattel slavery, the vast majority held few tangible possessions. However they were in possession of the following: (a) an unceasing determination to worship God, (b) a desperate desire to locate lost kin, and (c) a belief that literacy and education were keys to their future progress. Our people attributed much of their oppression at the hands of a horrifically hostile white community to the fact that they lacked even a rudimentary education.

African-Americans have longed believed that education is the crucial difference-maker between ‘them that have and them that don’t.’ The vast majority of African-American parents have placed their belief in a simple formula for success; a quality education removes a significant obstruction to their child’s success. My grandparents conveyed their belief in this formula when they admonished each of their offspring that education “was the only thing that the white man can’t take away from you.” Such mantras are publicly displayed each time an older African-American joyously smiles when a grandchild graduates from high school or college.

There appears to be an innate understanding amongst most civilized people regarding the power that a relevant education bestows upon its possessor; how else can we explain the consistent attacks upon African-American education by those who oppose Black progress. I find it fruitless to rehash the many occurrences of whites attempting to undercut African-American educational pursuits; rather, this posting addresses a far more dangerous, and largely unprecedented, foe in the battle to uplift the race via educational pursuits. To the surprise of many, this opponent has successfully resisted the overtures of African-American educators, the foot soldiers in the vicious battle to educate the next generation of Black youth. The formidable opponent I speak of is the absence of intellectual curiosity, a condition that is currently infecting many of our children with the same vigor that allowed it to control the previously discussed President George W. Bush. It is relatively common for many of my students to behave as if I am interrupting their busy day during my lectures. If I did not know better, I would be convinced that they have much, much, much more important things to do than attend class, take notes, study, and prepare for exams.

Undoubtedly, for large swaths of African-American students, certainly not all of them, they see little utility in education, particularly, if it is not directly tied to their acquiring material goods. For many of my students, education’s lone utility is found in its ability to allow them to increase their access to additional material goods. Such a stance betrays the storied history of their ancestors who battled for the right to secure an education. Despite their relative illiteracy, they had sense enough to recognize that education was a primary building bloc in preventing the politico and economic exploitation of their kind from hostile outsiders. Such understanding emboldens me to order my students to turn their cell phones off while in my class and to recognize that the opportunity to pursue an education is a privilege that they did not earn; rather it was gifted to them by those who came before them. To their chagrin, until they learn this lesson, I will continue to interrupt their day and point them towards education and explain to them the ultimate utility of education, the protection of their community against hostile outsiders who have historically, and still seek to, rob and pillage their community to provide for their own.

By: Dr. James Thomas Jones