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A Wake Up Call for African Americans
Contemporary African American culture emphasizes the narrow purpose of “making it” out of our neighborhoods rather than transforming them. This culture of “making it” is reinforced daily when African Americans from all social strata see financial success as their ultimate goal, and are honored by African Americans and others for attaining it. Those who “make it” out of the neighborhood are the dominant role models for youth in communities characterized by poverty, high unemployment and poor education. Successful uplift will not happen in a significant way until we provide, through African American cultural institutions, a larger context of meaning for our children that we ask others to provide.
At last year’s Morehouse College Commencement ceremony, President Barack Obama issued this wake up call:
It betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. So yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business, we need black businesses out there. But ask yourself what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood.
Black capitalism is seen as one of the most viable strategies for neighborhood transformation, and seems to underlie the President’s message. While that strategy has failed for many economic and political reasons, a cultural explanation best explains why the most successful African American businesses and capitalists are not currently the major agents of neighborhood transformation. This is something we must address for the President’s message to have traction with this next generation of African American college graduates he seeks to inspire.
Since the turn of the last century, educational investments through the form of scholarships have been the primary strategy to uplift our community and level the societal playing field. The educational strategy is the basis for the investment of a large amount of our community dollars, and is seen by many as neighborhood investment, as ‘giving back.’ This strategy should be questioned.
Last April, some 14,000 educators and education scholars met in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association to discuss a very familiar question: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty? The answer: Parental income is a better predictor of success than any other factor, including race. On average, students from richer families have better grades and higher standardized tests scores than students from poorer families. They also have higher rates of enrollment in, and graduation from, college.
This is reflected in the performance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), our country’s main engine for African American uplift, where the vast majority of students are from families earning less than $40,000. The Associated Press analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education which revealed that while HBCU enrollment increased by about 3 percent overall from 2006 to 2011, the graduation rate for HBCU students fell from 37.7 percent to 33.7 percent. Roughly, of the 47,000 students who began college at HBCUs in 2006, only about 15,000 had earned degrees in 2011.
This data suggests that education alone as a strategy to uplift African Americans and transform our neighborhoods is not enough. But setting this data aside, one simply has to look at the decline of African American neighborhoods over the past 25 years to realize that new investment parameters need to be placed on the table. To change the community culture surrounding neighborhood development, investments in education must be coupled with support for community institutions that provide spaces where contemporary meaning can be discussed as a means to empowerment – and where that meaning can be put into a context for neighborhood transformation.
African American cultural institutions are a good and logical place to start. However, despite these institutions’ presentations of our noble past, a culture based on “making it” out of our communities – which most of us cannot realistically do in the near future – insures that we continue to internalize supposed ‘deficits’ in our abilities and achievements. As low attendance at African American cultural institutions attest, solely representing a self-referent history does not significantly impact racial uplift, resolve contemporary issues, or serve as a basis to build sufficient community and individual confidence. Intuitively, young people and their parents understand this. That’s why so many stay away.
There is a reason these institutions exist currently as they do in a self-referent context. Mainstream cultural institutions have historically omitted African American achievement from the mainstream historical narrative. And while in many cases that is not as true in contemporary society, some would argue that it is still true that less importance continues to be put on representations of African and African American history and culture by mainstream cultural institutions. But these truisms are not sufficient reasons for failing to widen the cultural framework through which so many African Americans see and define meaning for themselves.
Having a larger cultural framework allows others into our world and provides African Americans a platform for engaging with other cultures. It is the basis for the success of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, which presents both African American and non-African American artists. This strategy has allowed us to attract visitors and followers from all over the United States and from foreign countries including France, Germany, Malawi, Australia, Ghana, England, Nigeria, Croatia, Canada, and Jamaica.
Real confidence in our culture, not the false bravado that exists today, can result in valuing the neighborhoods from which that culture emanates. It might inspire those of us who succeed to invest, like Magic Johnson, in transforming African American neighborhoods.
Getting African American institutions to broaden their focus will not be easy. But the recent troubled experience of the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, and its probable liquidation, has opened the eyes of these institutions’ directors and boards to the need for change. Even more difficult will be changing a culture of “making it” out of our neighborhoods to one of investing in them. Ironically, these same neighborhoods continue to be transformed by gentrification. Still, there is potential and hope, if not from our current African American leadership, then perhaps from those Morehouse Men and other young graduates the President reached out to last year. Time and our effort will tell if this strategy will work. At risk is the future of our neighborhoods, and our community’s soul.
John Guess Jr., is the CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Culture.
Source: Morehouse College