I wrote almost a year ago about the need for a Black Future Month, a time in which black people would collectively work toward determining what we could do in the present to position ourselves where we want to be in the future. In particular, I was speaking of what we must do to transform our internal culture and aspirations, to reconcile them with our changing external conditions. I coined the term Black Future Month, with tongue fully in cheek, of course. Just as Black History should be taught and learned throughout the year, so too should Black Futurism be a perpetual enterprise. If I had to narrow it down to a month, though, I ‘spose I’d pick June.
Just as Carter G. Woodson chose Frederick Douglass’ birthdate around which to situate Negro History Week (which would later become Black History Month), I would make Juneteenth the centerpiece of Black Future Month. Juneteenth, or June 19, was the day, in 1865, when Union soldiers finally arrived to serve notice to the great and backward state of Texas that its slaves had been declared “free.” Although the “news” came a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the newly “ex” slaves still celebrated, the remnants of that happy day having come down to us in these times in the form of scattered but resurgent festivals and commemorations. Better late than never, the saying goes.
I’m sure that in those heady yet uncertain moments following notification of their new freedom, there were a lot of black folk wondering to themselves, “What next? Where do we go from here?” We all certainly should know how the rest of history unfolded: The Emancipation Proclamation and, later, the 14th Amendment, while ending legal slavery and constitutional disenfranchisement, did not actually confer freedom and true citizenship upon the vast majority of black people. As soon as those impediments were struck down, new constraints were devised, a tightly interwoven web of social and economic restrictions so pervasive, and so perversely enforced, that they rendered any achievements by black people in America all the more remarkable.
Today, although racism and discrimination certainly remain, much of the formal legal and societal impediments to individual and collective black success have been eliminated, leaving only (sarcasm intended) the devastating economic and psychological legacy of decades of deprivation as barriers to achievement. Our obstacles are both external and internal, and while we’ve made tremendous strides in confronting the former challenges, we’ll never fully overcome until we’ve conquered the latter.
A recent study illustrates the troubling degree to which negative conditioning complicates resolution of our collective problems, impeding destruction of the vicious cycles of poverty, undereducation and underemployment. The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology in May, examined the relationship between racial perceptions/preconceptions and career aspirations among first and sixth grade African-American children, determining that they equated higher-status and higher-paying jobs with white people, and lower-status and lower-paying jobs with black people. The study included a group of children equally split between lowerincome and upper-middle-income economic statuses, and had them all, unknowingly, evaluate both real and “made-up” jobs, which were illustrated with pictures of black and white workers. While the correlation of whiteness with the higher-status jobs occurred within both groups, it was more pronounced within the lower-income children, who further expressed a marked preference for the jobs that they self-identified as lower paying and lower status. The middle-class kids differed somewhat, in that they were more apt to actually aspire to the jobs which they, too, had identified as belonging to white people.
It’s not surprising, actually. This recent race and career-aspiration study, to me, is clearly an economic corollary of sorts with the famous doll baby studies that were done decades ago (and then reprised), showing an aesthetic predilection among young black girls for white dolls over black ones, illustrating the impacts of the larger (white) culture on African-American self-image. (Dolls are marketed on television, so, even absent any negative messages transmitted by parents, the Americanized Ideal effectively trumped any longing for a positive personal self-image.)
Many other studies speak to what it takes to successfully educate children, notably those by Ron Edmonds, whose 1982 paper, “Programs of School Improvement: An Overview,” provided us with The Correlates Of Effective Schools. One of the key correlates–a major factor common among disparate schools that exhibited a high degree of success in educating children across racial and economic lines–was teacher expectation, the personal belief of the educators that all of their students were capable of not only meeting but exceeding academic requirements placed upon them. Subsequent studies have provided even clearer correlations with teacher expectation and student success. In management theory, this is referred to as the Pygmalion Effect, and it stemmed from self-fulfilling prophecy, a concept in education that goes back to the work in 1911 of Stumpt and Pfungst, who demonstrated how humans unwittingly transmit contextual clues in teaching situations that reinforce the behavior that they expect from the subject.
When dealing with the racially and politically charged subject of black academic achievement, it’s easy to see (pick the chicken or the egg) that teacher expectations, if pivotal to educational performance, would result in underachievement when lowered artificially due to this nation’s racist past. Said underachievement would, of course, reinforce any such racialized preconceptions and, at the very least, engender a non-racist, yet stereotypical set of lowered expectations that, in turn, continues the cycle. Now add to that the effects of such ingrained self-exclusion as suggested by the race and career-aspirations study, and the resulting dynamic is akin to some sort of negative, sociological perpetual motion machine.
Such a cycle can only truly flourish in a medium (or should I say, media) of ignorance. If I asked you to name five contemporary black scientists or technologists, I doubt I’d get many responses, yet I’m sure most folks could rattle off five black entertainers or athletes without a thought or a breath between them. One could argue that would be a cheap rhetorical tactic, and I’m guilty as charged, as I also doubt that if I asked folks to name five prominent contemporary scientists or engineers of any race, they could do it. This country does have a decidedly anti-intellectual tilt, and our media-obsessed culture only rarely lionizes such folk. The big and important difference, however, is that while there may be no national pro-white intellectual or academic PR campaign, it is a baseline assumption that they hold these positions, the exceptions being intellectual hired guns, brought over here on work visas from foreign countries to meet the high-tech skills gap, even as we rapidly disinvest in our children’s educational infrastructure.
I wonder what the social impact would be, for instance, if it was common knowledge that a black man, Mark Dean, was chief engineer for and holds many of the key patents on the first IBM PC, a cornerstone of our current internet-driven technological society. Or that another black man, Dr. Ben Carson, has been considered the world’s foremost pediatric neurosurgeon, and that children are flown to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore from other countries because he can perform surgeries that no one else can. I was fortunate to attend the Black Engineer of the Year Awards this February in Baltimore, and had a chance to meet and talk with black men and women who are making astonishing contributions across many different industries. Astonishing, as much for what they’re doing (one brother had several patents over a short span for making improvements to the space shuttle cargo bay, and had saved his company over $200 million), as for the obscurity in which they labor. The winner was both an accomplished engineer and a CEO.
Clearly, some of these people, many of whom admitted facing obstacles during their school-aged years or as young adults, had gotten “the word from the troops” that they were free to go out and shape their own destinies. But how do we get the word out to all the others? Last week, I attended the closing ceremony at the Kyran Anderson Academy Summer Math and Science Camp. As it has for several years now, the Kyran Anderson project focused on sparking an interest in math and science in children from groups that are statistically underrepresented in those college majors, including blacks, Hispanics, and children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
This year’s camp had a forensic science theme. The methodology was as important as the course content during this summer camp, as the instructors (N.C. State faculty and students, as well as teachers from Wake and Durham counties) emphasized hands-on exercises and real world application to engage their young students. When learning about DNA, the kids made actual models of human cells. They collected clothing fibers from each other, performed handwriting analysis and took fingerprints.
The Kyran Anderson Academy, in its fifth year as a partnership between N.C. State University and Strengthening the Black Family, a nonprofit organization located in Southeast Raleigh, provides year-round educational enrichment opportunities for the community. The project is N.C. State’s first science and math program to reach students in their own neighborhoods with support from the community. The program provides a wonderful example for actions that can be taken to interest children in academic achievement, and math and the sciences in particular. The combination of tutoring, mentoring, modeling, innovative curricula and high expectations drew raves from my two local reviewers, my oldest daughter and son (sixth and fourth grades), who attended the camp for third through eighth graders.
Unfortunately, and in contrast to the Miss North Carolina rehash, there were only two television stories I could find that were done on this project, and I wasn’t aware of any print or radio coverage. This is a shame, and needs to be fixed, as we really need projects like this to be televised or otherwise highlighted in our communities. To that end, as part of “the media,” I’ll try and drum up some more coverage for the academy next time around. In the meantime, my employer is holding a math and sciences camp, and I’ll be sure to volunteer my time there. Beyond that, I’ll continue thinking of concrete ways in which we can address our problems.
Like those Union soldiers back on the first Juneteenth, and, no doubt, those newly emancipated, we need to be running from plantation to plantation with the news.
But those of us who got the word from the Union troops, or those who had already managed to escape the myriad plantations of the mind built just for us, need to pass the word on to the rest of us. No need to shout, really. A whisper will do. “Psssst. Yo. We free.”