Some years ago, when I was a young boy, I decided that the gritty streets were far more promising than a good education.
I was in junior high — right around the time experts say young black males tend to disengage from school — and I was fairly certain the place was a waste of time.
Of course, plenty of grown-ups told me otherwise: My parents insisted that if I applied myself, I could be a big success in life. My teachers said that if I studied hard, I could even be president of the United States someday.
But there was one problem: As a child in the 1960s, I saw little to convince me that grown-ups knew what they were talking about.
When I went to the encyclopedia and saw pictures of all the former presidents, it was clear the job was reserved for rich white men. And when I looked around, even the most educated black people in my neighborhood didn’t appear to be faring well. It appeared, in fact, that my parents and others in the neighborhood were passive and beaten down. They worked twice as hard to get half as much as their white counterparts, so their lives didn’t impress me at all.
On the other hand, I thought I saw something more encouraging in the streets. I saw guys my age hustling, making good money selling drugs. They stood tall, defiant, and seemed self-sufficient. My best friend used drug money to buy a luxury car while we were still in high school! I saw real fruits of the hustlers’ labors, and it had nothing to do with books or school.
Based on what I saw, the streets looked much better than the classroom. It was immature, distorted logic for sure, but convincing enough to lure me away from books.
Prompted by misguided notions of manhood, I eventually went from being an honor student to a behavior problem. In high school, I took a stab at selling drugs, and probably would have stuck with that, but I seemed to lack the required business skills.
After a series of hard knocks that ended with a prison term for armed robbery, I realized that all the grown-ups had been right after all: an education is, in fact, powerful and priceless.
I now teach at Emory University and have devoted my life to learning. Yet, looking back, I understand why it’s so hard nowadays to convince young black males of the value of education.
I thought about that after reading two pieces in last Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the difficulty in motivating young males to strive to excel in school. The issue has mushroomed into a national debate, but in all the wrangling there is one vital point that often gets underplayed: As adults, we tend not to see what they see when they look out into the world we have made for them.
We still tell them they can be president, and they see that the top job is still reserved for rich white men. They also see that, with brilliant blacks holding multiple college degrees, a mediocre white man of average intelligence (George W. Bush!) gets to run the world. And despite all the lofty declarations of equality, few people will seriously entertain a different ethnic choice.
I suspect that black males see that, among African-Americans who boast sterling college credentials, many still appear to be beaten down.
Moreover, there is an appalling paradox concerning higher education in America and black males that is virtually impossible for young people to overlook. That paradox is this: We say we cherish educational opportunity, but as the recent Michigan affirmative action battle demonstrates, what we say and do are different things. Nowadays, blacks entering the nation’s top schools often are haunted by suspicion and nasty lawsuits that essentially challenge their right to be in school.
Yet black male athletes are wooed by those same elite universities. And they receive a hero’s welcome, with no fuss about test scores and grade-point averages.
As much as we adults promote the value of scholarship, the truth is, America has always sent a clear message to young black males that they are valued and rewarded anywhere except the educational arena.
Maybe that’s why young black boys are so obsessed with athletics and entertainment. In the glamorized view of the young, it appears that, beyond street hustlers, Michael Vick and Snoop Dogg define success for young black men.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the first black millionaire, an actor called Stepin’ Fetchit, was paid handsomely to play demeaning screen roles as a stereotypically stupid, subservient black man. And today, as we insist to young people that education rules, they see rap stars making millions by saying the most ignorant thing that comes to mind.
We’ve made great educational strides, but still the black people awarded the most wealth and public acclaim are those who come prepared to sing a song or bounce a ball.
So why do we expect young black boys to look into the world and see something other than what’s really there?
For black adults, there is a wide range of valid and complicated reasons, including the stubborn belief that nothing — not even excessive wealth — beats a solid education. And of course, our history of struggle also plays a role: In the past, black people always strived to achieve, even when there was no visible evidence of impending rewards.
If we are really to get to the heart of the challenge of motivating young males to excel in school, we have to seriously weigh the impact of the mixed messages that young people ingest. Yes, there is far more opportunity now, but there are still too many glaring educational contradictions that boost the appeal of the streets, the rap CD or the long shot at the NBA.
For African-Americans, getting a better handle on what is going on with our young people also may require those of us who are college-trained to take a critical look at ourselves. As I move about Atlanta, I see many well-heeled blacks who seem content to enjoy the fruits of civil rights gains, but feel no obligation to give anything back. And when I look at us, I often wonder: Do we represent inspiring examples of what it means to be educated?
Judging from the lyrics in their music, our young people see us as passive and self-absorbed.
These are neither easy nor pleasant issues to entertain. But we have to be willing to take these matters on in all the complexity that our history demands.
This does not mean we should ease the pressure on young black males to excel in school. And certainly we must continue to mentor and get involved as parents in helping improve education across the board.
Perhaps most important, we need to examine this educational challenge from the vantage point of the people we seek to help — young black males. If we do, we might realize that there is no lack of logic guiding them. We might also discover that they are, in fact, motivated — not by what adults tell them is true but by what they see is so.