Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Education is the key

19th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today”
— Malcolm X

As a brand-new school year begins, the entire community needs to take time to reflect on the importance of education to the future of our children and our children’s children. Since antebellum times, education has been seen as one of the pivotal keys to lifting Africans in America up from bondage and peonage to freedom and economic independence.

Even before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, our African forebears had come to see religion and education as the twin pillars for individual and collective success. Churches often doubled as schools during the week and Black churches often established schools and scholarships to ensure that the future of Black freedmen and their families was bright.

Black films like Sounder — which incidentally was filmed in Louisiana and starred Kevin Hooks and Cicely Tyson — Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings all captured the spirit of African America’s hunger for knowledge.

Later, Spike Lee would use the 1988 film School Daze to show how dramatically priorities and values have changed in African America since the early days of the 20th century. In School Daze, the majority of the Black collegians at Mission College, the so-called “finest institution in the land,” were more interested in partying, playing the dozens and pledging fraternities and sororities than they were in using the opportunity to go to college to liberate their minds and uplift their communities.

Although Spike Lee pissed off a lot of people with his decision to air African America’s dirty laundry on the silver screen, he made his point: Black folks can’t afford to take education for granted, for education is the key to getting so many of the things we need to survive and prosper.

As we discuss education, we should be ever mindful of the fact that education can take many forms including travel, listening to the elders of the community and writing down our experiences so that we can share them with others.

Our elders are one of the most valuable and underutilized resources in the community. They carry with them the stories they learned as children from their elders and the wisdom that being on the planet and learning to survive against the odds yields. By refusing to allow them to share their rich experiences and wisdom with us, we deprive ourselves and future generations of an opportunity to know from whence we’ve come.

As a college student, I was inspired by the late Alex Haley, author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, who challenged me and others in the audience at LSU one night to gather the stories of the elders in our families before these community treasures moved on to the “village of the ancestors.” Once they’re gone, they’re gone, but while they’re here we should honor and respect them and listen to the life lessons they have to pass on, he told us.

I heeded his advice and spent a great deal of time listening to my maternal grandmother as she passed on the stories of her life. Because I did, my understanding and appreciation of who I am and who my grandmother was are greater.

By listening to the elders, we can learn many things. We can gain irrefutable proof that there is nothing new under the sun. The problems we face today are not without precedent. The brutality and racial profiling Black men face today at the hands of law enforcement officers is not very different than that our ancestors faced as they toiled on U.S. plantations or sought to escape on the Underground Railroad to “freedom.” In antebellum times, the larger society saw little need to educate Africans since we were brought here to do the dirty work no one else wanted to do; today, mainstream society is constantly seeking new and innovative ways to punish Black children for the unpardonable sin of being taught by overworked teachers in substandard schools with overcrowded classrooms. The history of Africans in America since 1619 provides countless examples of the larger society tying our collective shoestrings together and indicting us when we fall on our faces.

For most of our history, we have refused to allow such oppression and white recalcitrance to distract us as we struggled to move on up a little higher, one day at a time. But now it seems like a fundamental lack of respect for us and our history and culture by us is threatening our very existence. We now run the risk of doing to ourselves what centuries of enslavement, oppression and exploitation have been unable to do: Annihilate our future.

This can be seen clearly in our lackadaisical approach to the challenges that confront us and our refusal to honor and respect those who look like us.

Anyone who knows anything at all about life in the city’s public schools understands the need for parents to take the time to make their children aware of the needs and concerns of others. We need to get back to teaching our children to have consideration and compassion for others. That’s part of what the elders used to call “home training.”

We also need to get back to teaching children that no less than their best academic performances will be accepted.They need to be reminded daily how many people have made sacrifices for them to have the right to learn to read and write and solve mathematical equations.

In addition to placing a greater emphasis on formal schooling, we need to give serious thought to the need for another form of education.

Travel is one way for us to do a better job of educating our young people. Visiting other places and cultures is a great way to learn about the world and your place in it. And one need not go to Egypt, Madagascar or Paris to benefit from travel, although each of these destinations can teach us a great deal about ourselves and our cultural legacy. Louisiana is a state with a rich history filled with African-American achievement and struggle. One can travel to Morgan City to learn about the legacy of former Black Panther and political prisoner Geronimo ji jaga (Pratt) or to Southern University-Baton Rouge to learn about the Black students its Smith-Brown Memorial Center is named after. The 1811 slave revolt in the River Parishes, recognized as the largest revolt of enslaved Africans in U.S. history, is one of the many history lessons to be learned while traveling across Louisiana. There are many places throughout the state where families can learn about slave cabins by visiting venues like the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville among others.

History is everywhere. It’s up to us to keep it interesting to young people and use it to challenge and inspire them to put their best efforts forward.

All of us can do something to further the education and development of young people.

Responsible Black men need to step up to the plate to teach Black boys and adolescents how to be God-fearing, dynamic African-centered men.

Black boys learn how to treat women from the men in their lives. Boys who see their fathers, uncles, grandfathers and other elders treat women with love and respect will mimic that African-centered behavior when they mature. The bad news is that boys who see their male role models mistreat, disrespect, degrade and belittle Black women will grow up thinking it is okay and normal to oppress and exploit their sisters, mothers and daughters.

We have got to do a better job of teaching young people what is appropriate behavior for African-centered people. It is never too early, for example, to begin teaching them about the importance of reciprocity, which is just another way of carrying out the Golden Rule about loving others as we love ourselves.

It is no secret that many of our children are angry. They are angry at parents, educators, ministers and the community at large for failing to give them what they need emotionally, culturally, spiritually, economically, socially and psychologically to survive and succeed in America. In traditional West African societies, male adolescents undergo “manhood training” in order to learn the definition, mandates and responsibilities of manhood.

Here in the Western Hemisphere, all too often adolescent males are tragically left to figure out for themselves what it means to be a man. Is it any wonder some boys grow up thinking that being a man means impregnating a woman, making fast money or being willing to kill and die if someone “disrespects” them or their property? Being properly educated and socialized would prevent countless Black boys and girls from developing ill-conceived notions of what it means to be men and women.

One of the mistakes we often make is depending solely on the educational system to educate our children. Studying Louisiana’s checkered history would inform us that the Pelican State has a long tradition of failing to prepare its children for the real world. Problems with the state and local educational system extend back deep into the 19th century, long before Black children were allowed to receive educational training of any kind.

All of us have a duty and an obligation to teach children everything they need to know to grow and develop into responsible, productive adults. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, we must be ever mindful of the fact that each of us must play a role in the education of our children. Teachers cannot and should not be expected to do it alone.

Parents need to ensure that their children get off to a good start in school by reading to them at an early age and showing genuine interest in their academic development. That means doing more than simply signing report cards and waking children up for school. It means going the extra mile by getting involved in PTA organizations, checking homework, talking to children about school activities, volunteering to help out at school functions and in the classroom, reinforcing what children learn in the classroom and making education a community-wide, lifelong process. It means reading to our children, helping them to get library cards, visiting bookstores with them, turning off the television, Internet, cellphone and iPod, buying them books and allowing them to share with us the lessons they learn in school.

Our children are certainly worth the effort.

This article originally published in the August 19, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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