Tag Archives: Education

Thanks, Booker T., for Red Tails

Booker T. Washington flexing with his distinguished friends, including the President of Harvard University at far right.

I purchased my ticket to see Red Tails yesterday! It’s the story of the first Black pilots to fly under the banner of the U.S. armed forces. They were the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477 Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and they served in a segregated U.S. Army during World War II. They trained at my and my father’s alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, right on Moton Field. They were known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Or like that proud, awestruck Black man working on the chain gang says in the HBO original movie, The Tuskegee Airmen, “they’s colored flyers…”

The tiny act of typing that last paragraph gave me goosebumps, as I’m a very proud Tuskegee University alumna. The mainstream release of the Tuskegee Airmen story recalls the roles Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute), and its founder, Booker T. Washington, played in America at the turn of the 20th century.

And it recalls the debate about Booker T. Washington in which I find myself engaged at least every couple of years. Was Washington’s accommodationism, given the social, political, and cultural environment in which he thrived – the deeply segregated Deep South – really detrimental to Black social progress? I mean, did he even have any other choice?

Booker T. Washington has been excoriated for his philosophy on Black mobility, and his remarks given at The Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895, before a predominantly white audience. It’s a complicated address – a delicate balance between uplifting southern Blacks, but it is also careful not to be so aspirational as to inconvenience and discomfort southern whites. The following passage, for example, works hard to convey that Black folks shol’ ‘preciated whatever olive branches had been extended their way by good white folks. Washington coos:

I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.

Ol’ Booker laid it on thick; Washington either had the optimism of a man who had seen hide nor hair of racism before, or he was an astute politician greasing the necessary wheels and stroking the necessary egos to build the “Tuskegee Machine.” Washington goes on to say, “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom…” Jay-Z echoes a similar sentiment in contemporary terms on 99 Problems:

…if you grew up with holes in your zapatos/you’ll celebrate the minute you was having dough. Or the freedom to taste a little bit of power, in BTW’s view.

To be sure, aint nothing wrong with being at the bottom and wanting to rush to the top when opportunity presents itself. The culture of the south in the late 1800s, however, was one hardly supportive of the lofty ambitions of a group so historically maligned, whose potential for greatness was so casually dismissed. To that end, Washington offered the following proscription against looking beyond one’s own hand for help: Cast down your buckets where you are.

Furthermore, he advises,

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition … I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded…To those of the white race … were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.

I admit it’s a complicated idea to grasp. He asks that we put aside our differences, thus ensuring our mutual economic benefit, to wit “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” White people weren’t trying to kick it with us in shared space; integration wasn’t some shit they were trying to hear. Washington’s approach is this: Dear Mr. Charlie, you don’t have to like us, but you’ll respect our ability to cooperatively make money. And also: Dear brothers and sisters, there is infinite honor and infinite power in earning the money you spend – on your own terms. He notes that:

It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

Washington spoke of economic self-determination for Black Americans. And he spoke to white Americans in terms they could understand and process — economic power. Supporting the prosperity of Black Americans didn’t only benefit Black Americans. Our fates were intertwined.

Washington wasn’t opposed to social and political progress on its face. Rather, he saw economic prosperity as the first step in the march toward equality. And that’s really not all that inflammatory an approach. Would it work for all time? Absolutely not. However, Washington’s efforts, his accommodation at that time and in that place, created a powerful network of educators, entrepreneurs, and political and community leaders whose contributions to American history would last well beyond him ingratiating Jim Crow. What’s that adage about teaching a man to fish?

But what do I know? I’m just a girl who loves her Crimson and Old Gold.

Support the legacy.


Wake Up, Stay Woke.

Tuskegee University, my *first* alma mater. My first love.

I ran across this piece on education from The New York Times:  “Do We Spend Too Much on Education?”  The author questions whether the economic cost of education is worth the promise that “it’ll all pay off” eventually.  He argues:

For some people in some careers, some colleges may be worth the price they charge. But millions of other people are paying more than quadruple what their parents paid 25 years ago (plus inflation) for a vague credential, not much knowledge or skills, and a crippling amount of debt.

So unless you’re a doctor or a scientist, your college degree is little more than a “vague credential.”

Not to be remiss in understating the full value of college education, the author reminds us that “… learning should be done throughout life, and technology creates more ways to learn every year.”  You don’t need the “antiquated debt-fueled luxury” of  the college classroom! You can learn everything you need to know from the #innernets. But what if your spectrum of knowledge is already limited?  What if all you know how to do on a computer is check your facebook page, and play solitaire when the comcast bill doesn’t get paid?  What if you’re 23 and you need to compose an email to see a man about a job.  And you haven’t a clue what to do once the internet explorer finishes loading on your dial-up connection.

This visual might seem extreme to you, but I promise I’m not engaging in hyperbole to oversell the point.  This is real life and I’ve witnessed the education struggle first-hand.  Imagine being post-college age and not knowing the difference between city and state.  Continent and country.  Africa and New Jersey.  Education in America failed somewhere.  And it appears it happened well before the recruiters from University of X showed up in high school cafeterias, flaunting their college-boy elitism.

Our values have changed.  What we value has changed.  I wrote recently about the price of entertainment, which at present, seems to occur at the expense of knowledge.  I concluded that our collective desire to be coddled by amusement supersedes our hunger for information.  And so, “Molly.  We in danja, girl.”  Adding fuel to this fire, it’s now permissible to challenge the “value” of the education itself, instead of questioning why it costs so much.  And perhaps, why the education we receive won’t fit the workforce we enter.  No, no.  That would be too much like right, as they say where I’m from.  Better that we nix the concept of college altogether, and save ourselves the debt.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The college experience is about learning as much as you can, and preparing as best you can for a bright future.  Countless mamas have declared over the decades that they don’t want their babies to struggle the way they did.  And without exceptional talent, exceptional ingenuity, blessings from above or wherever, or a Midas touch, education was the single best way to combat strife.  I mean, you mighta still struggled, but at least you met it armed, as opposed to fear-struck and stuck.

College isn’t just about what you learn in class.  It’s about what you learn having a roommate for the first time.  Living away from your parents.  Living away from the comforts you’ve always known.  It’s about learning that you probably shouldn’t drink that much bad liquor if you don’t want to feel that shitty the morning after.  It’s about learning the definitions of consequence and responsibility through youthful trial and error.  And learning that nobody has to treat you special just because you’re you — you were a big fish in a small pond.  And now that the pool is bigger, you must be that much more extraordinary to be considered extraordinary.  College is about transforming the invincibility of your teenage years into the humility that must accompany the rest of your life’s journey.  Because in college, you learn that everything you know isn’t everything there is to know.  And that challenging you culturally, emotionally, and intellectually, while equipping you with advanced knowledge is valuable in a way that transcends money, and eclipses fear of debt.

Cornel West’s opinion piece published today in The New York Times, gets right at the heart of how virtue in American values has devolved.  Professor West writes:

…Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists….King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

Whole lotta college words in there, ain’t it?  However, don’t miss the power of  West’s prose because you’re too lazy to learn the meaning of a new word.  He’s saying wake up.  In fact, he’s screaming it like Laurence Fishburne’s character did at the end of School Daze.  Understand that they understand you’re too distracted by everything else to recognize the wool is being pulled slowly but surely over your glazed-over eyes.  Your intellectual curiosity is dulled by fear and irreverence.  In other words, you don’t need college because you’ll be “crippled” by debt.  And you’ll likely get drunk and have a hangover in class anyway.  So why bother?

Fam, your ambition is misdirected.  You think you can “make it” if you can just get that bullshit youtube video of you doing some bullshit to go viral.  And you can, and it might!  But consider this:  what are you offering for public consumption?  What are you leaving as your legacy?  What, of yours, are future generations building on?  Some bullshit.  And that’s ok with you because at least you made it.

Learning from the accumulation of information available on the internet is not the same as practicing the wherewithal  to understand, and apply, and critique and build on said information.  These skills are sharpened and refined by the college experience, by the kind of knowledge that is acquired in college.  Neil Gabler explains it well in his piece also from The New York Times, The Elusive Big Idea“.  College is about so much more than the classroom lecture and the decreeing of the “vague credential.”

Yes I Can Knock the Hustle.

I acknowledge that school aint for everybody.  People with exceptional talent don’t always need a classroom.

The operative words here aren’t mutually exclusive though.  There should be talent and it must be exceptional if you plan to make it longterm without some formal education.  Before the naysayers get going, I’m aware that there are exceptions to every rule.  But for every Lil’ Wayne, there are 100 Lil Larrys and MC Southsides on the come up, trying to make a name for themselves, too.  I’m not saying that MC Southside shouldn’t try to fulfill his dreams, only that his talent should match his lofty aspirations.  Or, he should be so charismatic that we might overlook his other deficiencies — like spelling, and speaking with some sense.  No, I’m not shittin on Waka Flocka!

Yes I am.  No seriously, watch this bamma.

He can’t read, “but he got ice tho.”  Insert *blank stare* and/or *vicious side eye* right here.

Over the last few years, most of the cats I’ve met who struggled through high school and dismissed college all together,  claim to spend their off time “in the studio layin down tracks.” And this is fine.  But unfortunately, what I’ve heard coming out of these “studios”… well let’s just say that cats might be better off aspiring to wash lettuce before moving up to the deep fat fryer.  Assistant Manager’ll be right around the corner, “and that’s when the big bucks start rolling in.”

That if I can do this, anybody can do this meme is a crock of shit.  You gotta be realistic about your chances, bruh.  Consider the context.  You know how many little boys want to be the next LeBron James?  Jay-Z?  You know how many little girls want to be Beyonce?  But for all the wannabes, in reality there exists only one.  Sure, there are gradations of greatness.  But really — who’s trying to be Beanie Siegel, or Manny Fresh, or Latavia “I went to prison, Phaedra” Roberson out this mug?  If you’re saying “Who?” right now, then I’m saying, “exactly.”  You’ve proven my point.

As you encroach upon those latter 20’s, it might behoove you to go ahead and put the pipe dreams away, and start working on ones legitimately within reach.

Big Boi of OutKast said:

“…Can’t gamble feeding baby on that dope money/might not always be sufficient/ but the United Parcel Service & them people at the Post Office didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss/ So now you back in the trap/ just that, trapped.  Gon and marinate on that for a minute.”

Word Big Boi.  Word.  The hustle doesn’t pan out for everybody. Either be good at it and get the fuck on. Or get on with your life so you can be somebody to somebody.  Knowledge is power.