Black Boys in Crisis: A Grim Beginning and a Bleak Future
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
In 1619, at the ironically named Point Comfort, Virginia, “twenty and odd” Africans were taken off an English warship, The White Lion, and exchanged for food. Most of their names have long been forgotten. What we do know is that the Africans were probably from what is now Angola, on the southwest coast of Africa. They were in transit to Mexico on the Portuguese São João Bautista when that ship was boarded by the English and were then carried to Virginia.
That disembarkation represented the first footstep on the grimmest odyssey in the annals of the United States. Over the next two and a half centuries, until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the number of African-American slaves on American soil would swell to nearly 4 million. In total, more than 12 million Africans were captured and ferried across the Atlantic, though at least 10 percent died on the dreaded Middle Passage. Of those 12 million, less than half a million were transported directly to the fledgling United States, but the numbers of people of African descent burgeoned over time; as of the last census in 2010, there were around 40 million inhabitants with African ancestry in the US.
The chilling realities of slavery in the US have been explored in depth in various media; here it will suffice to note that, for the first time in history, a deliberate wholesale disenfranchisement of a race took place. Africans were stripped of their homes, names, languages, cultures, and dignity. They were physically and emotionally abused and denigrated, and their “subhuman” status was codified in the new laws of the country.
Sadly, the struggles of African Americans to achieve equal status did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Though there was an initial period of euphoria, which led to blacks taking political leadership positions (I examined these personages in my two-volume Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians), the advances were soon erased by the Jim Crow laws. It was not until Martin Luther King, Jr., and others ushered in the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s that nominal equality was achieved. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. For the first time in the history of the United States, segregation on racial grounds became illegal.
However, though the law of the land now mandated equality, African Americans had been disenfranchised for so long that a de facto inequality now existed. Because African Americans lived in poorer neighborhoods and did not have access to the same jobs and opportunities as their white counterparts, they found it extraordinarily difficult to pull themselves out of their impoverished existence. This remains true to this day. As we will see in this series, income inequality is a key factor hampering the progress of black youth in this country.
This background is intended neither as an excuse nor as a complaint. Rather, it is presented as a reminder that there is a historical reason for the current crisis in educating young black men. We must recognize that just half a century has passed since the last laws governing inequality were removed and that we are still reaping the bitter fruit of nearly four centuries of profound injustice.