Black Boys in Crisis: Completing the Journey
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.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern Mississippi, I had the pleasure of taking a class under Dr. John Koeppel entitled “The History of Psychology.” He was a superb professor and encouraged his students to maximize their potential. For one of our class research papers, a classmate and I decided to study the subject of race and intelligence. We uncovered startling studies funded by racists and white supremacists concluding that race determined a person’s level of intelligence. According to these findings, European Americans were genetically predisposed to be intellectually superior while African Americans were intellectually inferior. Some of the studies and articles we found were shockingly offensive. One study that particularly horrified me concluded that the darker a person’s skin, the less intelligent he or she was.
During our presentation, I pointed out that, according to these studies, since I was the darkest person in the room, I was intellectually inferior to everyone else. However, I had one of the highest averages in my class. I also highlighted some studies conducted by African-American psychologists that offered empirically based rebuttals, and their studies concluded that race does not determine a person’s cognitive abilities or level of functioning and that the previous studies had no scientific merit. That research paper was an eye opener.
I subsequently devoured all the information I could on the subject of race, genetics, and intelligence. That research was a major impetus for my decision to become a teacher, and also a basis for this series. I started telling my friends that when I graduated, I wanted to return to my hometown of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to teach to ensure that African-American children in the place where I grew up would not fall prey to stereotypes, self-fulfilling prophecies, and institutional racism.
When I graduated, I was true to my word: I took a teaching position in Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst had a system of de facto segregation that still exists: a public school for blacks, a private school for whites. Determined to make a difference in the lives of minority children, I spent my free time studying and researching strategies for educating African-American youth. By the time I began my first year as a teacher I was ready for the challenge, even though at times I felt overwhelmed. By my second year, my colleagues frequently commented on how well behaved my students were. I owed a great deal of my success to believing that all youth, regardless of their background, could learn.
After receiving my doctorate from Jackson State University, I took a position as an assistant professor of education at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. Moving from Mississippi to the East Coast was quite an adjustment, but I was up for the challenge. Later I took a position at Langston University in Oklahoma. In August of 2014, I moved to Virginia to take a position as dean of the Syphax School of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Virginia Union University.
The US educational system must recognize that the black male is constantly bombarded with racial stereotypes and unfair assumptions that manifest themselves in the form of self-fulfilling prophecies. We see ourselves portrayed as drug-dealing buffoons with few redeemable qualities. When teachers, administrators, and parents encourage us to transcend our conditioning and let our actions speak louder than our words, many African-American boys will do almost anything to live up to those high expectations.
Some white, Latino, Asian, and even black teachers perpetuate theories of black intellectual inferiority (consciously and subconsciously) by treating the black boy as though he is incapable of academic success. Black boys don’t need to be treated differently than students from other races; however, it is important for the educational system to recognize the cultural differences that exist between them for African-American students to thrive academically.
My educational journey from one of the most impoverished and intellectually downtrodden regions of the country to the halls of academia has taught me what it takes for a black boy in America to surmount the obstacles in front of him. It has also taught me that I am one of the fortunate few: many of my classmates fell by the wayside, victims of poverty, the drug trade, violence, an anti-intellectual culture, or an unfair justice system. In the following series, I hope to highlight the problems facing the black boy in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
Can the crisis in educating the black boy in America be solved? Yes, it can: I am living proof. However, it’s going to take more than platitudes; more than speeches by politicians; more than one or two outstanding teachers . . . it’s going to take an entire culture that decides it’s time to do something. So let’s roll up our sleeves and dive in. We have work to do.