For the past few months, the youth at my church have interviewed seniors and discussed their lives during service. One of the most interesting observations while listening to these oral histories was each senior’s extraordinary desire to receive an education. Most of the seniors were blessed to be able to attend high school and college. But most of them, who are in their 80s and 90s, had to endure tremendous feats to do so.

One male had to walk for miles just to get to school because he could not attend the school closest to him, which was only for white students. A woman, who enjoyed reading books, remembered her school library being the size of a small closet. There was a larger library, with a better selection; however, in a segregated society, she was not allowed to visit and browse the abundant isles of books like her white counterparts. She could only go in through the back entrance and wait for a librarian to give her a book. Another man had to use a relative’s address to continue his education. In Alexandria, Va., in the early 1900s, blacks could only receive education up to the eighth grade. So he used an uncle’s address in neighboring Washington DC so he could finish high school.

Now let’s fast forward some 60 years to 2007. African-Americans no longer have to checkout books through a back door, free education up to the 12 grade is available to all, and most students can walk to their neighborhood school. But have things gotten better? We all know the Black high school dropout rate in America is sickening and the reading levels of Blacks in all age categories are disturbing. Even though Jim Crow 50 years ago, we are still plagued with a lower quality of education. How could this be if we have advanced so much?

I wonder, if given the same circumstances today, Black students would fight for an education as our ancestors did many years ago. I am almost afraid to answer that question. Not because I think Black students do try as hard anymore or I think they are lazy. I don’t believe that at all. Actually, given the right opportunities–proper school facilities, better neighborhood conditions, economic growth in urban areas, etc–Black students can achieve. I do believe that a lot of black students, who see blight, drugs and decay in their neighborhoods and listen to negative messages from music and other medias, are negatively affected by these ills and as a result, education is no longer a priority. The U.S. Census reports that 36 percent of Blacks under the age of 18 live in poverty. In the 1950s, more than half Black population were living in poverty.

But what happened over the past 50 plus years for students to no longer place an importance on education? We could blame it on poverty, but in the 50s a large percentage of Blacks were poor. We could blame it on school conditions. But many years ago, students didn’t have adequate books or school facilities and they still fought to receive the best education they could. We could blame it on every day surroundings. But back then, conditions were even worse. Blacks were second class citizens.

I honestly believe that we have lost a sense of community and our drive to fight. Yes, we have come a long way, but we have taken so many steps back in other ways. How can we get our children to learn when the “streets” are luring them to sell drugs or join a gang? How can we get our children to learn if the radio-played rappers are constantly spewing negativity? How can we change mindsets so children will think that it is cool to be smart?

I wish I knew the entire answer; I don’t. What I do know is that if we continue to current course we are on now, things will get worse. The college educated Blacks, who made it out and are successful, most go back to the communities in which they once walked and show the kids today that they can make it out without joining the NBA or signing a record deal with G-Unit. Because if we don’t, the work that so many Blacks before us did will be in vein.

I would like to think that if given the same circumstances today, Black students would fight for an education, and do whatever is necessary to succeed in life. I would also like to believe that the current education conditions within the urban and poor Black communities will eventually get better with the help of successful Black. Because it is not only the future of the school-aged children that could be in jeopardy, but the future of those who will follow behind them.

DeShuna Spencer
Liu Karama Productions

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