We frequently hear about Black males failing in school; what can we learn from the stories of Black men who have been academically successful?

Robert Morris University’s Uzuri Think Tank recently presented “Perspectives: A Community Focus Group On Black Male Educational Success”. It was an evening filled with stories about struggle, overcoming difficulty, and the ingredients of academic success.

Spoken word performer Leslie “Ezra” Smith set the mood for the evening by performing inspirational verse. Then Robert Morris’ Assistant Dean of Communication and Information Systems, Rex Crawley, interviewed Reverend William Curtis of Mt. Ararat Baptist Church, Larry Davis, the Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, and Alex Johnson, former President of Community College of Allegheny County to explore their road to academic achievement.

One of the things all three men had in common was that some of the adults who were closest to them made it clear that they believed in them. Johnson grew up in Concord North Carolina under segregation. The Black community he grew up in encouraged academic achievement, providing a foundation that he could draw upon once he entered more racially hostile environments outside of his neighborhood. Adults in Concord encouraged Johnson by pulling him aside and telling him what they thought his capacities were. Over time Johnson began to recognize strengths in himself that he would not have seen otherwise.

Reverend Curtis had similar experiences. Curtis recalls the importance of words in shaping his self-image. He says we have to be careful what we tell young people about who they are because this shapes what they will become. Curtis said he subscribes to “the law of first mention”. When the truth is first revealed, he said, this plants seeds of encouragement that help young people endure difficulty and fulfill their potential.

Curtis said that although the neighborhood he grew up in was insular, he and other children had everything they needed for physical and emotional support. “All the adults [in the neighborhood] raised you,” he said, “After school you went to the house that had food … All the teachers lived in the neighborhood … the community protected [us].”

Curtis said that Sunday school lessons also strengthened the capacity of young people to learn. The children learned history, literature, and math during Sunday school lessons. A child’s whole perception of the world was shaped by his or her social interaction on the block, in the school and in the pews. Curtis noted that today there are many other influences on children’s lives, through mass media and the internet, which distract and weaken them.

Davis, however, found considerably less support for achievement in his community. He relied on his immediate family for support. He said he was the only one, among his group of friends, who graduated from high school. Davis said that he sometimes feels “survivor’s guilt” because so many of his friends wound up in prison. “I feel like I walked through a mine field and was lucky to make it.”

Davis’ experiences illustrate how the social science research of Black scholars is often close to home. Research conducted by Black social scientists, as opposed to the more typical fare of academic research, positions the researcher as both observer and observed. When Black scholars study people on the margins of society they could just as well be studying members of their own family or their friends. Uzuri Think Tank director Anthony Robins’ is concerned that “the crisis of the potential extinction of the Black intelligentsia” will silence many of these voices.

Curtis, Davis, and Johnson said that much of their motivation to succeed came from family and community members who placed high hopes on them. Curtis said he felt as though the community was invested in his future and that he couldn’t afford to let them down. Davis said that when he was awarded his doctorate he felt relieved rather than elated because he would not have been able to face his mother, and his community, if he had failed. The Black community relied on its intellectual class for vindication – the failure of a budding scholar was not just his own disappointment, it was a setback for the entire community.

Even when these men came up short the adults looked past their weaknesses and emphasized the potential that they saw in them. They wanted to encourage the boys and bring out what was best in them. Crawley said that it is important for adults to do this today. “We must not just see them as they are; we must see them as they could be,” he said.

Johnson pointed out that while encouragement is important, it is also necessary for young men to acquire the skills they will need in order to compete in an increasingly competitive global environment. Positive messaging can raise the expectations students have for themselves, he said, and this will strengthen them to overcome difficulties and acquire those skills.

Curtis illustrated this with his own story. When he was in college an administrator told him that he didn’t have the intellect to graduate. Rather than retreat into self-defeat and discouragement, Curtis drew upon the high expectations that his community had engrained in him for years. If he had thoughts of giving up before the administrator told him that he couldn’t succeed, all of those thoughts vanished. “I was not going to walk off that campus and prove him right,” he said.

The Uzuri Think Tank continues to collect stories of Black males who have achieved even moderate success in higher education. This research project reveals the importance of family and community networks for academic achievement, and it demonstrates the power of stories to bring out nuances and lived experiences that cannot be captured by relying on statistical data alone.

C. Matthew Hawkins teaches in the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and is a consultant on curriculum development. His research is on the relationship between racial identity and schooling.

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