By Susan D. Peters
Recently my eldest daughter held a trunk party for the second grandchild we will send to a Big Ten College campus. A “trunk party, is a celebration that brings together the Village to assist a college-bound student with well wishes and dorm necessities. As the grandmother of thirteen, with an investment in the success of each, I’m learning their interests as they near adulthood and realizing that college is not for everyone, and that is okay. In discussing this with my friend and fellow author Joyce Brown, she advised that “Black folks need to Return to Center.” A lightbulb moment!
Center is a position where we, the descendants of the formerly enslaved, show an appreciation for all the wisdom, intelligence, and occupations that value our needs and life-lived experiences. The work of household servants, pastors, factory workers, farmers, bus drivers, hairstylists, home builders; all have facilitated our climb on the road to freedom.
We need know-ers, and we need do-ers.
There has long been a debate over the best strategy for elevation Black folks exiting chattel slavery. Some followed the views of W.E.B. Dubois, the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University and founding member of the NAACP, who asserted that the best strategy for the upliftment of African Americans was through attaining the highest level of knowledge-based education possible. Another route was advanced by Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, grounded in the idea that African Americans needed to be equipped with practical skills and trades; and strive to become financially independent. One man valued knowledge, advancing the idea that the most talented 10th should assume leadership; another man thought the ability to do the work necessary to build and maintain our communities was the priority.
Somehow we have lost sight of the inherent balance of these two ideas. We are indiscriminately pushing all our youth into four- or five-year college programs. I’d like us to reconsider how we nurture our youthful resources.
We need workers that KNOW things and workers that DO things!
When in physical danger, we call the police for protection. When a pipe bursts, we look for a licensed plumber; it’s a licensed electrician when the electrical panel needs replacement. When one falls into despair, our mood is often elevated by a work of art, a song, a superb dance. Conversely, when a country needs defending, we don’t call out the intelligentsia. Instead, we deploy the military, those soldiers who receive and execute on concrete, unpleasant, and often perilous directives. All are honorable occupations that make the world a place where we can live comfortably. And yet, we are not enticing our children toward these occupations. We have undervalued the people who perform these and other essential jobs.
When did this shift occur? Where are the trade schools, the marketing of careers other than those requiring four, six, or more years and outstanding debt to accomplish? Scanning social media, most congratulatory posts are for youth pursuing “higher education.”
We seem to be leaning toward the “talented tenth” concept. Yes, many youths will flourish and hone their academic and social gifts on college campuses. However, not all our youth want or need college to make a good living and provide a foundation for upward mobility.
The sooner we realize that the sooner we can return to a point of realization that we need to provide tangible, fulfilling options for all our youth, four-year college-bound or not.
We are leaving behind youths that are not college interested, creating a situation whereas, The Last Poets chanted in their 1970 release “When the Revolution Comes,” a hefty segment of our youth are left behind to “party and bullshit.”
What should we be doing?
We need to restructure our educational systems in ways that prepare our children for the jobs that we urgently need filling. We do need more Black doctors, and we also need more Black people in the building trades. As a recent article points out, “Of the 9.2 million unfilled jobs in the economy, nearly 300,000 are in the construction sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” We need to embark upon providing more vocational training as well as political and financial literacy. We need development work that does not require an advanced degree; work that will help us return to center.
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Susan D. Peters
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