Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Editor's Comment: Graduation Speakers, What's Your Message to Black High School Graduates?

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Editor's Comment: Graduation Speakers, What's Your Message to Black High School Graduates?

Article excerpt

"When something doesn't go your way, you've just got to adjust. You've got to dig deep and work like crazy, and that's when you'll find out what you're really made of during those hard times, but you can only do that if you're willing to put yourself in a position where you might fail, and that's why so often failure is the key to success."

Michelle Obama said this during a graduation speech for Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee (Saenz, 2013). Obama used several examples of people, including her husband President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, to illustrate that triumph is a natural byproduct of adversity.

According to the U.S. Census, about 2.6 million Black male and female adolescents attend high schools across the United States. If current trends continue, a little more than 80 percent of the males and 84 percent of the females will complete high school or obtain a GED (Ruggles et al., 2012). Although the vast majority of Black young people complete high school, most do not complete college (Toldson & Esters, 2012). Many first-generation college students have less financial, family, and community resources to persist through the more challenging aspects of college, such as dealing with financial obligations, academic challenges, and finding opportunities for post-baccalaureate life.

High school graduation speakers meet students at a critical juncture. Many Black high school students have persisted through an environment that often felt unwelcoming. Studies show that Black students are more likely to attend schools in a high security environment and less likely to perceive care and respect from their teachers (Toldson, 2008). In addition, most Black high school graduates have had to adapt to a racially biased curriculum that undermines their culture's contribution to any field. Within this context, graduation speakers have a unique opportunity to impart wisdom and inspire postsecondary success among Black students, by reaffirming Black culture and helping Black students create a personal narrative of success.

Unfortunately, many graduation speakers use the opportunity to denigrate and dispirit Black students through a mind-numbing recital of poorly sourced statistics, which imply that, for example, Black students have a better chance of going to prison than to college (Toldson & Morton, 2011 ) and have a corrupt value system that attributes being smart to "acting White" (Toldson & Owens, 2010). These types of speeches elicit a variety of emotions from students, ranging from boredom to unease. Students who internalize such messages often conclude that the only path to success is to distance themselves from their peers, community, and even their culture.

In this editor's comment, I offer suggestions to graduation speakers, and others, including teachers and parents, who have the attentive ear of one, or more, of our nations' Black high school graduates.

Black graduates need to understand their greatness

Recently, I asked a group of teachers and school administrators if their Black students would be more inclined to revere General Andrew Jackson or General Garson. Most of them had not heard of General Garson. General Garson was a free Black man who was the commander of a British outpost known as the "Negro Fort" on Prospect Bluff in Spanish Florida in 1814. After the War of 1812, British troops left the fort to General Garson and a militia of about 400 Black militiamen. From the outpost, General Garson provided refuge to Africans who escaped from plantations in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Eventually, the militia organized attacks on plantations to rescue other Africans held in slavery. After much angst among southern plantation owners, Andrew Jackson illegally sent troops into Spanish-occupied Florida to attack the fort, killing at least 200 free Black men, including General Garson by firing squad (Riordan, 1996).

One must acknowledge the humanity of Black and native people to understand that the battle between General Garson and General Jackson, along with the ensuing Seminole Wars, was a civil war, not unlike the War Between the States. …

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