Brandon "BeWise" Sankara
Member, Wisdom From the Field
BLOC Intercommunal Program Coordinator
Education is not limited to the nation’s colleges and universities and we shouldn’t need those degrees to legitimize our value. We have the birthright to live and succeed and it is the task of those who’ve “made it out” and sat at the table of society to politely excuse ourselves, roll up our sleeves, and build a new table for all of our people to sit at regardless of formal education and other exclusionary qualifications.
“… I remember a man I knew well. We were right in the middle of a period of drought. To avoid
starvation, several families from his village collected the little money they had left and gave him the job of going to Ouagadougou to buy food… On arrival, he had a brutal and painful encounter with the town. He stood in line to get what he needed, without success. He watched a good many people jump ahead of him to buy their millet because they knew how to speak French. Then, to make a bad situation worse, the man’s bike was stolen along with all the money the villagers had entrusted in him. In despair, he committed suicide… In the meantime, far away dozens of people, whole families, awaited the happy return of this man who was to give them another lease on life, but who never came back. We have to ask ourselves: Do we have the right to turn our backs on people like this?”
-Thomas Sankara, Dare to Invent the Future (1985)
Blacks in the US and around the world have been victim to a system known as colonialism for roughly the past 500 years. This is a process by which a population of people is exploited for the economic, social, and political gain of another population thus placing the exploited in a state of perpetual poverty. In the United States of America this process of colonialism is more difficult to diagnose because the Africans colonized by the nation were removed long ago from our homeland, or faso, and subjugated to exploitation elsewhere. Further, as opposed to exploiting natural resources from land, the US exploits our physical, creative, and intellectual resources. Despite this fact, the treatment of Africans, or Blacks, in the US can still very much be seen through the lens of colonialism in the institutions of slavery (before 1865) and mass incarceration following abolition. Through all of this, the struggle at hand for us has always been figuring out how to overcome the symptoms of colonialism as they affect us in our communities.
Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), gave a speech In Lowndes County, Alabama in 1965 titled “Who is Qualified?” In this speech he raised key points that shot down the myths of how Blacks are told that we can “make it” in American society, including “by having money, by knowing the right people, and by education.” The first two are immediately disregarded by Ture for the simple reason that the majority Blacks have no money and due to the segregationist nature of American society, we never get to know “the right people.” Therefore the only remaining option available for us is higher education, which we improperly equate with and limit to college. Today, we continue to perpetuate this myth to our younger generations; shoving the idea of college down their throats as being the panacea, or end-all solution, to our community’s problems. In “making it out” of our communities and making it onto one of the nation’s college campuses we will have the privilege of meeting “the right people,” also called networking, and we can receive a degree; a piece of paper that acts as the legitimizing force making us worthy of acceptance into American society. Then we are told we will have job opportunities, make money, and therefore will have “made it” in America.
False. Malarkey. Hogwash. Blasphemy. Shenanigans.
Through all of this, including studying for absurd entrance exams, professional school exams, applying for fellowships and post-graduate programs, when do we find time for the people? Where is the time to return to the communities that fought for us to be able to enter these spaces?
Today, many college graduates are finding out that this road isn’t as smooth as we were told. They face some six-figure student loan debt and in many cases a job market either lacking positions or lacking those in their field of study. For those that are pursuing graduate school education such as medical school, law school, business school, or other upper level degree programs, they find themselves in a battle for even more exclusive seats. This means the already minority population of us in the undergraduate institutions becomes even more of a minority as select few of us receive acceptance into graduate studies. Then we will accrue even more debt that will then consume the majority of our income as we progress in our careers making the fruits of our labor even more delayed. Through all of this, including studying for absurd entrance exams, professional school exams, applying for fellowships and post-graduate programs, when do we find time for the people? Where is the time to return to the communities that fought for us to be able to enter these spaces? What was the point of the lives lost and the bloodshed in the struggles of the 50s, 60s, and going back to those slave rebellions waged to keep us, their descendants, from being born into their same fate? Today we help maintain the system our ancestors fought to escape as we chase that illusion of inclusion and the American dream while our communities drown in a sea of neglect and dependency.
Individual success does not lead to community empowerment as we’ve been taught to believe. We Black folk are a people rooted in family and rooted in the often quoted but rarely applied “it takes a village to raise a child” principle. Our societies prior to arrival in the West were characterized by great accomplishments, works of art, and monuments that had no way of identifying the artist. We did not achieve greatness for the sake of individual fame, but instead we achieved so that the world would forever know of our collective greatness. When we made discoveries or learned new wisdom, we brought it back to our people to advance our nations and uplift the masses. Today however, it seems as though we’ve assimilated the individualism that characterizes American capitalism and the effects of this assimilation can be found deteriorating the culture that was brought with us during the Middle Passage.
This is the reality that for at least the past 60 years we have been begging for and gaining entry into the nation’s colleges and universities, however the conditions of our communities remain the same.
Like the man in Thomas Sankara’s story sent to get food for his people, those of us who left our communities to attain higher education, whether in the Civil Rights Era or today, were sent there for a reason; to bring back the food for thought needed to feed the hungry minds and build a new infrastructure for the people and communities we left behind. Today we face a harsh reality. This is the reality that for at least the past 60 years we have been begging for and gaining entry into the nation’s colleges and universities, however the conditions of our communities remain the same. We’ve become doctors, lawyers, surgeons, engineers, musicians, and other types of professionals but as a whole, we still haven’t returned home to bring all that we’ve achieved back to the masses. Instead we take our talents elsewhere. We work for Northrup Grunman, we work for JP Morgan Chase, we advance their technologies and aid in the building of weapons that will run amok on communities in nations that we may not know, but that are filled with our brothers and sisters abroad. In the process we are given awards, stipends, dinner invites, faculty positions and the like and we think that we’ve made it; we think we’re successful but in reality, the success lies with colonialism.
At a 2011 conference on mass incarceration entitled The Imprisonment of a Race, political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal gave a speech in which he compared apartheid South Africa to modern day United States of America. Echoing the sentiments of South African activist and musician, Hugh Masekela, he states that “as in South Africa Black political elites have benefitted from an economic system that is profoundly unfair to the vast majority of African people, especially the poor and working class.” In other words, as opposed to using their upward movement on the socioeconomic ladder to uplift the masses from whence they’ve come, many so-called Black “elites” benefit from the achievement gap that exists between them and the poor and working class majority. This benefit isn’t only in the form of tangible gains but also gains in social status and perception. Amongst their peers whether it be in a higher educational or professional environments, these Black elites are praised as being “different” from the rest. At the expense of the masses that weren’t granted the privilege of access into such environments, those of us who do are celebrated and often times placed on a pedestal. Naturally, the ego boost that results is almost unavoidable and it can become hard to get these individuals to continue to identify with and fight on behalf our communities out of fear that they might lose their spot on the ladder. On the other hand are those who feel entitled because of their degrees to speak for our communities yet are so far removed from the populations for which they speak. We often times speak on broad issues that affect our people but spend little or no time speaking to them directly to understand how they are being affected. Not having lived the struggle and being so far removed from those who do, they remain as ineffective as the politician who speaks on our plight during election time.
We as Black people must come back home even if we weren’t born in a predominantly Black community and we must build a stage for our people left behind to shine on. More importantly, we cannot do it out of philanthropy, out of a desire to make a difference, but we must do it because in our struggling people we see ourselves.
Sure, being a Black doctor is great and you deserve the credit owed to you for your hard work and accomplishment, however what good are you to our people if they don’t know you exist? To that boy or girl walking down Slauson Ave. in Los Angeles, 79th Street in Chicago, or Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, you are nothing more than a myth. Seeing is believing and those of us who have left the village to achieve success must return in order to be seen. It is then and only then that the masses of Black people will believe in themselves and see the potential to unlock that greatness we ALL were born with. We as Black people must come back home even if we weren’t born in a predominantly Black community and we must build a stage for our people left behind to shine on. More importantly, we cannot do it out of philanthropy, out of a desire to make a difference, but we must do it because in our struggling people we see ourselves. We must do this because everything we’ve been taught was a lie. Education is not limited to the nation’s colleges and universities and we shouldn’t need those degrees to legitimize our value. We have the birthright to live and succeed and it is the task of those who’ve “made it out” and sat at the table of society to politely excuse ourselves, roll up our sleeves, and build a new table for all of our people to sit at regardless of formal education and other exclusionary qualifications.
THIS is revolution.