This might well be a repeat, but the unfortunate issues I try to address are evergreen and evergreening, so bear with me.
For historic perspective, I have occasionally shared some inspirational tidbits with African American undergraduates and alums at Harvard as well as other persons I consider sensitive to same. The following are reflections on a speech by a visitor to my school in the Mississippi River Delta section of Arkansas when I was in seventh or eighth grade.
Our visitor revealed some statistics about Black History that were awe-inspiring and quite relevant to the rôle of educated African Americans today. He revealed to us that there were probably no more than fifty African Americans with college degrees in the United States when the Civil War ended. Moreover, there were almost five million newly-freed slaves who were, for all practical purposes, illiterate. Notwithstanding these overwhelming odds, this handful of educated men and women (and their descendants) worked a miracle over the seventy years following the War and "saved a race." Frankly, they "saved a nation" because the United States could not have withstood the economic and political burden of more than 4,000,000 nomadic, unskilled black refugees.
With the help of Northern missionaries, sympathetic Southern whites and philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Julius Rosenwald, they founded more than 200 historically black colleges and thousands of schools during that period. This was accomplished in the face of monstrous brutality including widespread lynching. I've read that between 1890 and 1910 upwards of 4200 blacks were lynched. That computes to a black lynching every forty-one hours for twenty years!
Our visitor reminded us that those fifty or so educated men and women could have remained in the North or migrated to Canada or Europe and enjoyed relatively comfortable lives. They chose instead to look into their conscience, their religion, and into the future. They knew that without skills and organization, all that the ancestors had endured would have been for naught and chattel slavery would have been replaced with economic and political slavery.
He ended his talk with the daunting question raised in Genesis 4:9, "Am I my brother's keeper?" He said that those few educated Black men and women in the 19th Century nobly answered that question and he urged all of us to contemplate it every day of our lives.
That visitor's speech resonates today with even greater urgency especially among the statistics about black males and it suggests that: We must either keep our brother or he will assuredly keep us. He will keep us in debt, e.g., state correctional system budgets run into billions of dollars with California topping them all at $10,000,000,000 (2007)! He will keep us in fear (many homes in our communities look like jails, with their locks and bars). He has already driven too many Americans to believe that we can imprison our way out of the problem even if it renders African Americans an ethnic group without functional males between fifteen and forty. Lest we think this is a problem afflicting only the black “underclass,” we need only observe the growing male/female imbalance in college, graduate and professional schools. Could this portend a single-gendered black middle class in our future?
The following quotation that I first heard many years ago in Sunday School almost leaps out at me:
"As I approached the mountain I thought I perceived a monster, but as I came closer I saw that it was not a monster but a man, and as I came even closer, I saw that he was my brother."
"I sought my friend and my friend forsook me.
I sought my God and my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and found all three!"