WASHINGTON–Caring for the young; breaking the barriers that divide African Americans along class, age and gender lines; and taking responsibility for the future were the themes of February’s Black Issues in Higher Education videoconference, which was: designed as a celebration of African American history.
The tone of The Wisdom of the Elders was set by twenty-five-year-old Rev. Jamal Bryant, national youth and college director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Bryant opened the program with an anecdote about a young man at a highway toll booth. When the young man reached into his empty pockets searching in vain for away to pay, the booth operator told him to go ahead through, for the toll had already been paid by those who had passed ahead of him.
“The only way we’re able to sing `We Shall Overcome’ is because somebody else helped us come over,” Bryant said. “We must always remember that, as we are going on to this next millennium, we didn’t get here on our own. Somebody prayed for us, somebody sacrificed for us…. We must always remember to say thanks.”
Panelist John W. Franklin, son of renowned historian John Hope Franklin, reminded the audience that in order for young African Americans to feel gratitude toward previous generations, they must first know their history. He suggested that children should begin by listening to the personal histories of their adult relatives, neighbors and friends. That is the way he first developed an appreciation for African American history. Jonah Edelman, son of Marian Wright Edelman and executive director of National Stand for Children, recalled how a road trip he once took with his mother through the South heightened his appreciation for the legacy he has inherited and helped fortify his own sense of purpose.
Edelman and Bryant agreed that one of the biggest challenges for their generation is building community. In response to a question about whether the panelists were part of the Black bourgeoisie, Bryant said such labels only serve to pit African Americans against one another.
Panelists Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt, author of “SisterPower” and professor of social work and African American studies at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton State College, and Dr. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, shared their thoughts on the role women have played–and must continue to play–in the ongoing advancement of African American people.
Height said that her organization is planning to hold a series of African American women’s leadership rountables “where we can talk about our issues.” She said that too often when women’s issues are raised, discussion focuses on white women.
“We are the footnote, or the asterisks, that we [Black women] have the same problems only worse,” said Height. “I think that Black feminism–just as I feel the emphasis on improving the quality of life for Black males–always has to be in the context of strengthening the whole family…. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I am a woman and there are [unique] experiences I have because I am African American and a woman–and I have to look at those,” Height said. “I think Black women absolutely need a [feminist] movement,” said Reid-Merritt, citing the Black women’s club movement of the early 20th century as precedent for such an effort. “We need to continue that momentum.”
The final segment of the conference addressed issues of African Americans in the fields of entertainment and sports. Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame football player and current owner of Parks Sausage company, talked about the important role athletes play in inspiring young people to pursue their dreams. He encouraged other African American athletes who have an interest in pursuing business careers after their sports careers, as he did, to work cooperatively to achieve economic success for themselves and the larger Black community.
Actors Al Freeman Jr. and Paula Jai Parker, who was once a student of Freeman’s at Howard University, described the struggles with racism that people of color continue to fight in their profession.
“It is not fair to put [Black actresses] down for taking and accepting [demeaning] roles,” Parker said. “We have to start somewhere to get where we want to he…. We are paving the way to make it easier for the people coming up, just like people like Mr. Freeman did for me.”
“There are some standards and principles that I think we can control and that we have to be consistent with,” said Freeman. “There are a lot of aspects of our culture and a lot of people that we might prefer not to see. But when we [Black actors] make them whole and make them round, then maybe we can make them understandable.”
The videoconference was moderated by Julianne Malveaux and additional entertainment was provided by the Wo’se Dancers and Drummers. It aired to a national audience of college campuses.
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