‘Imagining Myself and Others’: A Tribute To Today’s Outstanding Young ScholarsEditor’s note: The following is excerpted from a speech delivered last spring to the Black Academic Surgeons Convention in Birmingham, Ala.Barreling toward the year 2004, no one can imagine me or you, very clearly. We are thought to represent something, and it is generally little “d” democrat, or otherwise lowercase. This is not an observation about status anxiety; it is about humanity — the very thing that the struggles of Birmingham, of Selma, of Montgomery were all about. And your individual successes, your very existence is something we are keenly interested in seeing that people are able to imagine. One of the problems Black people face is a problem of the imagination: How we and others imagine ourselves.
Novelist William Styron, writing about his initial contact with writer James Baldwin in what has to be the 1960s, says, “Struggling still to loosen myself from the prejudices and suspicions that a Southern upbringing engenders, I still possessed a residual skepticism: Could a Negro really own a mind as subtle, as richly informed, as broadly inquiring and embracing as a White man?” Imagining you. Imagining you into existence. That is the challenge.
Imagining you and men and women like you who have developed their talents and are pursuing the challenging careers in the most highly specialized and technical areas is, of course, very topical. For just as our national book of days calendars this week, as the one including the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it likewise holds an entry of this week as the one in which the Supreme Court would consider the question of affirmative action, a means of access for many minority students to some of the most exclusive schools in America.
One of your colleagues, Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, a professor and director of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, addressed the issue in an op/ed piece published in the Feb. 24, 2003, edition of the Wall Street Journal. Recalling the 1970s, he observed: “It wasn’t easy back then. I can certainly remember being stereotyped during my career due to ignorance and habit. As a surgical intern at Johns Hopkins in 1977, when I would go to one of the surgical wards, a nurse might casually say to me, ‘Mr. Smith is not quite ready to be taken to the operating room yet.’ The only Black men in surgical scrubs that she had ever seen were orderlies, and she assumed I was the same. The mistake stung, but it was innocent, made on the basis of historical perspective.”
Carson continues: “White people weren’t the only ones harboring aberrant ideas based on history, either. As a young neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, I’d encounter Black patients and in some cases I could imagine their thoughts: ‘This guy is young and Black and has this lofty position. I don’t think I want the product of affirmative action operating on my brain.”
If we are to do mighty work, there must be faith in us. If you do not believe that our children can become academic surgeons, they won’t. Their success bears some significant contribution to our faith in them. We signal that confidence in the clearest ways to them. Most of the great practitioners are made, not born. We could make them if we had faith in them. We need only have it. We need only imagine them as great and share that imagination. — Cleophus Thomas Jr. is chairman and CEO of A.G. Gaston Corp., the holding company for Booker T. Washington Insurance
Company and its subsidiaries, a fellow of the American Bar Foundation and trustee emeritus of the University of Alabama system.
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