I spent Sunday afternoon at Vanderbilt University in Nashville getting young Aaron Beaste checked in and helping him get his dormitory room all set up. In fact, that’s what I am doing in this part of the country. Young Aaron Beaste was selected to participate in a special program for talented youth at Vanderbilt, and I opted to stay close by (Memphis) until he’s done rather than dropping him off, driving back to Florida, then having to turn around and make that long drive again at the end of two weeks to retrieve him.
Anyway, Aaron Beaste and his sister Little Moni Beaste have participated in a number of programs similar to this one over the course of the last few years, and as I sat in the orientation listening to the very impressive resumes of the young people participating in this program, it dawned on me that my children are children of privilege, more specifically, colored children of privilege.
Allow me to briefly qualify my categorization of my children as “colored children of privilege.” In my categorization, I’m not attempting to claim baller status; my wife and I work two jobs most of the year and take any and all free lance assignments to afford our children such opportunities. But what I mean is African American children who gain access to prestigious institutions and special enrichment programs not available to their peers by virtue of their unique talents and gifts.
These students I see as tantamount to a modern incarnation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of the talented tenth, that top ten percent of African Americans who were expected to use their unique talents and gifts as part of a program of uplift to improve the lives of all African Americans. But does this new generation of the young, gifted, and black realize or even understand this responsibility? Or better still, do they even have any responsibility toward the African American community at all?
I was perhaps part of the first generation of young, gifted, and black to directly benefit from the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up poor and black, but early on my intellectual ability afforded me opportunities not available to my peers and allowed me access to places of privilege others of my hue were shut out of. And because in our culture privilege is usually synonymous to whiteness, just like the handful of African American young people I encountered Sunday, I invariably always found myself one of the very few African Americans in the institutions and classes I became a part of.
But we understood who we were and what we were there for. We were never allowed to forget. On a daily basis, our parents and grandparents reminded us. Our aunts and uncles reminded us. The adult members of our community reminded us.
We knew that our fate was inextricably intertwined with the fate of the African American community. We knew that if we achieved any measure of success, that success would be accorded to our singular greatness. However, if we failed, our failure would serve as an indication of the intellectual inferiority inherent of the race.
So, we clung desperately to one another, urging and exhorting each other even as we discussed our plans for transforming our community and the nation.
But in that handful of African American children present on Sunday, the new generation of the young gifted and black, I didn’t see that same urgency and affinity to the African American community. While during my generation, we few African American children sought each other out, this new generation barely acknowledged the presence of the other African American students.
While we were usually found huddled together in a group, this new generation made their already small number seem even smaller and less efficacious by inserting themselves individually in the various racially diverse groups that popped up along lines of personal interest and talents as opposed to race.
And in their personal statements, they mentioned nothing of desiring to give back to their community. They simply catalogued their accomplishments in an almost braggadocios manner, and expressed their lofty goals in the Eurocentric terms of “I” as opposed to the Afrocentric terms of “WE.”
The implications are two-fold. One the one hand, maybe this new generation of young, gifted, and black have freed themselves from the onus of race. Maybe they have learned to define themselves outside the bounds of race. And this could potentially be a good thing. For a young person, the weight of carrying the full weight of a race on your back is a heavy weight to bear indeed. But if this is indeed the case, if they believe themselves truly free from the fetters of race and the concomitant exigencies thereof, I’m afraid they are deluding themselves and setting themselves up for a rude awakening.
Also, if they no longer see their connection to the African American community, a serious schism, a naked declivity, is developing, or better still continuing in its development, in the African American community. In the future, there threatens to be one narrow group of upwardly mobile African Americans and another group of society’s throw-aways perpetually mired in the muck of ignorance and poverty.
I wish young Aaron and Moni Beaste and those talented and gifted children like them all the best, but I caution them not to forget their roots, not to forget their race bacause if you do, something will invariably arise to remind you of it, and remember to reach for success not just for you or even your family, but for something much bigger than yourself.
Does the new generation of the young, gifted, and black have any responsibility toward the African American community, and if so, what is that responsibility?