A couple of months or so ago at the end of the summer, my wife and I planned a trip with a few other African American couples we know just to have one last bit of fun before summer ended. When we first conceived of the idea, we bandied about several suggestions, but all of them seemed so absolutely done.
Someone suggested a cookout at the beach, but I was beached out, and I don’t particularly find the beach all that fun. Of course, Disney and/or Universal Studios in Orlando were offered, but we go to Orlando several times a year already so that was out. And in that same vein, someone suggested Busch Gardens in Tampa, but that too was voted down.
Then my wife suggested that we go somewhere and do something none of us had ever done, something unlikely. And we finally decided on a destination and an activity. But on the eve of our trip, one by one the couples and families called us to say that they had to cancel, that they would not be going. And each couple and family proffered the same excuse: “We all talked and decided that that’s just something black folk don’t do.”
Evidently, all of the black folk got together, or at least enough to form a quorum, and decided that black folk didn’t do such things.
And when we arrived at our destination, we found that they seemed to be very right in their assessment. My family was the only African American family present. The other African Americans there were there either with their white spouses or partners or friends.
But nonetheless, we had the time of our lives, and my children talked about the experience for days afterward. This was an experience that they, that we, will never forget and our lives are richer because of it.
In thinking about this, I remember something my grandfather said on numerous occasions when I was a young man, but I didn’t understand then. He would say that if black folk had to discover anything, it would never be found because black folk didn’t like to step outside the familiar.
And this might seem to be a small thing to you, but the implications are much bigger. Perhaps, we can best look at this through philosopher Wittgenstein’s notion of the umvelt. Wittgenstein used that notion to explain that an individual’s knowledge of the world was limited only by the limits of that individual’s access to the world.
In other words, experience translates to knowledge, and we can further extrapolate that knowledge translates to opportunity. So, when we limit our experiences, we limit our knowledge, thus we limit our opportunities.
And I see this all too often when I am out in the community. Too often I encounter African American children not living up to their full intellectual potential simply because they believe studying and achieving is simply something little black kids do not do. And when I inquire of their dreams and aspirations as adults, the very few who do not want to be rappers or singers or professional athletes all name the same handful of occupations: cosmetologist, firemen, policemen, teacher, doctor, lawyer.
Not that these are not noble, worthwhile occupations, but there are so many others to choose from. They are so grossly uninformed of the wide range of possibilities, of opportunities, open to them simply because of their dearth of experiences.
And when I inform them of all the possibilities outside those few mentioned, the response is always the same: “Is that something black folk really do?”
You know, I had a friend in graduate school, a young African American man, who was studying something like forestry management science or national park management science or something of that nature. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I do remember it was something that black folk don’t usually do.
And the National Forestry Service was so anxious to attract black folk to do it that they were willing to pay for him to receive a master’s degree and a doctoral degree and then hire him right out of school at a starting salary of about $65,000. When I saw his contract, I kind of wish that it was something this black man had done.
But if we are to increase the opportunities available to us and our kids, we must increase our willingness to explore our world. We must explore the full range of experiences available to us. We must step outside our zone of comfort, and go to those places we have never been before, and try those things we have never tried before. And if we begin to do this, oh the places we could go.