Making Black excellence the norm

By Michael Lashley

I lifted the ambitious heading for this commentary word-for-word from the title of a presentation delivered last year  by an inspiring educator who is articulate, driven and pro-active in her relentless pursuit of an ambitious objective: to identify strategies for supporting the engagement, retention and graduation of African, Black and Caribbean students in the pathways of post-secondary education.

Her fierce imposition of the pursuit of excellence on her students gives them a double benefit: they end up forcing themselves to do “better than their best” and they eventually realize that, in her persistent demands for excellence, she herself epitomizes the principle that they need to internalize and to put into practice: the messenger is to be the message. The individual must personally embody the ideals she / he is promoting.

That activist educator is Dr. Beverly-Jean Daniel, program coordinator and professor in Humber College’s Community and Justice Services Program. She is determined, through her project called The Bridge to root out the poisonous effects of the negative images of the Black condition and the performance of Black people, negative images that are being constantly fed into the minds of Black students.

The reason why I stress that strategy of dealing with such widespread negative projection of “ Black” people is that it sets out to change the public’s perception by engaging individual Black persons to first change their perception of themselves. When Black students strive to become and to be the change towards success and excellence that they wish to see in the world, a strange thing happens. Here are Beverly’s own words:

“They begin to transform themselves, they begin to transform the college, and they begin to transform those around them.”

And that is the essence of my double-barreled thesis. As Black people, we must nurture the positive perception of ourselves that we want others to have of us. We need to create a culture of success in our own minds and in our own work / study / hobby / community life. Then, in the second step, we need to make Black excellence the norm, to create a positive stereotyped image beyond the one we already have as being particularly skilled in the arts and in sports.

That is a tall order. But what is the alternative? Another eternity of cowering under the weight of marginalization and surrender to a public perception of our people as a community of less talents, skills, strengths and ability to overcome challenges?

Are we to continue to accept that our Black children comprise a significant percentage of the wards of the state and a significant percentage of those children whose lives are affected by the well-intentioned but sometimes culturally insensitive operations of the Children’s Aid Society? Do we not have a responsibility to assume a greater share of the important work carried out by this necessary state agency, whose financial and other resources may be stretched thin?

Those questions push us towards the broader application of our objective. We have a duty to ourselves to make Black excellence the norm in several areas, not just in education. We are making constructive efforts towards enhancing Black student achievement in such community initiatives as those being promoted by York University’s Centre for Education and Community, under the dedicated leadership of Prof. Carl James.

The other prime area of importance for changing the mindset and the direction of our Black community is, of course, family life. Our children and our youth are best able to develop a culture of success and excellence if they are nurtured in the two places where they spend most of their time: the home and the school.

Every initiative that advances the cause of a well-rounded family life is one more step forward: the Black Daddies Club is just as valuable as the community programs that support young males and single mothers.

Furthermore, it is not enough to resist the idea that the social and educational needs of the Black community are the same as those of other communities and of the society at large. Yes, our needs are in many ways peculiar because of our peculiar history and experiences.

But, given the greater untapped potential of our Black community, our needs are quantifiably greater and our capacity to grow and shine is enormous. Isn’t that a positive and inspiring source of motivation on the road to making Black excellence the norm?

Michael Lashley
Michael Lashley