A Juneteenth reminder that “Knowledge is Power”
This is both a somber and exciting moment in Black history as we mark the 155th anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States. It is a somber moment as we remember the generations of African-Americans who suffered for 200 years under the brutality and oppression of slavery. It is a somber moment as we consider Jim Crow and the century of systemic racism that deprived the immediate descendants of slaves the equality, justice, and opportunity promised in the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is a somber moment as we mourn the victims of the continuing inequality, injustice, and prejudice within our country today.
But it is also an exciting moment in Black history. It is exciting because we are all part of an endeavor whose righteousness has been borne out again and again by each defeat of racism in America. It is exciting because as much as struggle and oppression have always symbolized this endeavor, it is becoming easier to see a real vision of equality and justice for African-Americans.
We have not yet fully realized Dr. King’s dream, but we have perhaps slipped into that moment between dreaming and waking where anything seems possible. Many of the key moments in the demand for black equality, justice, and dignity have centered on forcing legal and political changes intended to weaken and finally eliminate systems of racism. So perhaps the most exciting part of this moment is a greater willingness to discuss America’s culture of racism as the foundation of the systems of oppression used against African-Americans in this country from its’ founding to today.
There has been one truth throughout the centuries of struggle: once advancements in equality and justice have been secured the real test is preparing African-Americans for the new opportunities those advancements uncover. The most important tool the black community has used in every one of these instances has been education.
The earliest leaders of the struggle for African-American equality and justice new a fundamental truth: “knowledge is power.” But they also could have added that with the guarantee of liberty comes the responsibility of self-enlightenment. This is why the common characteristic amongst the most revered figures in the African-American struggle for equality has been a lifelong commitment to education and the dissemination of knowledge. As we commemorate Juneteenth the African-American community, and indeed the entire country, must honor the sacrifice of our ancestors by supporting and promoting education as the highest priority in the creation of true equality.
The single most important focus of this priority must be the expansion of education opportunities for African-American children. It begins with a deep and concerted effort to develop better preschools in black communities. For many white children in America, preschool is an essential first building block in developing the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in both primary and secondary school. For too many black children in America preschool is not much more than structured childcare. This is because the lack of funding and support for preschool and early education in minority communities makes things like providing a quality breakfast a priority over development of early learning skills.
Most efforts at improving education are aimed at ensuring African-American students have access to the same opportunities for success as white students. But more must be done to assure that once attained African-American children have the skills and support necessary to take advantage of those opportunities. This can only be achieved by developing the same foundations of nurturing and support for black children that most white children can expect without a thought.
One of the important legacies of America’s long history of discrimination is a lower level of civic interest amongst the African-American community. As much as limiting political power amongst Blacks was a key component of Jim Crow, promoting a broader apathy towards politics was central to maintaining the culture of racism in America. This is because a disconnected and uninformed minority is much less likely to ask questions or make demands that upset the system.
Thus, a vital avenue for reconsidering education within the African-American community is the need to increase the promotion of civic awareness and political activism. African-Americans have always been deeply knowledgeable on social and political issues from the perspective of having to defend our civil rights, our dignity, and our very lives. We now must refocus our approach to politics and society towards the perspective of promoting our needs, our dreams, and our rights to pursue them in the same manner as everyone else. We must do more to organize and educate ourselves on the most pressing issues in our communities. And we must do so knowing that being able to use political processes, bureaucracies, and business networks is exactly what is meant by the adage “knowledge is power.”
Finally, whether improving preschool programs or educating older members of the African-American community, we must work to ensure we are a pivotal part of the future of American society. Specifically, improving education programs for African-Americans must include an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Another one of the dynamics of the struggle against racism and discrimination is that once justice has been achieved the African-American community finds itself a generation or more behind the white community in the development of the most important skills.
Opening opportunities to Blacks that we should have been given all along is only the first battle in the war. When it comes to true equality, we must be given broader and accelerated pathways to engaging those opportunities. Because of the legacies of racism in America, the African-American community lags significantly behind white Americans in every education statistic. If we are to take advantage of the new areas of employment and advancement associated with STEM, we must be given all the tools necessary to compete for the jobs and positions of leadership in those markets. And this means developing targeted training and support programs that address black underdevelopment and inequality in STEM fields at every level of education.
There’s an old African proverb that says, “Not to know is bad. Not to wish to know is worse.” For the longest time African-Americans were not allowed to ‘know’. Thankfully, our access to education and ability to learn more about the world around us has steadily improved with each successive victory in the fight against racism in this country. As that access improves it is incumbent upon us to push even harder, to learn even more. We must do all that we can to develop within future generations “a wish to know more”. We can do this by passing on our knowledge and our appreciation for the education that helped us accumulate it. We can do this by not just funding preschool programs or skills training in STEM, but by instilling in our children and ourselves a love of learning simply for the sake of learning. I do believe this is an exciting time in America because I believe that we are gaining momentum towards the realization of Dr. King’s dream. But I also believe it will all be for nothing if we do not create stronger frameworks through which to educate African-Americans, the country, and the world about how to make that dream a reality.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.