In several articles that I have downloaded and kept in a file, a difference between black achievement early in the twentieth century and early in the twenty-first century is notable. It lies in the emphasis on education, which was heavier among black people in the first part of the twentieth century than in the second part. There were black lawyers and university professors during the 1800s and early to mid 1900s, at a time when education was segregated and black people were purposely sent to inferior schools during the days of Jim Crow. These black intellectuals overcame all the limitations placed upon them. They joined the NAACP and fought for the right to equal – truly equal – schooling. I assume that among the materials they studied were Greek and Latin, foreign languages, classic European literature – material that, white though its origin was, nonetheless was intellectually demanding. Equipped with the power of reading, writing, and oratory, black people in every field won cases in the courts -- Thurgood Marshall being just one example. The leaders of the civil rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s were college students, highly trained pastors like Martin Luther King, Jr., and thinkers such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who trained their minds, opened their mouths or unleashed their pens, and conquered a nation's most shameful laws.
The NAACP also fought for the legitimacy of black professional athletic teams. After gaining that legitimacy, the next victory was integrated pro athletic teams rather than segregated teams. Then black athletes became the heroes for young blacks, especially young black men, starting with Jackie Robinson. Black entertainers, too, were in the public eye.
Resistance to black athletes and entertainers was less than to black intellectuals. Black athletes and entertainers made lots of money for the white people who ran the athletic associations and the entertainment industry. They were marketable.
Being marketable is one thing. Being accepted for one’s intellectual ability is another. One would think that the election of Barack Obama not only in 2008, but also in 2012, signaled the acceptance of black intellectual ability. Instead, not only did prejudiced whites view him as an anomaly and point to his white mother and his upbringing with white grandparents as the real cause of his brain capacity, but even black people did not all see him as truly black. When I viewed rapper Killer Mike’s recent segment on Netflix in which he proposed that children should not be taught to dream intellectually, but be taught trades instead, I was sickened. Killer Mike asks a black principal if she agrees that intellectual training was really useless. She absolutely does not. She points to Obama as an example of genuine black intellectual ability. Killer Mike says, “But he’s biracial” – as if that made Obama not actually black. Subsequently, Killer Mike goes to a community college and seeks to prove that combining trade schooling with pornography would enhance learning, regardless of race.
I wasn’t so much nauseated by Killer Mike’s ignorant ideas as by Netflix’s willingness to publish his segments. Killer Mike stands as a black man who has made millions from being an entertainer, now publicly opposing serious education for any and all students. It’s horrifying. Killer Mike confirms what Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote about in a 2015 article called “Why Aren’t Black Men Graduating from College?” Dr. Watkins sees young black men taking athletics and socializing seriously, but not intellectual studies. Meanwhile, black professors are not hired and retained at nearly the rate of non-black, even in historically black colleges and universities.
Few people can be an entertainer or an athlete at the level of making enough money to live on. Furthermore, the need for professionals in medicine, law, technology, literature, and history is ongoing. When black people are prominent mainly as entertainers or athletes, they are not taken seriously as intellectual forces. Fewer young black people will aspire to challenging intellectual fields if they think they can make money faster as athletes or entertainers. We can’t afford the loss of black people’s intellectual production.