Success stories point way out from Cabrini-Green

June 16, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Sherita Ceasar grew up on welfare in Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects. She got out the old-fashioned way, graduating in the top 10 percent of her high school class, getting degrees in mechanical engineering and eventually becoming a director of manufacturing at Motorola.

Ceasar's success inspired her mother to further her education. The elder Ceasar was valedictorian of her class in business school and got a job, "breaking a 16-year cycle of welfare," according to the narrator of the television show "Success Through Education -- A Salute to Black Achievement."

The hourlong program airs at 3 p.m. today on Channel 13. In addition to Ceasar, the show highlights Rear Adm. Anthony Watson, another Cabrini-Green resident who went on to graduate from the Naval Academy after posting a B+ average at Lane Technical High School in Chicago. Watson's mom stressed education, which is still the surest way to get out of the Cabrini-Greens across the country. (Gee, do you think my friends in the AC-To-Hell-With-You and the black liberal Democratic clique are reading this?)

The host of the show is actor Malik Yoba, of Fox television's "New York Undercover" fame. The show starts off shakily, with Yoba talking to a group of students about "self-esteem." Oh gad, I thought to myself when the words "self-esteem" flashed across the screen. Not that stuff again. But Yoba handled it adequately, if not perfectly. I'm still waiting to hear someone say that low self-esteem is a condition suffered by nearly everyone on the planet and that it is a minor trial to be overcome, not an excuse for failure.

When I was in the Sudan I visited the people of the Nuba Mountains, who were half-clothed and dirt poor. But I remember one farmer whose crops were burned by government troops. He relies on the charity of family and the fruit of mango trees to survive. His self-esteem seemed noticeably higher than that of many people here in America, the land of plenty. In fact, all through the southern Sudan, which has probably the poorest people on earth, self-esteem didn't seem to be a problem.

That is why I get a bit miffed when I hear Americans of any race whine about low self-esteem. I'm tempted to tell them to get back to me when they have a real problem. So many people the world over have it so much worse.

Once you get past the self-esteem ordeal, the "peer pressure" conundrum awaits. Yoba talks to the teens about how and why they must resist negative peer pressure. A few said it was difficult to resist peers who wanted to drag them into the street life. Others pointed out that peers who steer their friends toward trouble aren't really friends.

No one suggested that teens might be able to resist negative peer pressure by simply associating with positive peers. That's the easiest method. It worked for me in junior high school, where my peers were four guys who would as adults become a computer programmer, disc jockey, actor and director of a program designed to help poor women start businesses. Those I figured were destined for a future of pressing license plates I simply avoided.

Those who can't find positive peers might adopt the philosophy of the incomparable Ignatius C. Reilly of the novel "A Confederacy of Dunces."

"I mingle with my peers or I mingle with no one," Reilly says. "I have no peers, so I mingle with no one."

The next segment featuring Yoba and the teens deals with history. Predictably, one girl who described herself as of mixed African-American and Puerto Rican heritage said she got little black history and no Hispanic history in school. One girl said there wasn't enough black history. You have to wonder why, if they're really interested, they would wait for the schools to teach them. A good book store awaits you both, ladies.

The strongest parts of "Success Through Education" are the segments profiling blacks who have made it. In addition to Ceasar and Walton, there is Gerald Johnson, a business relations manager for Mobil Oil who directs advertising campaigns and developed a $45 million program designed to help blacks and Hispanics open gas stations.

There's Maj. Gen. Marcelie Jordan-Harris, a graduate of Spelman College and the University of Maryland who is now the highest-ranking black woman in the Air Force. Then there's Kela Walton, who survived a racist college professor who challenged her abilities in a computer class to get a degree in computer science and is now a manager of an advanced engineering development test lab at General Motors.

"Walton's best revenge against racism has been success," the narrator intones. Indeed, success is the ultimate revenge against racism. Success is still achieved through education, a notion that's worth repeating. So watch this show. Tape it. And, in the immortal words of Ralph Ellison, "Learn it to the younguns."

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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