Young black men needed on campus

September 14, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- How can an African-American visit Nashville and pass on the opportunity to visit Fisk University?

It was Wednesday evening, Aug. 21. I was still miffed at the Great Wimp-out of 1996: the National Association of Black Journalists knuckling under to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The NABJ gained partial redemption with me when the group held a welcome reception at Fisk University. My ornery mood was lifted when two Fisk freshmen, Harriette Kelly and Karen Knowles, happily agreed to give me a tour of the campus. They showed me, among other things, Jubilee Hall and a statue of the eminent African-American scholar W. E. B. DuBois, who graduated from the school in the late 19th century.

Jubilee Hall is named for Fisk's famous Jubilee Singers, who are part of the reason the school continues to exist. Founded in 1867, the school was in dire financial straits three years later when George L. White, the business manager, came up with an idea after listening to groups of students singing. According to historian David Levering Lewis:

"It was [White's] decision that Fisk should sing itself into permanence. [T]he school's Jubilee Singers enthralled audiences in Boston (Johann Strauss joyously tossed his hat in the air), London, Paris, Berlin, and much of Europe, with presidents, prime ministers, and royals vying for their presence at special occasions." The Jubilee Singers earned more than $90,000 in its tours, allowing Fisk officials to clean up the school's debt, build a new campus site and the edifice named for the group.

Nashville is known as the capital of country and western music, ** but Kelly claimed that's not why this middle Tennessee urban center is called "Music City."

"Nashville is Music City because of the Jubilee Singers," Kelly contended as we headed to the statue of DuBois.

"His life serves as a testament and inspiration," Kelly said of the man who would found the Niagara Movement and become the first editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. His "Suppression of the African Slave Trade" earned him the distinction of being Harvard's first black Ph.D. His "The Philadelphia Negro" was a pioneering work in the field of sociology, and his "Black Reconstruction" may be one of the finest written on the Reconstruction era. Nearly 130 years after its birth, Fisk is still producing scholars, but the majority of them are women. Kelly and Knowles lamented the paucity of men at their school, noting that it tends to put a crimp in the social life.

I offered a possible solution: If those black football and basketball players who now take their talents to predominantly white institutions would go to historically black colleges and universities, both the athletes and the schools would benefit.

"They don't think that way," Knowles said of the athletes. "They dribble, they jump, they hoop."

"They tackle," Kelley added.

What they don't do is think of taking their talents to a historically black college or university. Not even the ones attending predominantly white schools in California, the state that has just eliminated affirmative action in higher education.

Let's be clear on the message that California sent. Black students with Scholastic Assessment Test scores lower than whites are being told to take up their college educations elsewhere -- unless, of course, they happen to be football or basketball players. Then they're welcome, even if their SAT scores are lower than those of black students who are being told to hit the road. The galling part is that the black athletes don't see what an insult this is, or that they themselves are benefiting from affirmative action. Athletic scholarships -- that classic oxymoron -- are indeed the original affirmative action. But don't expect anyone to challenge them in court.

The two freshmen and I discussed other reasons why there are so few black men in college. I told them of reports that say black men are having trouble nationally in achieving academically in elementary, middle and high school. Did they find that phenomenon in their high schools, I asked.

Kelly, from a predominantly white Merrillville High School, in Merrillville, Ind., and Knowles, from predominantly black East High School in Memphis, Tenn., both said they had. But each gave a different reason.

"When they came to class, they were the class clowns," Knowles recalled, citing that male bonding factor that young black men often fall into. Kelly said that at her school, black males weren't encouraged to learn and felt alienated. There may well be a half-dozen other reasons for the malaise afflicting black male students. But somehow, some way, we have to get the message out that the Fisks, Howards, Tuskegees, Coppin States and Morgan States want and need them.

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

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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