Changing attitudes key to black academic success

July 28, 1999|By Brent Staples

MY GREAT-grandfather John Wesley Staples (1865-1940) was vain about writing and scribbled even grocery lists theatrically, gesturing grandly with the pencil and pausing between words to lick its point.

A fuss over a shopping list seems ridiculous -- until you consider that he was born in the slaveholding South, where educating black people was illegal until after the Civil War, and where aggressively literate blacks were seen as subversive and even dangerous well into this century.

Modern writing on the role of race in academic achievement generally discounts this history. But the only way to grasp the extent of the problem is to acknowledge that black literacy was obstructed as a matter of law for more than a century.

John Wesley's father, also named John, was enslaved in Virginia in 1831, when the black Baptist firebrand Nat Turner led the bloody slave rebellion that terrified the plantation South.

Slave owners blamed black literacy for the plot, and pursued what historians have since described as a program of "compulsory ignorance" to prevent slaves from colluding through written material. A Virginia law passed in the year of the rebellion forbade schooling, not just for slaves but for free blacks as well -- forcing parents to exile their children into Northern states to educate them.

When free blacks petitioned for relief, the legislature passed a deliberately vindictive statute, banishing from the state any child who left Virginia for the purpose of learning to read and write. Similar laws were passed quickly throughout the South and took an enormous toll. By the time John Wesley was born, only one in 10 black adults were literate.

"Compulsory ignorance" created a legacy of alienation from books and reading that has had a lingering effect on African-American achievement. The most pernicious fallout was a set of preconceptions -- often held by both blacks and whites -- that defined brawn work as black and brain work as an exclusively white activity. Of the many obstacles to academic excellence, expectations based on race have proved to be one of the most important -- and least-studied -- factors.

This could change with a forthcoming report from the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement, sponsored by the College Board. Many studies have scrutinized academic achievement among impoverished black students. But the task force study, one of the first of its kind, will venture into affluent areas like Evanston, Ill., and Berkeley, Calif., to examine a disturbingly persistent achievement gap between blacks and whites who are essentially of the same class and economic backgrounds.

A recent article in the New York Times examining Evanston shows that the fallout of enforced illiteracy is still evident not only among the black poor, but also in the black middle class.

Black students who excel at school typically struggle with racial stereotypes and conflicted notions of ethnic identity. Some students absorb the broader society's view that they can never be first-rate students and give up trying.

Those who excel are routinely attacked by their friends for "selling out" and becoming "white." Still others find themselves confronted by teachers and counselors who cannot conceive of them as academically inclined and discourage them from taking advanced courses.

Black families who urge their children on are historically less well equipped than whites to provide necessary supports. For one thing, the black parents are most often first-generation college graduates -- who grew up in households without books or systems that could support first-rate academic achievement.

The current crop of black high achievers, then, is battling hostile cultural conditions -- and traveling a course that no one in the family has traveled before.

The National Task Force on Minority High Achievement will study these students at school, at home and among their peers -- in an attempt to produce more of them, more quickly.

But what is already clear is that the leap from averageness to excellence for children of the black middle class will require discarding attitudes and preconceptions that were hundreds of years in the making.

Brent Staples is a New York Times editorial writer.

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