In the secular world, few contest the mantra that “knowledge is power.” In the sacred realm, the Lord laments, “My people perish for a lack of knowledge,” adding, in all your “getting,” first get understanding.
It was more than a mere power play that Americans who identified themselves as “slave owners” had no rule more sternly enforced than the restriction against teaching the enslaved how to read and write. Violators opened themselves up to punishment by death for something that seems simplistic on the surface.
Even then, they knew the danger of allowing individuals, no matter how badly mistreated in a society, gaining a better perspective of “self” and the intricacies of a brutal system to which they had been subjugated. They knew that knowledge was a greater threat of becoming an equalizer than any legislation or proclamation.
Even when Blacks in Congress during Reconstruction pushed through laws enabling public education, from the beginning there was a system of separate but vastly unequal application of that mandate. The segregated schools Black children were forced to attend were substandard, books and tools of learning worn or obsolete.
What they could not marginalize was the heart of Black educators who fought through these conditions with the determination to empower young people and the relentless passion for seeing the fuse of esteem and hope lit with the acquisition of Black boys and girls anxious to learn.
The impact was immediate. Even before public schools, Blacks who were secretly taught to read and write demonstrated brilliance that surpassed their contemporaries.
That is how Frederick Douglass was able to confound those who challenged his abolitionist campaign, why more than a dozen Black men elected to Congress in the 1860s were able to out debate bigots in the House of Representations.
It is the reason so many Black scholars, writers, inventors and freedom fighters were able to articulate the struggle of Black Americans during a period that extended beyond enslavement into “Jim Crow” of the 20th Century and the systemic racism of the new millennium.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education. To save man from the morass of propaganda is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable a man or woman to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his or her life.”
The colloquial summary of this astute analysis is, “When people know better – people do better.”
So why are we losing this race even though there are encouraging signs on the educational horizons for Black Americans? How are we in a position of dwindling resources and commensurate few opportunities, to apply knowledge obtained in the open market?
Part of the conspicuous ploy is evident in legislative attacks on school systems, books and libraries across the country. Who would ever have imagined that sordid past would be shamelessly resurrected as a tool against Black progress? There is a thrust throughout the nation to control curriculum, books on library shelves, media and access to information,
It would almost seem impossible in the “Google Age” but it is happening in terms of those with control over institutions.
The simplicity of the past is becoming increasingly complicated. I grew up in the generation of the Dewey Decimal System. For those born after the internet, that is a proprietary library classification process which allows new books to be added to a library in their appropriate location based on subject.
Baby boomers and generations that followed loved books. They were more than necessities required to excel in the classroom, they were portals to the boundless imagination of young people. In early life, they may have fashioned the intrigue of fantasy and a world beyond their grasp. In the latter years of development, books inspired young scholars to achieve their own potential.
In Indianapolis this week, more than 200 protesters demonstrated on the steps of the Indianapolis Central Library, protesting board refusal to appoint interim library director Nichelle Hays to the permanent position of CEO despite her stellar experience, training, leadership and support within the system from employees. She is clearly the choice of those most vocal in the Indianapolis community. She happens to be Black.
Rather than hire her, the board, by the slimmest of margins, brought in a white man from New Orleans with a sketchy past and named him to head the system. Confronted with immediate vocal opposition, he promptly rejected the offer. The board has launched a second national search for library leadership in the capital city of Indiana.
In its decision making, the board ignored a petition signed by more than a thousand Indianapolis residents who support Nichelle Hayes who led library administration flawlessly over the eight months of her interim role. Out of those who voiced support for her, more than a hundred identified themselves as library employees.
So what is the problem? Board critics insist racism is at the root of the board action, plain and simple. The board has not articulated a clear rationale for passing over the candidacy of Ms. Hayes, giving rise to these suspicions. But the clear message is that the will of the community is apparently being overlooked by a handful of power brokers who purport to know better than the people.
That’s an uncomfortable feel. A bad look. And it smells too much of the stench that is clogging the air around the nation when it comes to access to information. Too many people on the outside looking in are trying to determine what information Black people should enjoy access to and there is nothing that suggests noble motives in that reality.
This is a fight that we cannot ignore, from coast to coast. The classroom, the book shelves, the libraries are critical weapons we need in order to combat ignorance and raise esteem to improve quality of life across the board. Whatever you do, don’t marginalize or overlook the information war being fought in the U.S. It is the key to the future of our children.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].