The Richard Wright Keynote Address: Why Formal Education Should Never Be Considered A Sign of Knowing Anything About African-Americans

If one considers the axiom that “there is strength in numbers” to be true, it is reasonable to assert that intra-racial in-fighting and disarray is a significant obstacle for Black America. At the present moment, there may be no greater obstacle to black liberation than the tendency of many African-Americans to dismiss education as a worthy goal. My tenure as an educator has taught me that many within our community have crossed lines that could be termed indifferent to intellectualism and entered the realm of hostility.

I often find myself in a contentious debate with a fellow African-American who will seek an escape route from a mental tussle via the stating of, “Well, I may not have the education that you have…” In fact, I have come to believe that such phraseology has little to do with a surrender and everything to with issuing a covert denunciation of a lifetime of study.

Far too frequently I encounter African-Americans who have concluded that the development of the mind is trumped by a haphazard pursuit of material goods and financial resources. If nothing else, Black History Month highlights this questionable priority arrangement and the reality that far too many of our people have little to no interest in a life of the mind. Although it pains me to admit it, experience has taught me that the vast majority of our people could care less about black intellectualism, it is quite simply “not their thing”. In place of a life of the mind, there appears to be an eagerness to envelope oneself within a comfortable blanket of comprehensive ignorance, a spot that many resist exiting at all costs.

Possibly the most startling aspect of this resistance to black intellectualism is that it is found in every segment of our community. To my dismay, the lamentable ignorance that serves as a sturdy foundation for so many is apparent among even the most formally “educated” within our midst. Consider the following incident for a moment.

I was recently invited to serve as a consultant for an educational institution seeking to bolster its Black History Month programming by advising them on who they should bring in to deliver their keynote address. When hired to do this job, I thought it peculiar that an assembly of black educators was at a total loss as to who they should pay tens-of-thousands of dollars to lecture to their students. However, my bewilderment soon subsided as it became obvious that each of the Ph.D.’s assembled in this meeting needed an immediate sabbatical that should have been used to take a few African-American studies courses.

I am confident that you understand that in time, the topic of who they should bring in to deliver the main lecture for that year’s Black History Month was raised. It was from that moment that I felt that I had been hurled into an intellectual abyss where any knowledge of black intellectualism was forbidden.

One male professor asked his colleagues the following question.

Did you know that this is the 60th Anniversary of Richard Wright releasing Black Boy?

This assembly of educators communicated their understanding of that fact by nodding their heads. This communication was quickly followed by the one who issued the initial query with an assertion that

I think that we should invite Richard Wright to campus to deliver our keynote address for Black History Month.

My mind spun as I was befuddled by the assertion. My confusion grew exponentially when this assembly of educators offered non-verbal agreement to the suggestion. My level of disorientation increased as “highly-educated” administrators in charge of million dollar budgets dedicated over twenty-thousand dollars to bringing Richard Wright to campus. I did not know if I should burst out in laughter or tears at this discussion.

There was no denying that this thirty-minute session that laid the groundwork for Richard Wright’s appearance revealed two lamentable offenses: (a) these so-called educators had no real understanding of Richard Wright and (b) their ignorance of black intellectualism extended further than the author of Black Boy and Native Son.

There was no denying that this assembly of educators, a group that had been extended the privilege of shaping the minds and worldviews of subsequent generations of African-Americans, possessed little knowledge of the African-American experience. If they had even a modicum of understanding of Black America, they would have known that Richard Wright had been deceased for nearly fifty years. I asked these black educators assembled within the room the following questions.

  • When was the last time you read anything written by Richard Wright?

  • When was the last time you saw Wright on television giving an interview or lecture?

To my amazement, a few committee members, apparently seeking to display their intelligence and counter what they erroneously perceived to be an attack on their intelligence, related that they had read recently released essays by Richard Wright. One individual went so far as to say that he had seen a recent interview of the great writer. I knew that they were all lying.

The rising tensions in that room would only increase when I revealed to them that it was an impossibility for them to have read something recently written by Wright or to have seen a recent television appearance as the man had died in November of 1960.

As to be expected, many of these highly-educated administrators were furious that I had silently sat and listened to them pledge monetary resources to bringing a dead man to campus. I am confident that you agree that their misdirected anger should have been aimed at themselves.

I can only hope that the alluded to “educators” dedicated their energies toward engaging the rich legacy of black thinkers, writers, and intellectuals that have served as central figures in “making a way out of no way” for a downtrodden black populace that has known no true everlasting friends.

Although difficult to admit, the anti-intellectualism that serves as the foundation for many within our communication, regardless of their educational background and socioeconomic status, reveals its possessors to be as significant an enemy to the liberation of Black America as the most virulent white racist. It is time for us to change the way we view the world, change our priorities, and embrace a legacy of intellectualism that is unrivaled by any other people on the planet. Our failure to do so will only prolong our customary last-place position in this and every society.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

©Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2018.

One thought on “The Richard Wright Keynote Address: Why Formal Education Should Never Be Considered A Sign of Knowing Anything About African-Americans”

  1. That is typical among our people. It’s a shame and disgress that we limit ourselves and blame others for doing ourselves. Collectively, we have the knowledge and resources to do whatever we want to do! It’s a lack of self-confidence in our ablility to allow our lights to shine. It’s time for people to unite and build up old institutions and create new ones to move our people forward. Garvey’s basic economic principles and Black WallStreet could change African Americans, America and the world!

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