Our African American Scholars

By Robert W Andrews
Being both African American and academically focused in our community can spell social disaster for a student. In our program, we struggle to retain African American students because they can be ridiculed by their peers for trying to act "white," while the adults in the community have low expectations and track them into lower level courses. Many of our African American students struggle to find spaces where black equates intellectual.

During my first year working with the Schuler Scholar Program, I remember running into the hallway to let one of my African American students know that Yale was visiting that afternoon. Her friends looked at me bewildered as to why some overly excited white man was telling their friend about some college. I quickly realized that I was potentially setting her up to be teased and found a way to extricate myself without doing much social damage. Later that day, my student, now a senior at Stanford University, told me about how she and other African American students in honors classes had to navigate the social scene at school. She told me stories of students being taunted for doing homework, having food thrown at them for reading at lunch. I knew this existed, but had never seen it play out in front of my eyes before.

More concerning is the lack of African American students on a college bound track. Too few African American students take Algebra in eighth grade making it nearly impossible for them to reach Calculus by senior year. Too few are even recommended for the honors or college track courses.

There is clearly something systemic and cultural going on. No one can escape the blame.

Educators across the country are struggling to find answers to help our African American kids be successful, both academically and psychologically in school. Our program has not figured it out yet, but we are trying by listening to our families, supporting students and asking our partner districts to examine these concerns. We can all do more.

The students who are successful at navigating both worlds are inspirational. Their voices serve as encouragement. One of my students beautifully captured her struggle living between two worlds in her college essay below. She and my other African American students are not only motivating to other African Americans, but to anyone who succeeds in the face of adversity. Kandyce is currently a first year student at Swarthmore College.

For countless generations my parents have been in America. My culture is America. My past, present, and future is America. How far back does my American lineage go? I don't know. There is no answer. Only a question mark.

I am American.

I only know that somewhere way back in the past my ancestors were in Africa. Somewhere way back in the past they were forced onto American soil and sold like cattle and forced to labor.

I am African.

During my summers I immerse myself in the deep south African American culture. With my family I talk different. Not how I talk at school. I avoid the scorn fo being called "white washed" or "Uncle Tom" in this culture, the worst insult and a cause of shame for my parents. Back home, in this culture, I use the smallest words I can find and then slur them together. I consciously use improper English. I talk black

"ey yo waddup." A simple greeting.

I go from a family vacation in Mississippi to a college campus for Schuler. I must transform myself again, to avoid scorn and judgement. Here people talk different and will judge me if I don't. I revert to how I usually talk. Unnecessarily large words. Different inflections. I am a different person. Someone that I am ashamed to be around my family. White washed Kandyce. I immerse myself in English Literature. Austen, Dickens, Bronte: people my family has never heard of. I write feverishly in my free time. Unsanctioned pastimes in my alternate identity. I talk white.

"Hi, how are you?" A simple greeting.

I am African American.

There are so many disparities in the average education for an African American and a Caucasian. The difference in graduation rates is significant. This will have no bearing on my success. I will graduate. I will be part of the 55% of African Americans who do graduate. I find that in breaking stereotypes, I must move forward on my own. I find that I am looked down upon by my people for my pursuit of higher education and purpose.

I make the choices I make and take the path I take because I want to go places with my life. I want to go to college and get a degree. I am motivated to reach a point where I can help the progression of my community. I will not be deterred in breaking trends.

"Why don't you have any black friends?" my mom asks, and I feel ashamed.

Dirty. Ashamed to tell her that I don't know how to juggle the very different cultures. That I don't know how to be black. That yes, I know how to read literature, but I can't be this person she wants me to be; who I am supposed to be.

"Why do you talk so white?" my mom asks, and I don't have answer.

Mostly because I don't know what that question means. What does it mean to talk white and to talk black. How can I survive in a white world and go home to a black one. I am defined by learning to balance this path. I hate when my mom tells me I don't hang out with enough black people. She should understand that I am trying my best to be an AP student and be black.

The two paths are basically mutually exclusive. And they shouldn't be. No matter how I walk or talk or if I read literature in my free time. My skin is still dark, I am still black. However, the culture divide remains.

As I grow and mature and as I meet other people similar to me, I am learning more about myself. I learn that I can be black and be high achieving. I've learned that statistics that say only 19% of African Americans receive a bachelor's degree or higher are not even worth my time. I have learned that no matter what I do and what decisions I make, I am still black. I must define black for myself and not let others define it for me. I yearn for a black where reading isn't something to be ashamed of. Where by becoming well spoken and expanding my vocabulary, I am not becoming something other than myself. I am not becoming white.


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