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The Consciousness of an HBCU Scholar Speech by Joshua Miller

            Bowie State University’s History and Government’s Honor’s Ceremony
                                                Thursday April 27, 2017  

Congratulations to all of those who were honored today and I appreciate the department’s recognition of their student’s hard work and effort. As HBCU students within the history and government department, your effort has to extend beyond your time here at Bowie. Majoring in history or government at an HBCU gives you a unique responsibility to your family, to those that matriculate after you at historically black institutions and to the minority community as a whole. 

Some of you, just like me, and like so many other students at Bowie State and other HBCUs, are the first in your family to attend and attempt to graduate from college. This fact provides you with a specialresponsibility to rewrite or add to the story of your family and to those in your community that weren’t lucky enough to make it here. This means you have the responsibility to excel at this and to overcome any challenges that threaten to disrupt your academic progress. Throughout my academic career, both here at Bowie State and at Howard, my classmates and I experienced great personal tragedies, loss of family members, or had some type of crisis. In each circumstance, we had to make a conscious decision to overcome these challenges just to make it through the semester. I personally loss my stepfather, the only father I knew and my uncle who was like a father to me at critical times.  My classmates had lost close family members, witnessed their parent’s combat chronic unemployment due to the great recession and some of them actually had academic setbacks like failing a course required for graduation. But my classmates and I recognized that we had a responsibility to overcome these challenges and dismantle the generational curses that gripped our families in a viciouscycle of dysfunction and rewrite the stories of our family through obtaining a higher education. Taking on this responsibility works to change the dynamic and trajectory of your family and community as you inspire the people that look up to you. As an example, my niece, a young lady born to a 13-year-old mother followed me here to Bowie and graduated—and went on to receive her master’s degree. And my younger sister, despite the financial constraints of my family, is fighting her way through Morgan State University right now and hopes to attend law school. So when you enter an institution like this one, it's not just about you; it's about contributing a positive chapter to the story of your family and your community.

You not only have a responsibility to your family, but youalso have a responsibility to those that will matriculate in institutions like this one in the future.  This means several things, but it first means representing Bowie State with integrity, grace, competence and audaciousness. When you go into the workforce, you are entering a world where people of all races, including our own, have been socialized into believing that hiring black people is equivalent to hiring someone unqualified. People that think that being at an HBCU means you have less value and less to offer. And this creates a vicious cycle as other young, and talented black Americans believe they have to avoid HBCUs in order to avoid the stigma of inferiority.  And in turn, HBCUs lose out on some of the young and talented individuals in our society that would emphatically demonstrate all that HBCUs have to offer the world. That's why when you walk into that boardroom, or give a presentation at that academic conference, or address the ladies and gentlemen of the jury during opening statements, you have to do it at the highest level possible. For when you speak, you will be speaking for all those that will follow you, and if you don’t take this responsibility seriously, you would have crossed the narrow bridge of opportunity, and you would have blown it up behind you. That’s why when you leave Bowie State, it's your “A” game and nothing less, not just for you but for everyone that will follow you. 

You not only have a responsibility to your family, and to those that will follow you through an HBCU, you, as a HBCU student have a responsibility to link your individual efforts to the improvement of the African American community. This is called black consciousness. In the past, black consciousness has been woefully defined. However,  I define black consciousness as making a conscientious effort to use our individual God-giventalent and ability to improve the lives of other black people. It means if your talent is litigation and you are a black lawyer- you should try to be the best attorney possible so that you can turn around and help develop other black attorneys.  If you are a structural engineer and you are great at building things to last, then you have to be the best at it, so the most enduring thing you build is a bridge of opportunity for other black engineers. If you are an entrepreneur and instinctively know how to make money, then your goal is not just to be a millionaire, but to help create other black entrepreneurs. I know a lot of people talk about being “woke”, which is fine, but I talk about being conscious. Being woke only means you are aware or racism-- and maybe can explain it. By this definition, the overwhelming majority of the people in this country are woke. As HBCU students,you have a higher calling than just being woke. You are called to be conscious, which simply means you've linked your individual efforts to improving our community as a whole.

So you have a broad responsibility as HBCU students to link your efforts to improving our community, but as a history and government scholars, you also have a responsibility to use what you know to remind our community of their responsibility to vote and participate in our politics.  As history and government majors, you already know that African Americans endured 246 years of slavery followed by almost 100 years of being lynched by racial mobs and segregated into inferior living conditions—and being forced into the peonage system which was slavery by another name. And you know that was followed by 50 years of being redlined into ghettos, carted off to jail by the masses and being told the whole time that we only suffer from inequality because we refuse to work hard and won’t pull up our pants. This 400 years of oppression and institutional racism makes up the entirety of American history going back to 1619. And you know that our ancestors used every form of resistance to counter this oppression and institutional racism. But here in the new millennium, we must use what we know to remind our community that resistance must include consistently voting.

You should know that we have our work cut out for us in this regard because some in our community are unschooled about politics. They are experts at tweeting about racism but remain aloof about our history—and we know this to be true because they think interrupting political rallies is more important than voting. These people have plenty of energy but never when it counts. Plenty of passion but no attention span. Everything makes them mad except the things that actually harm our progress. Some of them are actually scholars, but they think the extent of their duties is to criticize our politics and those that are politicians instead of participating in our politics and change the type of politicians we get. These people are tenured experts at our history, but they have learned all the wrong lessons from it.

I know as Bowie State students, you have learned and will learn the correctlessons about our history and how we have to vote and participate in our politics just as much as we protest and disrupt our politics. As scholars from this institution, you know that you can't go around for 5 years telling America that black lives matters and then fail to vote to protect those black lives. If black lives matter then black people must vote. You know it’s a waste of time to walk through the streets interrupting traffic if you can’t interrupt your schedule to cast a ballot over who will control our department of justice and supreme court nominees. And you know that African Americans were not marching in the streets shouting black lives matter just because of what was captured on police camerasbut was marching because of what's been captured in our history. But you also know that our captured history is a never-endingtale of people that look like us, that died for us so we can vote.

And look, we cannot dismiss the fact that in this past election, people got tired of “picking the lesser of two evils.” But you know as Bowie State students, that politics is inherently choosing between the lesser of two evils. Anything that involves this poisonous trifecta—human beings, power, and money, will innately breed elements of evil. This explains our politics. So, we know that we are often making a choice between one party that is apathetic to our interests and a party that is hostile to our interest. But this is where knowing your political history helps you to make wise political choices. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that sometimes political expediency is morally wise. This may explain why he supported Senator Kennedy for president despite Kennedy’s terrible record on civil rights. And while many black people revere JFK today, Richard Nixon had a better public record than JFK on civil rights prior to the 1960 election. If you want a real example of picking between the lesser of two evils, consider the 1960 election. Where on one side you had Senator Kennedy, a man that was so conservative on Civil Rights that Southern Segregationist actually preferred his nomination over an actualSoutherner, Lyndon Johnson. And John F. Kennedy was instrumental in weakening the 1957 Civil Rights Act. On the other side, we had Richard Nixon, who was the vice president of the administration that would not lift a finger for our community unless they were forced to and they also worked to  weaken the 1957 Civil Rights Act-which is why we needed another Civil Rights Act in 1963.  These were the two people that African Americans had to choose from in the 1960 election. Yet, Martin Luther King supported Senator Kennedy and showed us that protest must come with pragmatism.  You see, Dr. King, as scholar, knew from history that one election in America literally determines whether black lives will matter or not.

It was the election of Rutherford B Hayes in 1877 that led to the removal of troops in the South and left black people to be lynched and burned to death for almost 100 years. If I had time, I could trace almost all the negative statistic associated with the black community today to two presidencies--Andrew Johnson and Rutherford B. Hayes. That was almost 140 years, ago and the consequences of their presidencies are still with us.  When you don’t have that historical context or ignore it altogether—stuff like email servers and words like “super predators” convince you that you should stay home and not vote in a presidential election.  This is why as history and government scholars we have to lead this fight as we know that our principles, idealism, and protest must come with tangible political strategies, realism, and pragmatism. It's this dogged pragmatism that produces progress for our community.

Look, there are people in this world that have it worse than African Americans have it today. They live without basic necessities such as  food, water,and shelter. They may be subjected to a continuous civil war, genocide or a combination of both.  Some of them are still choking on sarin gas, and others are ducking the bullets of AK47s. And so yes African Americans have plenty to be thankful for in this great but deeply flawed nation. But we can never settle and lay on the gratitude of our second-classstatus simply because others in the world have it worse. In fact, we must use what progress we have made in this country, to agitate for even better conditions here at home, so at some point, we can turn to rectify the injustices abroad. Because as history and government scholars you know black people are warriors for justice, but we cannot go another 100 years worried alone about the black race and ignore the problems affecting the human race.  So today I ask you view to your education in global terms, starting by inspiring your family to reach higher by obtaining a college education, then laying a foundation for those that will follow you through an HBCU by being a stellar citizen and exceptional boss, then reminding our community that resistance includes voting in every election, and finally linking your individual efforts to the improvement of our community.

Now whether you think our community can be improved or not is really about whether you will give into despair over hope. And so the responsibilities I laid out here today is not so much about laying obligations at your feet as it is instilling hope in your spirit. A hopethat tomorrow will be better if you are willing to fight for a better tomorrow. And while I know that you have our tough history rolling on the movie reel of your intellect, you can no longer just use that reel to describe racism. You have to use it to end racism. These are your responsibilities as Honored Bowie State students. A responsibility and a commission I hope you accept. Congratulations to all of you. And May God bless you and may bless the United States of America 


This post first appeared on Free Black Space, please read the originial post: here

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The Consciousness of an HBCU Scholar Speech by Joshua Miller


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