Over eighty years ago Florida, like the rest of its southern brethren, was mired in the system of Jim Crow. While the law of the land at the time was one of Separate but Equal, the truth is that in terms of education spending–things were separate but far from equal.
It was during this time that the Lucy Moten Elementary school was opened on the campus of what was then known as Florida A&M College.
As the decades passed, the school would undergo several name changes, including:
*the FAMU Laboratory School,
*the FAMU Demonstration School,
*the FAMU Developmental Research School
Over time, the school became a model of academic and athletic excellence. During the directorship of the late Matthew Estaras, the school grew not only in numbers, but in academic reputation. By the 1980’s FAMU High became known as “The High,” an affectionate nickname that some would say highlighted arrogance among its students.
The truth is that the student body was not arrogant–just convinced–that they had been inspired by a gifted and committed faculty and staff, one that ensured not only the mastery of academic subjects, but also the development of the spiritual welfare of the student body.
What makes the story of this great institution so compelling is how it succeeded despite limitations. My mother, Dr. Vivian Hobbs, who graduated from FAMU High in 1961, is fond of saying that “she loves every hot brick” of her old school.
She means that in a very literal sense…You see, in her day and mine, there was no air conditioning in the summer and sometimes no heat in the winter. Yet, despite the physical limitations of the old school building, FAMU High still was one of the top academic schools in Florida— BAR NONE.
It was FAITH and WORK that sustained the old FAMU High despite limited budgets!
It was FAITH and WORK that propelled thousands of FAMU High alumni to become successes in the fields of medicine, education, law, sports, business and the ministry!
So, too, shall each of you find success in your chosen careers.
As you leave these hallowed halls this week, remember the Scripture from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 10, where Jesus Christ once exclaimed to his disciples: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
As you leave these hallowed halls this week, lest you forget Jesus’s reminder, and lest you forget who you are as an individual, and more crucially, lest you forget who we are as black people.
And who are we, as a people?
To let the popular media and some history professors tell it, ours are a people whose history begins and ends with slavery–but we were so much more than that. You see, the native tribes throughout the continent of Africa, and the mighty Kingdoms in Kush, Ghana, Mali and Songhai, were considered self-governing centers for learning long before Europe rose from its “Dark Ages.”
To let the popular media and some history professors tell it when you hear of European nation-states like Portugal, Germany, France, Belgium and Great Britain, they would have you to believe that these nations and their inhabitants were superior to any and all people and civilizations found in “Africa.” They describe Africa as a “Dark Continent,” one filled with “barbarians” who were “uncivilized.”
But the fallacy in this logic is that those European kingdoms and explorers were concerned with one thing–profits! Profits from exploiting the gold, diamonds, ivory and yes, human manpower in the form of enslaved black people who soon were shipped to the Western Hemisphere to toil for centuries in bondage.
The media and professors will tell you these things because when a people are robbed of their self-identity, they wallow with such a profound lack of knowledge of self that anything and everything that has been done to them—or is still being done–is ok.
Indeed, since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the European ruling classes and their business elite did all manner of un-Christ-like acts to instill fear and dependence within the people in Africa, Asia and India that they chose to exploit.
To let the popular media and professors tell it, the Northern African kingdoms of Egypt and even Ethiopia, among the most advanced that the ancient world ever knew, were inhabited by something other than Black people. That is why in the days of old, Charlton Heston was cast as Moses and Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Cleopatra, not because of some creative license, but to reinforce that from antiquity to the modern era, if there is anything of substance and value, it was derived from Europe or Europeans.
We live in an era in which knowledge, more accessible than ever, is shunned. The act of being culturally illiterate crosses all races and economic backgrounds, as people have become comfortable in their “sincere ignorance and their conscientious stupidity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once described. As such, each of you must be prepared to combat such ignorance for the remainder of your lives.
Go from this assembly tonight knowing that there even will be friends and family members of yours who will lack a true knowledge of self, and do your level best to correct them, with love, when they are in error, so that they, too, can walk in the light of the enlightened.
Go from this assembly tonight knowing that as proud, educated young black men and women, you will encounter non-black people with far less education than you and far fewer credentials than you, who will assume that they are more intelligent than you or that they can tell you how to do your job based upon the fact that your skin color, to them, renders you inferior.
Indeed, for all of the thousands of cases I have successfully handled all across the south, there are times to this very day when I am in some rural city where I find myself as the only black lawyer in the building, an on some occasions, the assumption is that I cannot be good at what I do–that is until I line up and mesmerize with my knowledge and well-honed oratorical skills.
Go from this assembly tonight knowing that as smart as you are, that you may go to a graduate, law or professional school and encounter some professors who will never give you a higher grade because of their own latent racial biases; my own mother, while earning her PhD in British Victorian Age literature from Florida State University, once had a professor give her a B+++ on a paper—all to avoid assigning the grade of “A.”
Even more crucially, go from this assembly tonight knowing that no matter how well that you do in your chosen field, or how much money that you make, that you are only a defective tail light or improper lane change away from dealing with some police officer who may shoot at you first–and ask questions later, all the while never being held to account for your death.
10 years ago, when you, Class of 2018, were in 3rd grade, when Barack Obama was elected the first Black President of the United States, tears of joy streamed down the faces of individuals of all races and hues that November evening; even some Republicans who had fought doggedly to defeat him acknowledged the novelty of the moment. But what you all may be too young to recall first hand is that on that same night, the popular media declared Obama’s election the beginning of the “Post-Racial era,” one in which they declared that racism had magically gone away and color, at last, no longer mattered.
If only America had been so lucky.
I always knew that the “Post-Racial era” was false, as even by the time Obama was inaugurated in 2009, cartoonists had begun drawing depictions of an Obama White House lawn strewn with watermelon patches. Or others that portrayed his beautiful and elegant wife, Michelle, as an old “mammy,” replete with head scarf similar to the Aunt Jemima caricatures from Jim Crow.
Over the past 10 years since Obama was elected, the level of outright racism has only gotten worse. Racists attack us in cars. Racists call the police on law-abiding black people for buying Starbucks, or eating barbecue in a public park, or sleeping in the dorm at Yale, or for even looking at them wrong.
The Confederate flag is flown proudly and defiantly across the nation, and even at some courthouses here in the South.
Racists attack people of color on social media and more often than not, when a person of color claps back or calls out systemic racism, it is the person of color who winds up having his or her accounts frozen by Facebook, Twitter and the like.
So, as you leave this assembly tonight, take heed to the paraphrased words of the great abolitionist and Civil Rights leader Frederick Douglass: “if the colored man or woman shall come as a gentleman or lady, a scholar and a statesman, he/she are hailed as a contradiction to the national faith concerning their race, and their coming is resented as impudence. In one case they may provoke contempt and derision, but in the other they are an affront to pride and provokes malice.”
As you leave this assembly tonight, take heed to the wisdom that you have learned in school as it not only will sustain you, but they will help you flourish and prosper.
Soon, many of you will attend college. Some may join the military. Others may go to trade school. Most may become entrepreneurs at some point in your lives. But lest ye forget that while it may sound cliché, the sky, indeed, is the limit.
You will succeed because your ancestors in Ancient Africa succeeded. You will succeed because your ancestors during slavery and Jim Crow succeeded simply by surviving. You will succeed because the future is given to those who prepare themselves today, and armed with this high school diploma, such shall serve as the launching pad for even more education and training that will allow you to succeed as thousands of Lucy Moten, FAMU Demonstration School, FAMU Lab School, FAMU DRS and FAMU High graduates have succeeded before you. I wish the best for each of you assembled and remember, that with faith in God and hard work, you can do all things, learn all things, and become anything that you set your heart on becoming.
God bless and God speed, Baby Rattlers!