2020 graduate gets personal with 2020 graduates; high school and college

Tara Kent, Ph.D.

Dear Class of 2020,

Congratulations, you completed a significant benchmark. I am writing to encourage you to dig deeper. Whether you are a high school or college graduate continuing your education or entering the workforce, you can achieve your aspirations with the will to dig deep and gain profound knowledge and understanding of African American history.

When you begin to dig, prepare yourself, the digging may become cumbersome. A basic shovel will not suffice, only allowing you to skim the surface. Instead, you will need to go beyond the earth’s surface, unearth who you are from your roots, and find the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans buried under mountains of sacrifice for centuries. Be prepared; the facts you will discover will cause you heartache and bliss simultaneously, a whirlwind of emotions. But these facts give you the strength to press onward and accomplish your dreams. My dear class of 2020, it is time to dig deep to gain the knowledge, compassion, perseverance, confidence, and power that you will need to survive and thrive as a person of color.

Equip yourself with factual and relevant information as a person of color. Just skimming history books written by people who bear no resemblance to you, or Googling a particular time, will not equip you with the facts needed to survive today as a person of color. If you conduct a general search for events in the year of 1875, it would reveal that Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States; the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed; the whiskey scandal was discovered; and former United States President Andrew Johnson passed away. The general search would fail to give any in-depth information on African American history. Imagine what you would find if you dug deep, visiting museums, reviewing archives, referencing research, and searching for events that occurred or people who lived in 1875.

Supremely, you would learn something that was not taught to you in school. Digging deep would uncover that in 1875, an African American woman who would be the first to accomplish many things in her lifetime was born. Her name was Lutie Lyle. Not only was she the first female African American journalist, but she was the first female African American to obtain a law degree in the southern region of the United States. She was the first African American admitted into the Kansas bar, the first woman to become a law professor, and the first female member of a national bar organization.

I share this story because when I was in elementary school, my white teachers were trying to convince my Black parents that I had a learning disability. The issue was not a learning disability; the problem was that I had no interest in what was taught. The lessons taught in the schools I attended were not instructed by people who resembled me, nor did those lessons cover people or events that were relatable to me.

When I was in junior high school, I was not confident that I had what it took to be an expert in any subject, be it math or science, and subsequently had no interest in learning.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had long passed, but segregation was a daily occurrence in the cafeteria. As we resegregated ourselves to find comfort, familiarity, and freedom from the stress to fit in, every ethnic group hijacked a specific table designated to students of the same race and background. In my American history class, people who helped make America great again, like Lutie Lyle, were not discussed.

Throughout my years in the public school system, from kindergarten to high school, I felt invisible as the majority in my community overshadowed me. No wonder after I graduated high school, I was a lost soul, not knowing what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, or who I was. The words “plan” or “goal” were not in my vocabulary. I spent years in the public school system and did not learn about the accomplishments of people from my race, leading me to believe that these achievements were unreachable. I decided at the last minute that I would attend college, so I packed up my stuff and went off to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.

Fast forward to 20 years, and what seemed like 100 different colleges and universities, I finally reached a destination and was awarded a Ph.D. in psychology. Now I can see in myself the same greatness that I see in my African American ancestors. I am compelled to pay it forward, and I share with you the five components of my character that assist me when obtaining any goal as a person of color.

The desire to continually learn is one component of my character. Frederick Douglas, who taught himself to read, had a thirst for knowledge. He understood the importance of reading, and once he mastered it, he attracted many with his vast writings. As a person of color, it is vital to continue learning and have an in-depth understanding of the ideas and events that Americans in power have tried to shield from us.

Another component of my personality is compassion. Harriet Tubman, who lead hundreds to freedom, had compassion for those enslaved. As a person of color, compassion is essential to empathize with those who came before you. Knowing their sacrifices will motivate and inspire you, not allowing their sacrifices and contributions to be in vain. Compassion empowers you to pick up where they left off until equality is no longer just a word, but a required action.

Perseverance is another component of my personality. Civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis demonstrated determination. Learning about John Lewis taught me to persevere throughout my educational journey. John Lewis was the epitome of perseverance, even after being severely beaten by those men we call to serve and protect, he marched on for equality and civil rights. If you are a person of color living in America, perseverance is vital to your survival. Confidence and power are the fourth and fifth components of my personality that are still a work in progress. You cannot have either of the two without having the first component, knowledge. The more you know, the more confidence you have and the more power you inherit. President Barack Obama displayed these characteristics. His expertise made him confident and gave him the power to become the nation’s first Black President.

It is the stories of our past that will help you survive in these times of racial divide, pandemics, deaths, and people who do not believe that Black lives matter. It is the stories of our history that will keep you humble, grateful, ambitious, and optimistic. It is the stories of our past that encourage you when others attempt to discourage you, and that will continue to give you hope. It is the stories of our history that will provide you with knowledge, compassion, perseverance, confidence, and power. The same history that inspires me and motivates me will inspire and motivate you. The only thing that we are required to do to obtain the knowledge and understanding of our history is to dig deep.

Tara Kent, Ph.D.