It’s Commencement Day at the college where I teach. This means I have to go to work on a rare Sunday. Graduations always mean work, but they also mean work for those who are in the ceremony as graduates. Graduation means that they have completed a certain course of work and they are deserving of a credential. However, we so often forget these days that, for African Americans, graduating from college is still an unfortunate rarity.
The high school drop out rate is still too high. Not enough African American young people are preparing for the more technical work available now. Our present day transition into a technical work force reminds me of how African Americans had to transition from agricultural work in rural areas to other types of factory-based employment in the cities almost one hundred years ago.
The Great Migration meant that many African Americans understood that there was no more opportunity for them in the land and that their skills had to change over time. Many of the young people who will walk across the stage today understand that the world is changing now. But I worry for the ones who aren’t there. There are approximately 70% of African Americans who are only completing high school–or less. For too many, college seems like the impossible dream when still in today’s world, a bachelor’s degree is rapidly becoming a basic entry level job credential.
The heroine of my story A Champion’s Heart, Delie Bledsoe, was the first one in her family to attend college. By the time she came to her schooling as the youngest child, the Bledsoes understood that even a young African American woman needed more than high school.
Today, as I watch commencement, I remain prayerful that more young people will draw on the strength of their ancestors and see education as the benefit it is. They will need to study harder, work more and continue to prepare themselves for a changing world. The lands that these new generations must migrate to now are virtual, but the landscape is vast. They must be ready to “travel” in new and expansive ways. Their ancestors left their homes for the unknown as part of the Great Migration. These ancestors laid the groundwork, and young people must disrupt their own comforts to continue on the path laid out for them. Commencement is just the first step.