MAXWELL:  Times have changed for black students

12/11/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I was grading essays a few days ago when an African-American student walked into my office. Her expression was grim as she asked about her final grade.

I was surprised to see this young woman. After all, I had received the class’ essays only the day before and had promised to return them during the final examination several days later. She is one of my best students, having earned superior grades on each assignment.

Why would a superior student worry so much about her grade in a course that she obviously was acing? I asked her.

“Mediocrity isn’t a choice,” she said. “My dad will kill me if I don’t make good grades. I don’t have a scholarship or anything. My parents are paying. My parents and my brother and sister are very successful. They expect me to be successful, too. I want to know what grade I’m going to make in the course.”

“Come back in 15 minutes,” I said, finding her essay in the middle of the pile.

I read her eight-page research paper with special interest and with mild trepidation because I wanted it to be as good as her previous work. Like her other work, the essay was excellent. She had followed the Modern Language Association’s style of documentation to the letter, her grammar and syntax were perfect and her typing was impeccable.

Again, she earned an A, and she earned an A for the course.

When I was a college teacher nine years ago, black students like this young lady were rare on the campuses where I taught. Back then, most of my black students did not work hard. They skipped class, they did not study, they handed in lousy homework, they did not participate in class and, lord knows, they had foul attitudes.

All but two of my African-American students here at Angelo State University are excellent. They come to class prepared, they participate in class and they submit their homework on time. And, let me tell you, they have great attitudes.

Am I dreaming?

“No,” the student said. “Most brothers and sisters are different these days. They don’t play around like they used to. My dad and mom told me about how it used to be. They partied and listened to music all the time. They didn’t study much. Things have changed.”

She explained that she and her black schoolmates feel a special obligation to succeed. They resent the old stereotype that African-American students are lazy and want everything given to them.

“We’re not like that,” she said. “My roommate and I talk about this all the time. There aren’t many of us on this campus, and we don’t want to give a bad impression. I don’t want people to see me sitting around doing nothing or just fooling around. That kind of thing will make it hard for other African-Americans. I want people to know that I study hard. That will make it easier for other African-Americans.”

She said that she and her generation have more opportunities than her parents’ generation had. As a result, they must be role models. Of course, I agree.

“We’re lucky,” she said. “Nobody is trying to keep us out of Angelo State. People are trying to get more blacks to come here. My parents didn’t have it like that. They had to attend all-black colleges because of racism. There’s nothing wrong with black colleges, but you have more opportunities at integrated universities like Angelo State. When I see black students who aren’t studying, I always say something to them.”

I hold office hours each day, and never has a day passed that a black student has not come by to discuss a topic or just to chat. I feel useful. In the past, black students rarely visited my office without being ordered to do so.

For the first time in many years, I know that I am admired and respected by a group of young black people. My being a writer is one thing, but my being a teacher makes all the difference.

African-American students on mostly white campuses need black professors who share their experiences, who speak their language, who understand the special challenges they face. I clearly understand the young woman’s desire to defy stereotypes, to show whites that she is not lazy and dumb. She understands her responsibilities to other blacks. She knows that her behavior and performance can hurt or help others who follow her.

I never let a day pass that I do not remind a black student that he or she has to do well for others. I was taught this lesson when I was in college. I am glad to see that African-American students here at ASU are learning this valuable lesson, that they want to earn superior grades, that mediocrity is not an option.