MAXWELL: Farewell; it’s time to keep a promise 

6/27/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Well, folks, today I say farewell.

This is my last column as a St. Petersburg Times employee. My last official day on the staff is July 2. I have been here 10 years. Long enough.

I have enjoyed writing for the Times. Mine was a dream job: My salary and benefits were great. I was free to write what I wanted, even when my editor disagreed with me and when he knew that I would bring him dozens of angry telephone calls, e-mails and letters.

I was permitted to travel, and I was pretty much free to make my day. With a company laptop for dummies, I made my office wherever I found myself _ Gaza City, Jerusalem, Warsaw, Bucharest, Harlem, Belle Glade, Liberty City, Tallahassee. I cannot count the number of times I wrote columns in airport terminals and while in flight.

So, why am I leaving?

At age 58, and counting, I must fulfill a promise I made while attending historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach: that I would, at the appropriate time, return to a historically black college or university as a professor, that I would pass on my expertise and knowledge.

That time is now.

Beginning in August, I will become a writer in residence at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Currently, the college has a journalism minor and a student newspaper that is published once each semester.

My short-term goals are to help establish a journalism major and to publish the student newspaper weekly. My long-term goals are to help produce competent African-American journalists who can land good jobs with the nation’s mainline and minority media outlets and to transform Stillman into a center for journalism excellence, where companies, such as the St. Petersburg Times, come to recruit.

While we complain about bias against blacks in the media, an unfortunate truth is that too few of us are in America’s newsrooms.

Why did I choose Stillman College, a tiny, Presbyterian-affiliated, private institution? Mainly because the president, Ernest McNealey, is my kind of African-American man and my kind of educator.

His philosophy and policies have become the college’s esprit de corps. As I do, he believes that education _ true learning _ is essential to black survival, upward mobility and positive ethnic identity. To McNealey, learning is hope.

In a society where the odds are against blacks, where opportunities to fail abound, we must be competent in the accepted canons, we must speak standard English and we should write well. We must confound the old stereotypes. By being competent, we are being subversive and revolutionary. Education is a pre-emptive strike against failure. It is preventive medicine.

McNealey rejects easy excuses and discourages students from blaming others, particularly white people, for their predicament. Many of Stillman’s students come from low-income homes, receive some kind of federal tuition aid and have low SAT scores. For McNealey and his faculty, these are the best reasons to study diligently and to be “smart.”

Stillman’s faculty and staff challenge students to beat the odds with determination, hard work and discipline, with respect for the wisdom of ages and with common-sense regard for societal norms and conventions.

After being in St. Petersburg for 10 years with a community of mostly anti-intellectual Midtowners who blame white people for their plight, who are too quick to label as “sellouts” those who insist on honest introspection and self-help to solve our problems, I am ready to return to the scholarly and logical world of the academy.

For me, black St. Petersburg has been a dispiriting force. I have seen too much hopelessness, victimhood, defensiveness and provincialism. I have encountered too many mean-spirited people, both clergy and secular, who pose as leaders.

The time has come for me to return to an environment where my modest talents and willingness to speak out will be treated as benefits rather as threats and betrayals.

No longer will I tolerate being cast as an enemy of the people for believing that we must change to survive, that we must rekindle the awareness that we, like other groups, have great power over our destiny.

At Stillman College, I will be free to teach this essential lesson each day to young people who have their lives ahead of them, who have the intellectual capacity and the eagerness to look inside themselves and become independent thinkers, successful professionals, law-abiding citizens and nurturing parents.

I also will teach students that they should give back to their communities by writing checks for good causes and programs, by serving.

Again, I will miss my dream job here. But the time has come to keep my promise of 40 years ago: to make a positive difference in the lives of black students who, in turn, will make a positive difference for others.