Awaking the inner giant


The problems that beset black America will start to vanish when we embrace the ideals of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The painting that accompanies this commentary is the work of Henry Louis Stephens (1824–1882). It depicts a black man reading a newspaper by candlelight. The headline reads, "Presidential Proclamation, Slavery," which refers to the Jan. 1, 1863, effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation.

As the United States prepares to witness the inauguration of its first black president, we in the African American community received last week what ought to have been a wake-up call.

Research by a Northeastern University criminal justice professor found that a growing number of young black boys are killing, even as the murder rate in the corresponding white community mostly declined.

Among the findings: From 2002 to 2007, the number of black male juveniles who committed murder rose 43 percent.

What are we as black Americans to make of this strange dichotomy — Barack Obama ascending to the world’s highest leadership post even as a growing number of our youth appear to hold life itself in murderous contempt?

A host of data suggests one conclusion: Our race has evolved into two disparate factions — one increasingly educated, affluent and law-abiding and another that has advanced few strides over recent generations.

This divide, to some degree, has long existed.

In his book “Giants: the Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln,” author John Stauffer paints a vivid contrast between the deprivation of slaves and the purpose-driven lives of freed blacks.

But 146 years after emancipation, why is this chasm now growing?

The comedian Bill Cosby was eviscerated by some in the black community when he suggested that blacks who embrace a thug culture had dropped the ball and brought shame to our race.

Others prefer to see poor blacks as victims, blaming a system more set on jailing our boys then educating them.

Both arguments, however, serve only to leave us apathetic.

If problems that beset black communities rest only on the shoulders of those who live in them, what hope have we?

Likewise, what gain is our middle-class striving if all is so easily nullified by racism, greed and governmental indifference?

No, our challenges suggest a more proven strategy.

I came away from Stauffer’s book in awe of the single-minded devotion to racial uplift shown by Douglas as he fought for those still in bondage.

Traveling the lecture circuit of a nation racked by civil war, he risked death preaching abolition and the evils of slavery. Yet his private freedom meant little so long as others of his race were held in captivity.

Who could have blamed him had he chosen a life of quiet anonymity. He was, after all, himself a fugitive slave.

Which brings us back to today’s twin evils — poverty and crime.

No one can fairly look at Obama’s election and cling to the notion that America is unchanged. Thanks largely to the sacrifices of blacks great and small, our children enjoy boundless opportunities.

But having reached this point, what is our debt to those left behind?

We start to repay when we truly embrace the mantle handed to us by giants like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr.

It means laying claim to their selfless ideals.

For some today, this means mentoring a child you may not know. For others, it means committing anew to those already in our homes.

The pulpits of our churches must, once again, become crucibles of social problem-solving and Christ-inspired preaching.

For those successful in business, it means focusing not solely on career and gain but forging opportunities for others.

It means taking pride in our homes and streets, no matter how humble.

It means saying, “Yes, you can achieve,” to a struggling boy or girl, as well as saying, “No, you mustn’t,” when their actions run counter to what we know is right.

We must all become giants in countless little ways.

Stauffer ends his book with this often-told story about Douglas:

Weeks before Douglas died of heart failure in February 1895, a young black student traveled to Providence, RI, where the great orator was visiting. He wanted to know what advice Douglas might offer to one such as he.

“What have you to say to a young Negro just starting out?” the student asked.

“Douglas rose to his full height, looked at the young man and then up to heaven, and in his rich baritone voice said, ‘Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!’ ”

Happy New Year! (Emancipation Day)

Glenn H. Burkins is editor and publisher of

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