Black Man Talking: Leadership worth risk of alienation

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, many campus organizations are gearing up for their annual elections. While Ball State boasts a multitude of leadership opportunities, students taking advantage of these opportunities are noticeably absent.

Many an article has been written in higher education journals about apathy as it pertains to student leadership, however I contend that it is the complex issue of group identity that alienates talented, intelligent African-American students from taking roles of leadership, both in and out of the classroom.

Assimilation has always been a dirty word in the African-American community.

A swear word to Afrocentrist who fervently believe that the wounds from "forced assimilation" have yet to heal but have since infected the Black populace with a case of "identity amnesia."

Since the Jefferson's "moved on up" in the 1970's, some Blacks would contend that the new millennium "house nigga" is he or she that "speaks White," "dresses White" (hence the affinity for "Tommy Hillnigger") and even hangs around White people (in a country where Blacks are the minority). "Moving up" now means living on the "Hill" with Whites (as opposed to trying to escape the ghettos that we were systematically hoarded into fifty years earlier).

It seems that many of these terms have become misnomers for African-American leadership (initiative?). In fact, it is the fear of such stereotyping that African-American leadership, at Ball State in particular, has dwindled the five years.

According to the 2000 Making Achievement Possible (MAP) surveys, African-American students anticipated that they were more likely to participate in leadership roles than Whites (8.8 percent versus 5.4 percent of all respondents). However, when presented with opportunities for leadership at all levels in the university-from the Honors College and orientation, to SGA and University Senate-the call is rarely heeded.

While not totally "anti-intellectual" in nature (as some Black conservatives will have you believe) to be typified as "intellectual" isn't always considered a compliment. It is often used despairingly as if one's intelligence is compensating for some other limitation in abilities, either socially or physically.

As a member of a community where socialization is perceived as paramount, sometimes even to academic success, being "smart" might mean sacrificing "Thirsty Thursday" to study for the test on Friday. Being in the Honors College, double majoring or even reading books (about your history no less) is done at the risk of alienating oneself from the masses.

Leadership in a non-traditional role carries the same risk. Being a Resident Assistant or president of an honors association versus subjugating oneself through the rank and file of the traditional minority or Greek organizations might indicate to some that you're not "down for the cause" (which I hypothesize is the opposite of "moving up").

Surviving abject poverty, a single parent home, and an urban environment meant to kill you before the age of twenty-five doesn't qualify as "overcoming obstacles" amongst peers who've gone through similar ordeals.

Succeeding in the classroom while simultaneously "staying down for cause" wins you few "cool points" on most social barometers. Even if you are as ambitious and as equally successful at "staying down" while "moving up," you encounter the "you're exceptional" or "you're special" moniker.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the African-American community on Ball States campus does rally around students who are perceived to be "exceptional" or seem to embody some ability that is elusive to the masses (i.e. being "articulate" or "naturally smart"). However, such support is taken with a grain of salt, as the potential to be "exceptional" lies within all of us.

In a cruel irony, we celebrate many African-American "firsts" in leadership this month while simultaneously avoiding those opportunities ourselves. While there are many exceptions to this comment at Ball State, the greatest challenge for African-American leaders is to inspire African-American leadership.

If we are to bequeath to our posterity a history worth celebrating, we must step up and take the reigns of leadership and, as the motto of one Black Greek Letter Organization says, "Build upon a tradition, and not rest on one."

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