Years ago, I started a fund for Native American students and one for African-Americans. I tell you this not to toot my own horn but to underline that in my opinion, people of color are the soul of America. The oppression they've endured — and still come out with hope — is inconceivable. As the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates says in Between the World and Me, “The black diaspora not only was just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.”
In 1991 I started the scholarship fund at UCLA for African-Americans also because black jazz musicians fed me deeply when I was comin' up. The foundation is not specifically for artists, it's specifically for people of color (wasn’t Jesus olive-complected?) … as the genius Curtis Mayfield said, “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue.” Or, as the equally brilliant Dr. Cornell West says, in the face of white supremacists, “We need to listen to the ‘blues people.’” People who wake up every day knowing that the dominant culture will challenge you to just survive. This isn’t news to these people, it’s news to people who look like me. Like our president.
These scholarship recipients have navigated the difficult roadways (ghettos, gangs, bad schools, etc.) and, despite that, risen to academic heights. They have very high moral standards as well. That is a Herculean task considering the lousy cards they've been dealt, in a culture that grew literally off the sweat of their, and their ancestors', backs.
Kevin T. Brown is an African-American Studies major who plans to work in policy or a law organization before applying to graduate school for either a master’s degree in public policy or a law degree. Chiamaka Echebiri, sociology major, African-American Studies minor, is interested in public policy, civil rights and human rights law. She plans to attend law school after she finishes at UCLA. Jerrold Smith is graduating as a political science major and is interested in a career in television broadcasting.
These so-called minorities (not for long!) are the spine of this country. They hold it together. The DACA Dreamers will evolve, like my recipients, into higher-paying jobs. Nature is hierarchical, so the playing field is never going to be completely level. There’s always going to be doctors and nurses. But if the doctors are mean to the nurses, then the hospital (our country) is going to be a mess.
In my little way, I honor these heroic students. In fact, each year when I get to meet these students and have lunch, I seem to get more than they do. They inspire me tremendously. I am older, hopefully headed toward elder, but I sense “elder” in these young people. They give me hope that a country founded on racism can learn from the very people it has oppressed. I will close with a short poem by Theodore Roethke: “What is madness, but nobility of soul at odds against circumstance.”