Editor’s note: John Fountain’s column today is an excerpt from a speech he gave in Chicago this spring to the Carson Scholars.
I stand on the shoulders of my great-great-grandfather Burton Roy, born an African-American slave. I hear the spirit cries of the Middle Passage. The blood of my ancestors flows through my veins.
I hear the whispers of my great-great-grandfather — his faith-filled prayers that for future generations there would be better days. This I’ll always remember.
Like standing before the gray headstone that still marks his grave.
I am the son of a teenage mother who, even before I ever set foot in a school, taught me to read. Who instilled within me a belief in the power of education to overcome and succeed.
I am the son of ancestral mothers. Among them Mary McLeod Bethune — daughter born to slaves whose thirst and zeal for education led her to found a school for black girls. Believing that knowledge equals empowerment and the chance to change the world.
Among my heritage mothers: Ida B. Wells whose scholarship and advocacy — by speech and by pen — helped lift America’s cruel lynching hand that we might at last journey as free men toward the Promised Land.
I stand among the sons of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, whose scholarship, brilliance and steadiness of hand helped him perform the first open-heart surgery known to man.
I am the son of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes. I am a native son whose plantation-baked soul was birthed in the agony of racial hate and the bittersweet melodies of blues.
I was born a 20th Century black boy in the heart of the Chi. Cradled in a pre-civil rights haze that back then still seemed like pie in the sky.
Poverty sometimes seemed as deep and wide as the muddy Mississippi River. And hope sometimes just a sliver. Dreams drying like a raisin in the sun. In my hood too many drugs and guns…
From the day I was born — I was perhaps dealt a bad hand. But thank God, Mama had a plan…
Without my father who chose abandonment and liquor, Mama said education, hard work and faith would someday lift us. No miracle pill. No secret to success, Mama said. Except: work more; play less.
If I close my eyes, I can still see Mama’s slender brown fingers, turning the pages of another book. Hear the sweet passion in her voice that told me reading is what it took to transform the ghetto of one’s mind into a virtual paradise; to visit places in the world I might never go in life.
Except I did… And I discovered dreams do come true. So today, I sing this tune:
Education is the antidote to poverty. Reading and scholarship are proven vehicles to avert catastrophe. There is a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration. And the truly enslaved still can’t read in this nation.
Education is the Great Emancipator — a fundamental key to unlocking equality’s doors. And no barrier too great to withstand this great and vibrant force that shines like a beacon for the socially enslaved, the forgotten and poor.
Whether black or white, yellow or brown, Muslim or Christian, in education and scholarship, hope abounds.
It is the stuff upon which dreams may be realized. By which the vapor of possibility can materialize; the intangible and the invisible take form and spring forth. By which you, Carson Scholars, can rise, touch the sky and soar.
How do I know, you say?
Let me explain it this way: I am the great-great-grandson of a man born an American slave. According to statistics and the experts, I should be lying in my grave.