My mother taught English for 40 years to a cross-section of youth at a junior high school near the U.S. Navy submarine base in Groton, Connecticut.
She taught the works of Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson, the grammatical differences of two, too and to, and how to write poetry and a five-paragraph essay to a classroom of Navy kids. Along the way she also tried to instill in her students some useful wisdom and enthusiasm for life.
We were recently talking about February being Black History Month and she mentioned a Malcolm X quote she displayed on her classroom wall: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.”
Black American history is filled with stories of overcoming adversity and oppression. The racist taunts by ignorant whites – including the recently fired town manager in Jackman who championed a self-segregating New Albion – are the echoes of the slavery and post-slavery America blacks endured.
Slavery and its aftermath was soul-killing, violent and de-humanizing. Once blacks were freed from their bondage in the 1860s, they faced another 100 years of white backlash that took the form of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation. Every February the nation makes a point to remember this tragic history.
Inspired by my mother’s story about how Malcolm X’s famous quote motivated her students to better their lives by trying hard in school, I found a surprising number of quotes from other famous blacks highlighting the importance of education. Education was, and still is, the key not only for black people, but for every human being to gain a better life. Here’s a sampling:
George Washington Carver, scientist: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
Frederick Douglass, abolitionist: “Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.”
“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
Booker T. Washington, educator: “Never get to the point where you will be ashamed to ask anybody for information. The ignorant man will always be ignorant if he fears that by asking another for information he will display ignorance. Better once display your ignorance of a certain subject than always know nothing of it.”
Marcus Garvey, activist: “Never forget that intelligence rules the world and ignorance carries the burden. Therefore, remove yourself as far as possible from ignorance and seek as far as possible to be intelligent.”
Former President Barack Obama: “You know, sometimes I’ll go to an eighth-grade graduation and there’s all that pomp and circumstance and gowns and flowers. And I think to myself, it’s just eighth grade. … An eighth-grade education doesn’t cut it today. Let’s give them a handshake and tell them to get their butts back in the library.”
Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state: “Education is transformational. It changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated and why education has always been the key to the American Dream, the force that erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unlocks every person’s God-given potential.”
Bo Jackson, athlete: “I also tell them that your education can take you way farther than a football, baseball, track, or basketball will – that’s just the bottom line.”
Dr. Ben Carson, U.S. secretary of housing and urban development: “Knowledge is the key that unlocks all the doors. You can be green-skinned with yellow polka dots and come from Mars, but if you have knowledge that people need instead of beating you, they’ll beat a path to your door.”
Queen Latifah, entertainer: “There is no profession more essential than that of an educator, and it’s time for all of us to embrace and celebrate their importance and contribution to America’s children.”
Angela Bassett, actress: “When I was in school, my mother stressed education. I am so glad she did. I graduated from Yale College and Yale University with my master’s and I didn’t do it by missing school.”
Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball player: “If they took the idea that they could escape poverty through education, I think it would make a more basic and long-lasting change in the way things happen. What we need are positive, realistic goals and the willingness to work. Hard work and practical goals.”
And, to sum it up, let’s hear again from Malcolm X, who famously read through the dictionary while serving time in prison: “Without education, you are not going anywhere in this world.”
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.