Education must not simply teach work—it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this…. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.
W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” from The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day (New York, 1903).
Some human accomplishments are exceptional, but some human attainments defy all odds and change the rules by which we measure success. To this end, this writer has a story to tell that defies the odds and raises the bar of human attainment.
In 2011 a 64 year old African American male walked out of Jackson Prison, in the State of Michigan, after being incarcerated for 41 years. He made a vow to himself. His personal journey is nothing short of miraculous. In the interest of my subject’s privacy, he will be referred to as Mr. X.
Sitting down and talking with Mr. X reassured this writer that recidivism is not in his vocabulary. Mr. X successfully completed the requirements for a Master’s degree at Wayne State University. He will walk in the graduation ceremony and receive his diploma and he can hold his head high with a 3.5 grade point average (GPA). He completed fifteen classes towards his Master’s degree. After being released from prison he put his life into motion.
Mr. X maintains that he wants to be surrounded by intelligence and he is pondering on taking on the rigors of a doctorate. He wisely managed his school funding and was able to secure fashionable clothing and an automobile to use in looking for employment.
His downward spiral began in 1967 on Elmhurst in the City of Detroit when he found himself on the wrong side of the law.
While incarcerated Mr. X began to see firsthand how prison politics were controlled and shaped by his government. In 1982 Michigan’s former Governor John Engler created a new parole board and all upcoming releases were held in abeyance for five years. Mr. X’s release date was scheduled for 1982.
Disappointment became the poster child of his existence and at this point Mr. X considered himself a political prisoner. Still, another five years would go by as Governor Engler toyed with the future of Michigan’s inmates. After twenty four more years, Mr. X walked out of “Jack-town”.
In 2011 Mr. X traded his prison garb for gentlemen’s attire, and pressed ahead with all deliberate speed to obtain an education. He completed his GED and undergraduate degree while incarcerated.
The compromise, the reward, my observations
The lost years of his life were behind prison walls now but the present year of his existence was beginning to take an emotional toll on his intellectual comprehension. He returned to his child hood neighborhood looking for his house—there was none. The alleys were overrun with dense shrubbery and a prickly maze of weeds—where were the children that use to play ball in the alley? Esquire restaurant, the Safari Room and other places of his recollection were an indistinct memory. He found himself crying in an overgrown field wondering what happened to his world.
Mr. X does not display any anger about his state of affairs. He stated that he acquiesced to do what he felt God required of him. His life as a mortal man was now subject to a higher power.
Mr. X is a person of great humility. He does not dwell on the magnitude of his accomplishments. I asked him did he know of anyone else who left prison after forty plus years and decided to pursue an advanced degree and actually achieved it. After looking off into the distance and releasing the furrow in his brow, he said “Two”.
In a city where life is tenuous and in a society where the lives of African American males are shortened by numerous at risk factors, Mr. X has defied the odds and has won a place among the Talented Tenth of the human race.