By Marc H. Morial
“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. / It’s had tacks in it, /And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor—Bare. / But all the time / I’se been a-climbin’ on, / And reachin’ landin’s, / And turnin’ corners, / And sometimes goin’ in the dark / Where there ain’t been no light. / So, boy, don’t you turn back.”
Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son,” 1922
If you are disposed to using the Internet as your guide, a diploma will generally be described as the proof of your successful completion of a course of study, or the bestowal of an academic degree. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that diploma in your grasp, occupying a prominent space on a wall or waiting to be pressed into your eager hand is so much more than the sum of your years-long efforts to be where you are today. Your degree is a key that opens a new door, a new phase of life and a new set of challenges.
Your life’s journey – and its achievements – does not end here. Celebrate, because you’ve earned it; bask in your well-earned feeling of accomplishment today, because tomorrow you will find that there is much work to be done.
On the other side of that new door is a staircase, and that staircase may not be the kind fashioned from crystal with smooth, reliable, clear-cut steps. Obstacles may slow or impede your climb. There may be tacks, broken floorboards and torn up carpet that would trip, or at worst, defeat someone without the training you have been so fortunate to attain. There is no shortcut here, no elevator, or bypassing of these difficult steps and turns. There is, however, the choice to apply the perseverance and commitment to excellence you have already shown in your higher education journey.
On the one hand, there is much to celebrate in our country when it comes to academic achievement in African-American communities. Today, we enjoy the highest high school graduation rates in history. More students of color are in college and dropout rates are at historic lows.
But the wealth and unemployment gap between Blacks and Whites remains wide. While the Black unemployment rate has finally dipped into the single digits, it stubbornly remains more than twice as high as the jobless rate for Whites. As our country’s economy continues to make steady gains after the debilitating 2008 recession, millions in Black and Brown communities are being left behind. In this country—founded largely on the principle of economic progress through hard work—the American dream of upward mobility remains only a dream for too many of its citizens.
Your education, drive and diploma, may likely shield you from the harsh economic realities experienced throughout communities of color across our nation, but it does not strip you of an obligation to be an actor, rather than a spectator, in our country’s struggle to create one nation with liberty, justice and economic opportunity for all.
No one gets to where they are on his or her own. You have parents, grandparents, friends and family members who invested in your future success, put you on this path and made sure you stayed the course. How will you repay their commitment to you?
Whether your ancestors came here by plane, by train, by ship or shackled underneath the hull of a ship; whether the continent they called home was Asia, Europe or Africa, what they did when they reached the shores of our nation, what they sacrificed—all of it is debt incurred. How will you choose to compensate them for their struggles?
Among you are the teachers who will lift the standard of education in poor communities and begin to close the achievement gap; among you are the preachers who will heal the wounds of communities torn apart by violence; among you are the elected officials who will institute laws and policies that promote social and economic fairness for all of America’s citizens.
Herein lies the answer. The answer our nation has been searching for is you and your talent, put to a higher purpose.
I cannot promise you that your climb to success in this life will be a crystal stair. You may very well encounter dark corners and obstacles. What I can promise you is that you have been prepared to meet these challenges head on.
And more than meet these challenges, you have also been prepared to be an actor in solving so many of the longstanding issues and inequities facing our nation, so “don’t you turn back.”
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.