One kid, one moment, one mentor

Two-thirds of the way through Michelle Obama's best-selling memoir, "Becoming," the half-formed thought nagging at the back of my mind put itself into words: Does the former First Lady's "optimistic" — her word — crusading for young people still matter? Or is it just a theme from a past administration, inaudible above today's din?

"Becoming" has a steady drum beat about the persistent anxiety of young, non-white, non-wealthy but talented, ambitious, normal kids that they won't be good enough to succeed. Girls and young women of all races may also recognize the feeling. Michelle Robinson Obama owns up to that fear right into her White House years, despite graduating from a demanding public high school, from Princeton and Harvard Law.

It takes much one-on-one convincing to turn pessimism into optimism. Believing precedes becoming; how does a young person come to believe in herself, in himself?

Pessimism was simply realistic for African Americans in the century after Emancipation turned out to mean not equal opportunity but loaded dice. Institutionalized thwarting of attempts to vote, to compete for educational opportunities, join a union, or get a mortgage made that clear.

Then, a half-century ago, the Civil Rights Act and equal opportunity laws eviscerated the infrastructure of institutional racism, which is why this weekend we honor the most celebrated champion of that cause, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Americans optimistically supposed that dismantling structural racism would repair the racism of the heart, but it turns out that equal opportunity needs self-esteem to thrive. Michelle Robinson grew up when times were supposed to be getting better for minorities. Memories, however, carry a DNA of their own. In "The Fire Next Time," previewed in The New Yorker in 1962 and reprinted in December, the brilliant black writer James Baldwin recalled "the fear that I heard in my father's voice...when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do."

One dismissive admissions counselor, one unrebuked bully, one door closing in the face can launch a cascade of self-doubt, particularly in the young. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. One parent, one coach, one mentor who encourages a child to strive is living proof to the youngster that he or she is good enough to become even better. Locally, Higher Edge, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship programs, and the volunteers who escort high school students on a biannual tour of historically black colleges exemplify ways to recognize the potential of teenagers and help them get the education they need to develop it.

The irony of the election of the first black president of the United States was that Barack Obama's presidency ripped the bandages off America's racial scars, opening the Pandora's box of overt racism that people get away with now.

The mentors, coaches and parents are ready for them. They are already building students' confidence and skills. It should be getting a lot easier to point a finger at out-and-out prejudice than it was to combat the subtle kind that has to be named before it can be shamed. And once a kid knows she, or he, is not alone, believing and becoming can follow.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 

 

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