COLLEGE STATION — “The education system and the prison system are in competition for their souls,” says Texas A&M University Professor of Urban Education Marlon James about black males in America.
James is a renowned expert in urban and multicultural education and researches the development of highly successful black males, providing recommendations for concerned parents, schools and communities.
James, associate director of the Center for Urban School Partnerships, College of Education & Human Development, points to what he says are the unfair markers of success placed on youth in urban communities, especially young black men (e.g. standardized test scores), as being contributors to a societal system that dooms them to fail.
“We don’t have an achievement gap,” he insists. “We have an opportunity gap. We are not making equal investments in children. How do you exist in a society that is resisting your maturation?”
However, where some may see a grim future for a doomed generation of black men, James says he sees opportunity. He believes that educators can bring out the best in these young men by using success stories as blueprints for excellence.
He says, “I firmly believe that it is lunacy to start with the problem and say, ‘Here’s what black males are struggling with. Now let’s devise a solution.’ I believe you start with black men who have achieved excellence and then you backwards map because these young men can become excellent if we know what excellence looks like.”
In a study called “Can You See Me Now,” he and his peers in the field ask dozens of young black men – from all walks of life – about their thoughts on educational attainment in spite of social barriers and glass ceilings.
What James and his colleagues find is that the men have a far more holistic view of intellectual success that can’t be measured by an aptitude test. Rather, they define genius as a synthesis of know-how – a collective wisdom of sorts. They aspire to achieve what James calls “S.P.A.R.K.”: five intellectual, personal and physical qualities that demonstrate an ability to combine two contradicting values.
S = Spirituality vs. Social Justice
James notes it’s not always easy to make everyday life choices while living up to religious beliefs or moral convictions – nobody is perfect. However, he says, many young black men are not only resistant to societal urges, but are actually motivated by their religious or moral beliefs to impact society for the better.
As James describes, “There is no contradiction between who they feel God tells them they are and how they ought to treat other people and how they arrange their lifework.”
P = Professional vs. Personal
Similarly, young men who possess this quality show an ability to resist what James calls a sort of “relative morality”: the concept that they can be a different person depending on whether they are in a personal or professional space. Rather, they are able to blend the two identities without insecurities about who they are.
“I am who I am here,” James says. “I don’t put on ‘fronts’ here. I’m the same person at home with my kids. I’m the same person in church. I’m the same person while playing basketball with my friends. I have the same value system. I am who I am.”
A = Artistic vs. Academic
Some young men love artistic self-expression just as much they love reading, writing and arithmetic. James points to his own 12-year-old son as an example of somebody who found motivation through the arts.
“He’s at his best academically when he’s drawing and creating,” he says. “His math scores go up. His reading scores go up. I call it ‘dimensional learning.’ When he draws, creates computer graphics and then builds a website – all about the same stuff he’s reading about in school – he’s unstoppable. I’ve never seen anything like it! That is actually a form of genius. I believe that we can cultivate this in more and more young men.”
R = Resilient vs. Reformers
The fourth S.P.A.R.K. of genius applies to those young men who use their past struggles and personal experiences to inform their work.
As James describes, “They’re resilient individuals. They overcame. They continue to overcome but at the same time it’s not about them. As reformers, they dedicate their work and their life to uplifting the human condition – to help their community, to help people struggling, to help people suffering.”
K = Kinetic vs. Knowledge
James notes that many adolescents feel pressured to fit the mold of either a “jock” or a “bookworm,” but young men who strive to achieve S.P.A.R.K. resist being type-casted or pigeonholed into one of the two stereotypes. Instead, he says, they strive to be both intellectually and physically stimulated in their lives.
“Think of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the NFL champion Seattle Seahawks,” says James. “Brash, tall brother, dreads. Graduate of Stanford University. Brilliant – all while being the best defensive player in the league. I think there’s more people out there like that than we know.”