By Sarah Washington O’Neal Rush
As the great-granddaughter of former slave, turned famous educator, and founder of Tuskegee University―Booker T. Washington, I can’t help wondering how my great-grandfather might respond to the state of America today. Especially with regard to race relations in the wake of the most recent violent attacks on black men and police officers. In the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, as an adviser to three US presidents, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft, Washington was considered the foremost influential voice regarding race relations. As well, he was a pioneer on improving the lives of countless former slaves and their descendants through education and character building.
With the most recent officer involved killings of two black men, one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the other in St. Paul, Minnesota, along with the killings of the officers in Dallas, it’s been challenging to keep the anger and fear from rising among the races. Personally, I find myself drifting back and forth in angst as I try to imagine the words of wisdom my great-grandfather might offer to President Obama. My imagination gets interrupted as I clearly hear the voice of the four-year-old child in St. Paul in my head, as she tries to comfort her mother while her mother captures the killing of her boyfriend on video. The little girl said, “I’m scarred mommy.” And, “It’s okay [mommy]. I’m right here with you.” I wonder what words my great-grandfather might offer this innocent child, and all of America’s children at such a time as this.
In the same way our country is experiencing relationship turmoil in the face of racial tension, our families―a microcosm of the larger society―are experiencing relationship turmoil in the face of familial tension. The same solutions that work for one, can work for the other, and addressing both are necessary for lasting change. If there was ever a time that we needed to encourage our children, it is now. To keep carrying on “business as usual,” is a drastic mistake, and it is becoming a death sentence waiting to happen. This is evidenced in the mistrust and hatred festering in the minds of too many Americans today.
We are probably all too familiar with the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. When we find that what we have been doing is not working, we must not give up; instead we have to be willing to try alternative methods if we are ever to realize positive change. Sayings such as “anything worth having is worth waiting for,” and “nothing good comes easy,” bear repeating over and over because in today’s fast-paced society, when desired results do not happen overnight we tend to lose hope that they will ever happen at all. It we seek good, even in the midst of anguish, we are bound to find it.
Again, what goes on in the larger society, goes on in many families. In my work with “at-risk” youth and their families I have found that what many of my families have in common is their staying power is not very strong, their hope is limited, and they want to give up too soon. Parents give up on their children, children give up on their parents, and many children and adults begin to give up on themselves. Once the family reaches this level of functioning it is hard for them to realize hope, and to realize that it takes time to get to a better place―just as it took time to get to where they are now. It also takes diligence and hard work to move forward.
If frustration brings us to our breaking point, and we handle it by yelling, name calling, physically assaulting, shutting down, becoming withdrawn, or holding our frustration on the inside, after a while, hopefully, we notice that these reactions create negative results that occur over and over, and often get worse. Again, “hopefully we notice,” because we cannot change what we do not recognize. Might I add, that it would benefit America to invest greatly in effective mental health programs, and in working to remove the stigma attached to getting psychological help.
Often stubbornness and ego get in the way, further complicating already difficult situations―making it hard to admit that the way we have been handling situations is not working. I cannot count the times I’ve heard frustrated parents say, “This is the way I have always done it. It worked for me when I was growing up, and it worked for my older children.” Today is such a different time and space. Our children are exposed to a lot more than children were exposed to just 10 years ago. As parents we are competing with a different type of peer pressure than ever before, influenced by gangster rap, sexually explicit music videos, and negative influences all over the media. These days, damage control is the order of the day.
If our country is to prevail, we cannot ever give up hope, especially on our children. We can’t believe that we have failed them, or that they have failed us. We must always give them a reason to hope. We have to show them how to have dreams to aspire to. And we have to let them know that because they may have failed at one thing or another, they are not failures. Failure is only failure when we refuse to learn from it. My great grandfather, Booker T. Washington once said, “The world needs men, be they black or white, who can rise on successive failures.” That was true then, and it is still true today.