Keeping Warm in a Smallpox Blanket

Don’t bother wasting education on people (Africans, in this case) who don’t need it because they are meant to serve. That’s what a minister of education meant when he said, “Education ‘must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life,'” as quoted in Mandela’s autobiography.

We all call bullshit, his argument is backward. This guy should have said, “People’s opportunities in life are in accordance with their education, so we must educate the hell out of people.” His notion of racial destiny is archaic. When we read quotes like this, we pause only to shake our heads at the ignorance of dead leaders.

The reason I paused when I read the quote, from this white oppressor of black Africans more than 60 years ago, is that it reminded me of something I’d heard from a black woman I’d seen on a reality TV show much more recently. About her children she said, “I tell them to aim for what they can get. Life’s hard and there aren’t any breaks. Better to survive than get your heart broken.”

I don’t remember the program, or even much about the context, but her words stayed with me because they set such different expectations than my parents set for me, and as a teenager I’d assumed that everyone’s parents told them to ‘aim for the stars’. I still, perhaps naively, believe that I could have been the president if I had worked hard enough and wanted it badly enough.

This woman, I thought, is destroying any hope for her children. You must tell them they can achieve anything they work hard enough for… I call down to her from my ivory tower. Who am I to blame her for finding a comfort zone and wanting to keep her family safe within it?

Even if you think she’s just being realistic about whatever circumstance into which her children were born, you can’t deny that her version of realism precludes any hope of ascendance, that it shuts her children inside a fortress so ironclad that no light can get in.

Effectively, oppression had worked, is working, and will continue to work. That minister of education has been dead for decades, but he would be glad to know that his message penetrated, that it caught like cancer, our selves unable to distinguish between the cells of what we are and the invasive cells of what we’ve been trained to be.

We can’t track his message back to its source as easily as we could in the times of Apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the U.S. This nasty mental pollution is long-lived, like the radiation seeping through your garden soil, killing you decades after the bomb dropped.

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