McKenya Dilworth Smith
Executive Director, Morning Bishop Theatre Playhouse, Inc.
Questions have been posed by some of our great thinkers and doers from Frederick Douglass, to Mary McCleod Bethune and we have been, as a people, challenged to grapple with what our priorities and values are. “What does the 4th of July mean to the Negro?”, wrote Frederick Douglass, “Ain’t I A Woman?” questioned Sojourner Truth and Mary McCleod Bethune asked and answered, “ What does the Negro want?”. Not to align myself with these cultural icons, but rather to emulate, like a good pupil of history, the act of posing a question with the hope of clarifying, again, what our priorities and values are.
So, I ask, “What does education mean to the Black woman, to the Black girl?”
It is not a mistake that African American women (African Descendants of Slaves to be clear) are the most educated group in the United States which is a testament to the fact that we Black girls who grow into Black women take education seriously. Education, for us, serves truly as the equalizer unequivocally and undeniably.
As I write this essay, I hear the words of my grandmother and mother, “ no one can take what you have learned away from you. What you learned is what you have earned.” These words must have been uttered in innumerable homes of little Black girls who had the fortune of becoming educated Black women because again, we are African American women, the most educated group of people in the United States. So, we listened and started the grind early, meaning we took education seriously as soon as we started. That is not to negate the struggles some have had to overcome to obtain that degree, certificate or whatever other goal destination, but certainly to accentuate the fact that the completion did occur.
Perhaps, the more appropriate question is one that encapsulates the reasons that education is important to Black women and girls. In the arena of public opinion, Black women receive unfair scrutiny about everything from their beauty to their parenting techniques. We have been observed, studied, written about, and copied. Oftentimes, it seems that aspects of black womanhood are upheld only when it can be exploited for financial gain. There is often a dismal outcome when black girls and women are compared to other races in the aforementioned areas but within the educational realm, where traditionally acknowledgment of our ability to persevere and assert ourselves garnered recognition. While there are many African American women within education who were pioneers, the one I have always been enamored with is Mary McCleod Bethune.
Dr. Bethune left such an impression upon me that I, too, am poised to open a boarding school for girls, the first public boarding academy in the State of Indiana, Fall of 2024. Bethune opened a boarding school in 1904, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls with $1.50, but what she lacked in resources, she made up for with tenacity, skill, determination and faith in God. Dr. Bethune and countless others resigned themselves to taking it upon themselves to start schools and forge a new path that would serve as the template for success for generations thereafter. Bethune knew that well-rounded, holistic education was needed in the Black community and provided just that.
So, the answer to the question about the relationship between education and Black women lies with the evidence of our collective achievement within the walls of academia, the accolades and accomplishments in career and technical institutes and the classrooms across America where little Black girls strive in the tradition of their ancestors to do and be better and even become the best versions of themselves.
I strive to provide a quality educational experience for girls in the city of Gary in the tradition of Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, with the establishment of the Bishop Academics and Arts Boarding Academy, where academics and the arts are stressed with an emphasis on global awareness through language study, acquisition, and international travel.
One hundred and nineteen years from the start of Bethune’s boarding school, I, along with other Black women continue to strive towards quality education despite colossal hardships and systemic racism. But we still benefit from the prayers of our ancestors, the support of our families and the faith in our God.
Michals, Debra. ” Mary McLeod Bethune.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. http://www.woenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune.