It probably wasn't the warm and fuzzy message I suspect most of the full-house crowd at this year's 20th annual Arthur "Pappy" Kennedy Prayer Breakfast expected. But given the urgency, Benjamin Carson Sr. hadn't come all the way from Baltimore to pull punches on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Young black males, he declared, are in "very grave trouble."
Exhibit A: a Nov. 9 New York Times headline: "Proficiency of Black Students is Found to be Far Lower Than Expected."
Sure, blacks have been laboring to narrow the achievement gap ever since laws granted us the inalienable right to learn to read and write.
But lower than expected? That's soul-crushing.
But that's what's in "A Call for Change," a recent report from urban schools' advocate The Council of the Great City Schools. While 38 percent of fourth-grade white boys read proficiently, only 12 percent of black boys do. Likewise, 44 percent of eighth-grade white boys are crackerjack arithmetic students, compared with only 12 percent of black boys.
Worse, the report suggested, poverty alone doesn't justify the gap — poor whites performed as well as black boys living outside of poverty.
You could read it as just another study. Or you could see it as just another flurry of disheartening news. Or just another round of ammunition that no doubt renewed in some the seductive belief that black students — particularly black boys — lack the mental wherewithal to keep up.
Hardly, Carson says. Young black males possess the brains. A truth about which Dr. Carson, the celebrated African-American pediatric neurosurgeon, knows a thing or two.
The real question, he says, is how one engages their gray matter.
Had Rev. King lived, he would have told young black males that they "need to stop running around on the streets and develop their brains," Carson said. And that's their responsibility.
During his talk, sponsored by the YMCA of Central Florida and the Southwest Orlando Jaycees, Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, spoke boldly and passionately about how scholarship, faith, self-accountability and mentoring can weave a crazy quilt of success. And it's time young black males — and the community — stitch together those pieces.
It worked for him. He wasn't always the brilliant surgeon who rose to fame 24 years ago after performing the first and only successful separation of conjoined twins coupled at the back of the head.
Carson, a product of divorce and mired in poverty in a rough-and-tumble swatch of Detroit, said he never expected to see his 25th birthday. And he lived like it. Classmates nicknamed him "Dummy" because he rarely had the answers and rarely did he even try.
Eventually, Carson noticed the discord in his life. Though "allergic" to poverty, he realized playing the dummy would doom him to hardship. So did his mother, Sonya. A third-grade dropout, the domestic servant desired more for her sons.
She fell to her knees, asking God's direction.
"The wonderful thing about God," Carson said, "is you don't need a Ph.D. to talk to him."
She felt led to put her children on a television diet. She restricted their viewing time to a couple of hours a week. To fill the void, she encouraged her kids to feed their minds by reading two books a week from the public library.
Reading, Carson says, punched his ticket to virtual world travel. It expanded his horizons and his knowledge "through developing the greatest gift God gave us," he said. "Our brains process more than 2 million bits of information in two seconds. There really shouldn't be anyone sitting around talking about what they cannot do."
Still, he said, success doesn't occur in a vacuum. Without his mother pushing him, and the myriad individuals who've remained his corner his entire career, Carson says he may have fallen short. Mentoring is a critical bridge to young black males' success. And Carson rightly insists it's especially important for successful black males to step into the gap.
Likewise, while America would do well to remember its Judeo-Christian roots, Carson said it's offers a particularly beneficial remedy for young black males. Our forebears relied on a rock-solid faith to shepherd them America's treacherous growing pains, and its absence has left a vital void in many of today's black youth.
Carson remains shocked" by the scarcity of black males at his college speaking engagements, a reality some brush off as being just "the way it is." But "it's not the way it has to be," he said.
"The person who has the most to do with you and what happens to you is you — not the environment."
Given that the "Call for Change" report found that young black males typically fall behind before kindergarten, it's a message that bears repeating — early and often.
Darryl E. Owens can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5095.