As I count down the last few weeks before medical school begins, I am enjoying an extended period of self-reflection. I have been using this time to consider what the opportunity to attend medical school means to me. This is a short question with a very long and multifaceted answer, and over the course of this year I will share several aspects of that answer from my heart. In this entry I will attempt to explain what it means for me specifically as the son of Ghanaian immigrants and as a Black man in America.
My parents were born into poverty in rural Ghana, West Africa. The childhood experiences that they share with me are so incredible that they almost seem embellished. For example, my mother tells stories of growing up without shoes. She describes times when her father, who was the captain of an international freight ship, would visit her and bring shoes from abroad. Not being accustomed to wearing shoes, she would hang the gifts up on her wall as trophies for her friends to admire. Once they had finished inspecting these foreign treasures, they would all run back outside —barefoot—to tend to much more important matters such as neighborhood games. My father tells of nights spent sharing one room with his eight siblings on a straw mat. They burned old tires each night, the fumes from which were effective in repelling the biting ants that sought to wreak havoc upon them as they slept. In the morning they would wake up and blow out the tire soot that had collected in their nostrils overnight.
When considering their humble beginnings, I marvel at what my parents have accomplished. My father went on to earn a Ph.D. and is now a tenured professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. My mother became a CPA and is now an audit specialist with the United States Department of Defense. The key to their ascension was their relentless pursuit of education. My mother grew up at a time when women were discouraged and sometimes prohibited from pursuing higher education, yet she saw education as a vehicle for upward mobility and refused to be denied it. My father saw education as a means of escape and an opportunity to provide a better life for his family and defied tall odds to seize that opportunity.
In addition to reflecting on my family’s journey, I also find myself reflecting on what it means for me, a Black man in America, to have this opportunity. Though my parents were the first in my family to live in America, my story does not start with their immigration 20 years ago. As a Black man in this country, my story extends as far back as the enslavement of the first Africans. Since slavery, African Americans have established a legacy of pursuing education despite great opposition. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became literate, desired to learn to read as early as age six. Like many slaves, he perceived a link between literacy and freedom. When his master learned of his efforts he commanded Douglass to abandon his pursuit, maintaining that, “A [Black person] should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do1.”
As African Americans sought formal education after the abolition of slavery, many Whites became hostile to the radical idea of educating former slaves. Particularly in the South, African Americans were severely punished for seeking education. Their schools were burned, schoolchildren were beaten and shot at, and teachers were murdered. Yet and still, African Americans valued the prospect of education and have insistently pursued it despite great challenges – from slavery, through the Civil Rights era, and even today, as systemic obstacles continue to limit the range of educational opportunities for many poor communities of color.
I am the product of a long legacy of educational pursuits, both as an African and as an African American. I have inherited that legacy and am now responsible for carrying it forward. I am not alone – many of my colleagues have inherited the same legacy. In many ways, we are the fulfillment of dreams dreamt by many generations gone by. In the 1800s, young African American men were beaten and sometimes murdered as a reward for daring to desire education. In 2013, I stand as a Black man on the doorstep of one of our society’s most esteemed professions. In the 1970s, two young Africans found sustenance in visions of the life that an education could provide them and their families. Today, their son stands as a realization of those visions. Of course, many thousands of Africans and African Americans have completed medical school before me, several will complete this journey with me, and many millions more will follow us. I am by no means unique among them and I do not esteem myself more highly than any of them. Instead, I find myself humbled by what this opportunity means in light of my historical narrative and inspired by the responsibility to add to that narrative.
1 “Self Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom.” (2005). Williams, Heather Andrea.