During assembly on Thursday, March 7, senior Isaac Bledsoe shared his personal experiences and outlook. His remarks follow:
Good morning, friends, acquaintances, teachers, Mr. Abbott and Mrs. Bledsoe. Now, I know it’s not Black History Month anymore, but I think what I have to say is relevant no matter what time of the year, and also we had a snow day when I was originally gonna give this speech. I would simply like to share some of my experiences with you, things I’ve learned along the way, and hopefully it will influence you in a positive manner.
I don’t think my parents ever told me to be proud specifically because I am Black — they just taught me, and I internalized, that I was valuable because God loves me. I am very glad to be Black, but my faith has always been more important to me than my skin color. That’s just how I function. Keep that in mind, I’ll come back to it later.
In a “perfect” world, where racial issues did not exist, people wouldn’t make negative judgments based on race. In Af-Am this year, we read The Content of Our Character, by Shelby Steele. Steele writes about something called the memory of enemies, which refers to memories of the past that greatly influence the actions and thoughts of the present. In this case, the memories of slavery and Jim Crow have lasted through the years mainly by stories, and they can create a Black mindset intent on vengeance against or separation from the “white enemy.” That generalization is a dangerous one, and it strengthens the racial divide. Now I’m not saying these stories are bad, quite the contrary. I just think many of the lessons learned from them need to be separated from the anger towards Whites as a whole.
We hear the phrase all the time that what we have today was obtained on the backs of African Americans, and as a Black kid in high school getting ready to go to college, that phrase has new meaning to me. I will go to college next year, and it has taken so much more than a good ACT score and a few rec letters to get to this point. When I ponder what it took, I do think about the stories of the past. It gives me purpose, it gives me encouragement, to know that whatever struggles I go through, there has been a Bledsoe man or woman on this planet who made it through much more than I face by trusting in God, so I can do the same.
I think about my great-grandparents, Essie Jay and Annie May Bailey. I think about Essie Jay hand-plowing that big field, stopping to pray while the hot Mississippi sun beat down on his back. I think about that same man helping to dig the baptismal pool in which his wife would be baptized. I think about his wife, Annie May Bailey, how nobody could take her dignity from her, showcased by her sweeping the dirt floor of her home. I think about her heating bricks by the fireplace to put at the foot of their beds so their feet could be warm while they slept. I think about my great uncle Earbie, who at 16 years old, came to St. Louis alone and earned the money to buy two houses so his family could move up from the hostile South. I think about his brother, Ether Bledsoe, my grandfather, who at 10 or 11 years old, had a gun put to his head by one of the same men who killed Emmett Till. I think about how, with only a high school education, he started his own company and became one of the most successful Black business owners in St. Louis in his time.
Now I said that I find my identity in my unshakable faith, and that is true, but I cannot help but to also feel proud that the men and women who came before me achieved all they did. I cannot help to be proud of the Bledsoe that follows my name. I cannot help but to be proud to be Black, just as they were Black. My family has been through so much, more than I could and want to ever convey in a simple speech, and it is simply a tremendous blessing to be where we are today.
Reminiscing on these stories, it would be easy for me to say, “my family has struggled all because of White people, so I will continue to hold that against them.” It’s easy to blame the people around you, and most would say that it’s justified. Instead, I implore, separate the important lessons from the anger. Focus on the good that came from the struggle, not the struggle itself. And if you are on the other side of the equation, do not let guilt guide your choices. Yes, White privilege came largely from the oppression of Blacks, but you are not your ancestors. They did those things, not you. I charge you, make changes in your own mind, in your own home, in society as a whole. Don’t do it out of guilt. Do it because it’s the right thing to do and every small step gets us one step closer to a less divisive nation.
You guys go out and be world changers. I will continue to work hard and trust my God as Essie Jay did. I will continue to have self-dignity and know that I am precious and valuable just like Annie May did. I will continue to power through any adversity in order to protect and provide for my current and future family, just as Uncle Earbie and Papa did. And I will make sure my children remember the strong, faithful, and loving men and women who paved the way for them, just as Mama and Daddy have done for me. Leave the anger in the past, bring the lessons with you to the future. I love you guys, and thank you for listening.