Many Americans, including a surprising number of black people, somehow believe that U.S. blacks did not start taking seriously the core traits of personal responsibility, valuing education, conducting their affairs ethically, condemning and avoiding crime, caring for one's family and being civic-minded until Barack Obama came along.
The truth is that generations before Obama was born, millions of blacks embraced these traits every day. Many black institutions and individuals, in fact, taught these traits and passed them along to others.
Unfortunately, miscreants always have attracted most of the attention, creating negative expectations and producing so-called "black pathology" as the norm.
Atlanta's Morehouse College is one of the black institutions, which I alluded to, that has carried the banner for the responsible life. Founded to teach emancipated slaves how to read and write, and skills to cope with the societal and cultural demands of their new freedoms in a hostile white world, Morehouse has been inculcating exemplary values and beliefs since 1867.
And today, the all-male campus, one of the oldest historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, delivers the same tried-and-true message.
Robert Franklin Jr., a Morehouse graduate and the college's president since 2007, is at the center of what I consider to be a long-overdue "no excuses" wake-up call for students attending the nation's HBCUs. He wants presidents and students to go beyond the classroom and take up their ethical and social obligations.
Months before accepting his new post, Franklin published Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities, which discusses the deficit of "moral purpose" among HBCU presidents and challenges them to act as their colleges' "chief ethical officers." They should do more than raise money and deliver "pieties" and "superficial inspiration" during their commencement speeches. The time has come, Franklin wrote, for presidents also to highlight their institutions' failings so that they can be fixed.
"I'm hoping to be something of a president and moral philosopher," he said during an interview with Inside Higher Ed, an online publication. "I think the area that needs most critical attention right now is leadership formation — emphasis on character development and helping students to resist the temptations of a youth culture that has emphasized materialism, hyperindividualism, violence and ethical relativism."
True to his word, Franklin, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago's Divinity School and who has taught at the Harvard Divinity School, is determined to make Morehouse a symbol of excellence for black students everywhere by creating the black "Renaissance Man."
Such a man embodies the old "Five Wells": "well-read," "well-spoken," "well-traveled," "well-dressed" and "well-balanced."
During his now-famous speech to Morehouse students in the spring, Franklin said that "you cannot be a Renaissance Man with social conscience and global perspective unless you are uneasy about the human condition. I want each of you to have a healthy impatience with the status quo. … Morehouse men must be so sensitive to the presence of disorder, mediocrity and injustice that they cannot sleep well at night."
He advised the men to stop wasting time: "You should carry something to read and make good use of your down time. Read books, not just summaries of books. Choose an accomplished and prolific writer as a role model. But just as important — if not more — study grammar and syntax and the art of composition. … Learn the power of accurately constructed sentences and well-positioned words. It matters how well you write. … I do not want employers or professors to call us and ask, 'How did Morehouse graduate a student who writes so poorly?' "
Last month, Franklin issued an "appropriate attire policy," the most controversial move of his two-year presidency.
Here are five examples of inappropriate attire: Sagging, defined as "wearing of one's pants or shorts low enough to reveal undergarments or secondary layers of clothing"; do-rags, caps and hoods in classrooms, the cafeteria, other indoor spaces and outside dorms; pajamas in public areas; sunglasses in classrooms and at formal activities; and jeans at convocation, commencement, Founder's Day or other major programs.
Aware that advocates of individual liberties reject the attire policy, Franklin said it is part of the broad mission to develop the students' intellects and "social consciences." Not surprisingly, because of the school's history, more than 90 percent of students are complying without grumbling. A handful of gay men are complaining, however, because they may not wear female attire and apparel on campus.
Addressing the entire student body, Franklin said he wants to establish a culture of high expectation and encouragement at Morehouse, not one of enforcement and harassment. To that end, students also must take responsibility for the college's excellence.
During his "Renaissance Man" speech, Franklin drew a line in the sand: "If you cannot follow the guidelines of a moral community, then leave. … If you want to be part of something rare and noble, something that the world has not often seen — a community of educated, ethical, disciplined black men more powerful than a standing army — then you've come to the right place."