Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 10, 1997

Black History
Month: Culture,
Science Seen As
Ways To Future

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern

"What has become of the dreams in our children's eyes? Those dreams that once danced and glittered like a thousand fireflies. Those dreams that gave hope to us old and us weary and made so much brighter our days. Now dark and dreary, those dreams have been bashed against the rock, against coke and smack. Look deep in those eyes, dreams are dying. Can they be brought back in those eyes, cold and staring? No twinkle I see."

Levi Watkins' deep voice rumbled through the School of Public Health's East Wing Auditorium last Wednesday, challenging the small audience that had gathered there to continue the celebration of Black History Month.

Watkins, a professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean for faculty development at the School of Public Health, is nothing short of an intellectual star. He has received three honorary doctorates from three separate institutions; he is a spiritual leader and a devoted healer of the rifts of prejudice within our society. He worked closely with Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. And his devotion to equality has proved successful in recent years, literally integrating Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine. Watkins was also the first African American to be named chief resident of cardiac surgery.

Watkins came not to offer "a litany of and about famous Afro-Americans. You ought to read about those people," he told his audience.

His agenda was to talk about the future of African Americans, but he paused at the outset of his talk to note that people do forget history.

"Just two days ago a major city paper wrote about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Birmingham," Watkins said. "Clearly, that writer forgot that Rosa Parks' demonstrations took place in Montgomery. And some people wonder why we still have Black History Month."

Watkins framed his talk with a brief scientific consideration of medical science's advancement in understanding human genetics and the importance of shaping the human genome for the future. He noted that we are born with certain genetic materials, but that material must be sculptured and given good human attributes.

The most important sculpting, he said, must occur in our children. "Our genome is not something we earn. It is something given to us by God. It is his creation. [Modern science is] just figuring out the sequence of it. Since it is given to us, it requires no work, no commitment, no service and no loyalty."

In order to be successful and to accomplish goals, he said, humans must undergo sociological, spiritual and educational sculpting so that we can be shaped and molded into the ultimate human beings.

"Within the helix and DNA strands, love and respect have to be imposed. Those attributes are not inherited. In between the strands of DNA, academic and educational tools have to be tacked on at the ends," he said.

Watkins noted that his sculptors were his parents, friends, mentors and a host of role models. Their sculpting enabled him to become a successful doctor and dean. But the disturbing fact, he noted, is the lack of sculpting of the lives of African American children in this society.

"Every three minutes a baby is born to an African American teen-ager," he said. "Every 70 seconds an African American child is suspended from school. Every two hours an African American child is murdered. Who will sculpture their genome?" Watkins asked, urging his audience to help bring back the dreams to our children's eyes.

"But before we can do so we must know the threats to our children. Some of those threats are racism, lack of education, conservatism in our government and self-destructive behavior and values," he said, adding that we must not be silent about these threats. By beginning dialogue on these issues, we begin to embark upon the sculpting process.

"African American children are our future and our legacy," Watkins said. "To ensure their success and survival we must become their sculptors."

While Levi Watkins was concerned with the shaping of the future, Asa Hilliard, a professor of African studies at Georgia State University, spoke of the importance of understanding the past.

Last Tuesday night an enthusiastic audience--many wearing dreadlocks and multicolored African clothing--gathered in the Schafler Auditorium of the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy to hear Hilliard speak on the beginnings of Africa. Everyone seemed anxious to retrace the past.

"How far back can you trace your ancestry?" Hilliard posed the question to his audience. He said that for African Americans tracing the past draws a blank because there is simply a lack of knowledge and acknowledgment about the true historical evidence.

"Yes, slavery was our plight. But you cannot begin to talk about art without talking about Africa. You cannot begin to talk about ballet without talking about dance in Africa. You cannot begin to talk about architecture without talking about Africa," Hilliard said.

He pointed out that the history of African Americans has been painted with tainted myths about being noncontributory to history and social evolution. Hilliard, who is a prolific writer and scholar, has spent most of his life studying, learning and writing about African culture and its origins.

"What happened to black people before slavery? What happened to them after slavery?" he asked. To understand the evolution of African Americans in America one must understand the evolution of culture and the evolution of humanity in Africa.

"With the knowledge we gain about the past we must repaint the picture from the fragments of the history of Africans," he said, and added that the importance of understanding history helps cultures of people know who they are and where they came from. That knowledge builds pride and truth in the most quintessential form.

Hilliard also noted that African Americans are the only group of people who are known and referred to by their color. But other groups of people are referred to by their culture and by their history.

History is not just evidence and a collection of documents about the progress and evolution of people, he said. It is a story about the intricate lives of people who thrive, struggle, crawl and soar. The more we know about it the more we can understand ourselves and people who are different from us.

"Black people must know their history, and until they know it well, they cannot know who they are."

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