A multi-generational crowd of about 300 packed a Prince George’s County Community College auditorium Thursday to hear a slate of African American luminaries discuss overcoming adversity and how the pursuit of education has fueled their success.
The event, “A Legacy of Change: Excellence Unleashed,” featured former New York Mayor David Dinkins, actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner and former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders and was hosted by Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art.
Camille O. Cosby, wife of comedian Bill Cosby, served as the evening’s moderator.
The “intergenerational conversation” was designed to bring a range of successful African Americans together and discuss their paths to success in order to inspire young people to follow their dreams.
“The young and the old need to communicate to each other,” said Camille Cosby, who is moderating the forums as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project, which she began in 2001 to get young African Americans to hear the lessons of their elders. “The old — their stories will reflect the history of America, and the young need to be valued because they are missing that in their lives.”
Other participants included civil rights veteran Robert P. Moses, who was the field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Bonnie St. John, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar who medaled at the 1984 Paralympics.
During the program, Elders, who served under President Bill Clinton, talked about growing up in rural Arkansas with many siblings and few role models. “I never saw a doctor until I went to Philander Smith College. You can’t be what you can’t see. I said, ‘If I ever got out of this cotton patch, I am going to help my brothers and sisters.’ ”
Elders was asked about how she felt about being replaced by Clinton for being so outspoken on the issue of contraception. “The best contraception in the world is getting a good education,” she said, adding that she doesn’t regret what she said.
Many of the young people were moved by hearing such accomplished African Americans on stage.
“It was extremely important for me to take part in this event, because I got to speak for my peers and I have always looked up to these people that I am meeting with today,” said Joy Applewhite, a sophomore at the college.
While St. John spoke about overcoming an abusive childhood and losing a leg because of a medical condition, the most compelling exchange of the evening came when Cosby questioned Warner about playing Bill Cosby’s fictional son, Theo, on “The Cosby Show.”
Situation comedies today don’t measure up, he said. “The producers don’t care about quality and, unfortunately, the audience doesn’t, either,” Warner said.
At the start of the program, Coles, the former president of Spelman College and the chairman of the National Visionary Leadership Project, said such national conversations are critical.
“You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you have been,” she said.