I remember a winter morning in Williamstown 10 years ago when some friends and I visited a black writer named Larry Neal. He served as a writer-in-residence at Williams College for two years and many times we would sit enthralled for hours at interminable "rap sessions." Mainly, we just listened. What we heard were things we had never heard before.
He passed out a copy of a book excerpt and asked us to guess when it was written and by whom. The writing was so confident and forceful that we guessed it was written in the '60s and that such a piece could not have been written earlier than that.
But the writer was Alain Locke. The book he wrote was called "The New Negro" and it was published in 1925. Neal, who subsequently died at the untimely age of 43, taught us about Locke and other black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, pointing out books we had never heard of, such as Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Jean Toomer's "Cane" and, eventually, Henry Dumas' "Ark of Bones."
I met and heard black writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange in those days. Each of them talked about a term I had not heard before: role models. A role model is someone we could relate to, "one of us, " someone who demonstrated, either through writing or through his or her life, the possibility of greatness.
Neal and the others I have mentioned were role models for us. They were keys to doors we had never thought of opening because we did not know what was beyond them. Why, then and now, are positive black role models hard to find? It certainly is not because they do not exist. It is mainstream America that packages role models for our consumption. Almost always, those packages are white.
From kindergarten through high school, I was assigned to read the works of a grand total of two black novelists. I can remember sitting uncomfortably as the only black student in a class when we read Richard Wright's "Native Son," wondering why we had to study a book that portrayed a black murderer and rapist. In Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," the main character cannot cope with the world around him and goes into hiding. Neither, in my opinion, provided positive role models. Black writers such as Henry Dumas, who was accidentally killed before he could complete a novel called "Visible Man" -- a challenge to Ellison's book -- were not selected. Dumas wrote in an often mystical style, like that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which black characters possessed special powers or skills.
My high school required two years of American civilization and two years of Western civilization. African civilization was offered as a six-week mini-course, but it was not required. There were eight required courses for my nine-course college English degree. Few involved the in-depth study of black writers.
There is a similar paucity in the number of black achievers who reap public benefit from their successes. The examples are distressing, from the selling of Olympic athletes to the strides we have made in less visible professional positions. Who are the faces we most often see? Black children see a picture of an excellent gymnast named Mary Lou Retton, who won one gold medal, on their box of Wheaties, not Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals. We hear that Lewis is too self-centered to sell products. But the childish temper tantrums of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors do not stop them from appearing in commercials for disposable razors or investment firms. Runner Mary Decker won no medals, but article after article is written about her. At the same time, triple gold medal winner Valerie Brisco-Hooks exists in relative obscurity.
The pattern continues on the big screens. In Stephen King's book, "The Shining," an old black man is a hero who plays an important role. When they made the movie, the character was quickly written out of the script: he is murdered with an axe before he can do anything.
On television shows, black children may be excited by Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, two very talented black child stars. Unfortunately, both are seen on television shows in which they are raised by white adults, shows that include no regular black adults. Black children must wonder about that. Do they assume black adults are inferior or that black parents are unreliable?
Unfortunately, these examples show that little has changed in the way our heroes and heroines, idols and heartthrobs are chosen and presented. There is still an appalling double standard that suggests it is still up to us to remember and discover those blacks who have inspired others to succeed.