Monday, May 19, 2008

A real "Morehouse Man"

Not to get too high-minded for a blog whose main concern is whether the Cubs won last night and which star is pursuing which bad idea for a movie, but I did feel the need to point out that in some ways, the times really are a-changing, and for the better. Less than 50 years, a man of my complexion living in the Deep South was almost as likely to end up hanging from a tree as he was to be able to vote for his preferred candidate for President of the United States. Today, not only is a man of my complexion a very viable candidate for that same office, but in Atlanta this past weekend, more history in that vein was made.

At the all-male, traditional black Morehouse College - the college that produced, among others, Martin Luther King Jr. - Joshua Packwood gave the valedictorian speech at graduation ceremonies on Sunday. Packwood maintained a 4.0 GPA while majoring in economics. He studied abroad in places as diverse as China, Costa Rica and Switzerland. He's already landed a posh job on Wall Street. And Packwood also happens to be the first white valedictorian in Morehouse's 141-year history.

White students are not unknown to Morehouse, though they are still something of an anomaly there - Packwood is the only Caucasian in his class. But the 22-year-old also had a comfort level with African-Americans prior to his admittance to Morehouse. He attended a predominately black high school in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. His mother was married to an African-American, and thus Packwood has mixed-race siblings. And Packwood himself has dated interracially. Nor was this a token admission on the part of Morehouse - the recruiter who worked with Packwood didn't know the young man wasn't black until after several phone conversations. (Indeed, when I heard Packwood interviewed on National Public Radio last week, his voice did sound like he had a little, shall we say, color in his bones.) But Packwood, who turned down full rides from a couple of Ivy League schools to attend Morehouse, wasn't looking to be a mere blip either. He made the most of his time there, and not just in the classroom, eventually becoming one of the most popular students there - a student many of his classmates nicknamed "Tom Cruise," which I presume was a compliment.

In some ways I feel bad writing about this story, because it kind of defies what should be the best part of Packwood's tale - that race, when distilled through the filters of character and achievement, really doesn't matter. Of course it does - not as much as in did in my grandfather's day, but still, it can easily be the elephant in the room. And Packwood, despite his advanced course in race relations, will still have to deal with it at some point during his life, just as I have and Barack Obama has and Oprah Winfrey has. Still, it's worth focusing on the "novelty" of Packwood to stress him as a perfect example of what fellow Morehouse Man Martin Luther King once said about people being judged not for the color of their skin, but the content of their characters. And if Packwood's success provides encouragement of just one young man, no matter his hue, then shining the spotlight on him will really be worth it.

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