For the first time in its 106-year history, Oakland Technical High School graduated its first Black male valedictorian. Ahmed Muhammad earned a 4.73 GPA, launched a STEM nonprofit , got accepted to 11 colleges, went on Ellen , and will enroll at Stanford in the Fall. Great story, right? Not at all,
For the first time in its 106-year history, Oakland Technical High School graduated its first Black male valedictorian. Ahmed Muhammad earned a 4.73 GPA, launched a STEM nonprofit, got accepted to 11 colleges, went on Ellen, and will enroll at Stanford in the Fall. Great story, right?
Not at all, says Mr. Muhammad in his valedictory address, this week’s lead article. Our media and society like feel-good stories of brilliance and resilience. We like prodigies who dazzle us with their intellect. Hard work and personal responsibility and grit: These are character traits we value.
But to be the exception is problematic. It means that structural inequities remain strong. This week’s issue features the experiences of three Black male scholars at Oakland Tech: Mr. Muhammad, and before him, Akintunde Ahmad and Samuel Getachew, who faced similar loneliness. You’ll read their perspectives and then listen to them reflect on Mr. Muhammad’s success, happy for their classmate while critical of the lack of systemic change.
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Ahmed Muhammad: “As some of you may have heard, I recently became the first Black male valedictorian in our school’s history. And I want to say something about that. Oakland Technical High School has been around for 106 years. And there is absolutely no way you can tell me I am the first Black person capable of being valedictorian. Not even close. So why me? Why do I get this honor? And why did I get the love, support and opportunity to do this? I don’t know.
“But for all of those who didn’t get to maximize their potential, for all those who had the ability but lacked the opportunity, I owe it to them to appreciate this history made by the people who put me in this position. We owe it to them to make sure that, while I may be the first young Black man to be our school’s valedictorian, I won’t be the last.” (7 min)
Akintunde Ahmad: “People look at my story and applaud me and wonder what I did to ‘beat the odds.’ I wish they were more curious about why my brother did not. I wish they would ask, ‘What trap lay before this talented, bright boy so that he was bound to fall into it?’ I wish they would see how difficult it is to grow up a Black man in America. My story is told as though it is a positive one, inspirational. But I see it as a grim one, the tale of a harsh reality that wrecks people. There is nothing positive about classifying me as an exception. When a person is exceptional for doing what I have done, the whole system is cruel to its core.” (9 min)
Samuel Getachew: “We all owe it to those who follow in Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Ahmad’s footsteps to focus on removing the obstacles they will confront. And we owe it to them to be more dedicated to dismantling racism than to congratulating them for being among the few to thrive despite it. Highlighting stories of Black exceptionalism while neglecting to contextualize them simply perpetuates the inequities that make them unique to begin with. I don’t want to see yet another ‘inner city’ success story emerge from my community. I want these stories to be so common that they are unworthy of such coverage.” (6 min)
In this thoughtful conversation, Mr. Ahmad and Mr. Getachew reflect on Mr. Muhammad’s achievement and the construction of Black exceptionalism. Mr. Getachew says, “After you graduated and went off to Yale, Ahmed and I still had to deal with being the only ones. We still had to deal with a school system that was not regularly sending students like us to schools like these. Part of that was like, Why are we underdogs in the first place? Why are we the only ones? We need to stop glorifying resilience without examining the circumstances that make people have to be resilient. I’m interested in getting to a world where we’re not remarkable.” (25 min)
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