Seabiscuit, cultural pluralism and educational uplift

Written by admin   // September 21, 2012   // Comments Off

by Taki S. Raton

Often when teaching classes in education and more consistently in African American History opening semester lesson, I may share the story of the horse, Seabiscuit supported by the American Experience PBS DVD Video of the same name. A pedigree of the legendary race horse “Man O’ War,” this majestic equine was described in opening video scenes as a hero; as a horse that rose from the bottom of the heap and fought his way to the top. “And this is how America sometimes likes to crown its champions,” says African American jockey agent Gelo Hall in the film.

Even famed columnist writer Walter Winchell on New Years Eve of 1938 would publish in his annual list of the ten top newsmakers of the year; nine were men to include Franklin Delano Roosevelt and United Kingdom British Prime Minister Author Neville Chamberlain. But the tenth spot went to the horse named “Seabiscuit.”

This steed had humbled, challenged and what was described as “scrabbled” beginnings. He was imaged as “crude looking” and “dung colored;” stocky with knobby knees that never seemed to straighten when he walked. “He was a masterpiece,” it was said, “of faulty construction.” As a 2-year-old, he was entered into 35 races and lost nearly every time. But at his last defeat, he caught the eye of veteran trainer Tom Smith who noticed that there was something very special in this colt; that he had innate talents and an air of confidence that needed to be uniquely refined and cultivated.

Upon the purchase of the colt for $8000 by horse owner and Smith employer Charles Howard -who also saw in Seabiscuit the same potential traits – the equine after being brought to the Detroit stables for recuperation and training was tired and sore, weighed in at 200 pounds underweight, had a weary temperament, intimidated the grooms, refused to eat, raised hell at the starting gate and refused to bond with people.

But trainer Smith knew what to do. He made a careful study of Seabiscuit and devised a special regiment targeted to the colt’s specific nature, challenges, and needs in hopes of him living up to his potential as the grandson of the mighty Man O’ War. For nerves, Smith selected an assortment of soothing animal companions to include what would become his lifelong traveling mate, a calm pony named “Pumpkin,” and a stray dog with big ears named “Pocatell.” For his legs, a daily application of homemade liniment was applied and for muscle and weight, a diet consisting of a high quality of calcium rich hey which had to be specially ordered from Northern California.

The stable hands were instructed to give him maximum latitude and to “never, never disturb him while he is sleeping.” Smith chose Johnny Pollard to be Seabiscuit’s new jockey. Pollard himself had background issues and was at the bottom of the heap as his riding career had been on the decline when he walked into the Smith’s barn in the summer of 1936. Smith invited him into the stall to meet Seabiscuit and noticed that Pollard and the horse “took to each other immediately;” that there was a bond, a mutual affinity, a connection. It was a perfect match.

Fast forwarding, towards the end of ’36, Seabiscuit won the Scarsdale Handicap in track record time and continued to claim victories in two major races in California, just missing two world records in the process. In his 1937 4-year-old season, Seabiscuit was starting to become a celebrity. Owner Howard raced him on a total of 18 tracks in 7 states and Mexico that year. He raced on both coasts winning ten major races, tying five track records and becoming the leading money winner for 1937.

In 1938 this awesome steed would win the Havre de Grace Handicap, his match races against War Admiral and Ligaroti, the Pimlico Special, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940. His awards included the U.S. Champion Handicap Male in 1937 and 1938 and the U.S. Horse of the Year in 1938. His year-to-date earnings were $437,730. He would become known as the “Champion Thoroughbred Race Horse in the United States.”

The reason for teaching Seabiscuit at the beginning of my education and African American History classes has less to do with Seabiscuit himself but more to do with the starting gate where the thoroughbreds are lines up to race. I call this concept simply the “Gate.”

In the absence of my white board, an overhead projector or power point, the reader is asked to visualize an average normal horse race track with the starting gate (the “Gate”) separating on the horse facing front side the actual race track or what will be represented in this analogy as society’s mainstream turf. Picture if you will the horsed being walked to the gate being lined up in anticipation of the starting bell. It is only at this point, in the Gate, that all of the competitive steeds are considered “equal” and prior to their entry to the gate, it is assumed that they all have been properly prepared to compete.

It is critical that the reader understand that “equality” is only at the gate. The presumption of “sameness” is only within the context that whatever unique, distinct, or peculiar historical background that the horse (you) had prior to the entering the Gate, that you were properly equalized the meet and compete in competition when the bell rings and your charge is to race/work your way to victory and success amidst any and all obstacles on society’s mainstream turf.

Seabiscuit was not like other horses. Seabiscuit was not the same as Rosemont who he raced against in 1937. Seabiscuit was not the same as War Admiral or Ligaroti whom he raced against respectively in 1938. There is no assumption of “sameness” because each thoroughbred was unique unto its own composition relative to strengths and nature and had to be trained accordingly.

Such special preparation, such special training, such special nurturing, such special cultivation based upon the unique needs of the equine took place at the training stables prior to entering the Gate.

No one, no creature on this planet is born “equal.” Every living grouping of people, creature or organism is born with its own historically or environmentally unique and precious gifts, talents, skills, wisdom – and even genius – that has to be raised, trained, cultivate and properly groomed by its own natural birth membership to skillfully and successfully function in a particular plural nature designed dominion, whatever that may be.

Yes, Seabiscuit is a horse. And yes, he came from good, majestic stock. But he was different, he was unique, he had issues being this masterpiece of “faulty construction”. But trainer Smith knew exactly what to do with Seabiscuit to make him ready for the Gate to include knowing that he required, even a particular rider in the name of Pollard to whom he – the horse – could relate, trust and feel comfortable.

In brief, and this is the point of the lesson, Seabiscuit had to be “equalized” in his home stable prior to or before being placed side-by-side with other steed counterparts to compete on the mainstream turf.

Because of his uniqueness; because of his special attributes, he was not automatically born “equal” to War Admiral, Ligaroti or Rosemont to make a point. He had challenges and setbacks. But upon proper attention to his unique needs, his unique talents, nature, strengths and skills had to be target groomed in the stables to turn this broke down horse into a champion thoroughbred before entering the Gate.

The stable herein is the Black community and its community based institutions. The “race” side of the “Gate” is American mainstream society. Now this “Gate” can represent the integrated public school classrooms in our nation’s school district; the seated area where African Americans along with others are filling out applications for a job interview, or a college job fair where high school seniors are seeking college entrance or even scholarship opportunities as examples.

America is a multicultural pluralistic society. America is not an automatic “integrative” society where there is an assumption of “sameness”. This is where our traditional civil rights leadership had it wrong – then and now. “Equality” is only at the Gate. Although we are all born “equal” under the law, one is not naturally born equal to assume competitive readiness with others.

But when everyone has their so-called “equal” placement at the Gate, in the natural social order of winners and losers; in the natural social order of who is selected and who is rejected; in the natural social order of success or failure, when the bell rings and the gate doors swing wide open and the societal race has started on the mainstream turf, some will win, some will lose.

Some will advance, some will fall behind. Some will be – for whatever reason – selected. Some will be – for whatever reason – rejected. Some will succeed. Some will fail. There is no “equality” of anticipated outcomes at the Gate. Everyone will not be automatically granted success just because you exist. You are either prepared to compete or you are not.

In America’s pluralistic society, all groups directly or indirectly emerge from a specific ethno-cultural community be that community Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Greek, East Indian, Polish, Jewish, African American, Palestinian, German and the like. These specific ethno-cultural communities are figuratively positioned before the gate. Each community has its own sense and anchor of origin, Motherland, ancestry, legacy, history, heritage, traditions identity, purpose, direction, values, norms, language patterns, name, laws birthright, spiritual belief systems, rituals, holidays; their own vision of how they see themselves in their tomorrows, the fulfillment of their destiny and their own sense of eternity and forever.

All of these traits determine who a people are (Identity), where they came from (Origin), why they are here (Purpose) and where they are going (Direction). Such traits additionally reveal to them and for their children, the Higher Order best of who they are, who they have been and the promise of the continued cultivated best of that which they and their children can become.

It is not the responsibility of others in a multicultural pluralistic society to groom or bring out the best of that which is within the natural members of another group. Only your own group membership can do this for the masses of that particular culture.

A non-Jew cannot teach a Jew how to be a good Jew. A non-Native American cannot be expected to be a model of the history, glory, self-worth or cultural “Beingness” of a Native American Cherokee Indian.

Multi-Cultural means just that – a multiplicity of cultures. America is a pluralistic society; a grouping or co-existence of plural (many) cultures who have maintained a foundation for their own distinct ethnic, religious, and cultural traits.

Such distinct ethnic and cultural traits are akin to the special needs of Seabiscuit prior to his entering the Gate. Again to restate, Smith knew that a specific target regiment design had to be put in place to equalize the steed to be competitive on the track. It is not the responsibility of the Joseph’s horse stable on the other side of town, for example, to come over to the Smith stable and train Seabiscuit to race and win over his (Joseph’s) thoroughbred “Justice”.

It is therefore the responsibility of each respective group to properly and effectively equip and equalize in its own children and its own membership the required qualities for competitive standing at the Gate. Otherwise, at the sound of the bell, they will naturally and predictably fall behind others who are so properly prepared.

Pre-Integration “Old School” parents under segregation clearly understood this reality. Their children were raised with a strong sense of positive self-esteem, self-identity, collective group ideals and with a vision for success. It was in the home, in their predominantly if not all-Black schools, in their community and in the church where the talents, skills, gifts and genius of young Black children were constantly groomed, cultivated and reinforced. By the time these youths were ready to approach and enter the Gate leading to college entrance or society’s mainstream, they were already well prepared with qualities of social human interaction, attributes of civility and citizenship, with a strong work ethic; skill set competencies, a competitive edge, and also with a vision to make a contribution towards the onward flow of their community ideals.

Such was the result in our Black communities prior to the 70’s of positive, progressive, effective and responsible equalization of a people and of their children in a multicultural pluralistic society before the Gate and prior to their social assembly in and around other people.

Our unique and peculiar history of enslavement in this country coupled with our ancestral African standing on the world stage of time and achievement is what makes Black people different from all other groups of people around us. Our history in this country is like Seabiscuit’s “scrabbled” beginnings with knobby knees that never seemed to straighten when he walked.

Our history is like Seabiscuit’s being 200 pounds underweight with terrible posture for a horse. And like Seabiscuit’s majestic blood line of “Man O’ War,” we too have our Classical African World ancestral beginnings. But the steed needed targeted attention and a rider who would match and bring out his unique talents, skills, gifts and strengths to turn him into a champion.

Pollard, Seabiscuit’s rider, would be akin to our Black teachers in front of our children. Our historically Black colleges and universities also understood this concept of “equalization” before the Gate. According to a 1977 study conducted under the auspice of Dr. Mary Frances Berry in her capacity as the former Secretary of Education in the Carter Administration, HBCU’s tended (prior to the Gate) to be better equipped to prepare students for the “real world” (the race track) because they offered credible models for aspiring Blacks, a psycho-socially congenial setting in which Black can develop (reflective of a unique range of talents, skills, gifts and genius), and insurance against a potentially declining interest in the education of African Americans by broader societal membership either professionally or institutionally.

Professor and dean of the college of Education at the University of Nevada, M. Christopher Brown II and coordinator of the University-Wide Self-Study at Howard University Ronyelle Bertrand Ricard in their fall 2007 paper “The Honorable Past and Uncertain Future of the Nation’s HBCU’s” note that the strengths, purpose and goals of the HBCUs is to maintain Black historical and cultural traditions, provide leadership for the Black community, provide an economic center in the Black community, encourage the development of Black role models, provide college graduates with a unique competence to address issues and concerns across minority and majority populations, and produce Black graduates for specialized research, institutional training and information dissemination for Black communities and for others where invitationally applicable.

According to the National Science Foundation, our nation’s HBCUs graduate more than 33 percent of all African Americans earning Bachelor’s and Doctoral degrees, almost double that as compared to African Americans attending predominately White schools. Yet another example of the “equalization” concept coming from the Black community base environment.

African Centered schooling nationally takes the HBCU tradition even further and produces in its elementary and secondary academies students who are either competitive or outscore their integrative and district school counterparts on standardized testing instruments. Students under the “equalizative” before-the-gate tutelage of this Classical African Centered educational and developmental model achieve the following graduation outcome profile – Accelerated academic competency, Secondary educational preparedness for elementary and middle level students, Critical thinking skill incorporation, Acceptable positive peer and elder respect and interaction, A vision and commitment to college admission, A commendable moral character presence, Future career mobility orientation, Community service accountability and Contributive benchmarks towards the onward flow of humankind ideals.

A composite of a given African Centered school mission may be reflected by the wording of the mission statement of Milwaukee’s Blyden Delany Academy which served African American elementary children in grades K4 through 8 from 1998 to 2006: “To prepare our students to inherit and ascend to notable ideals of ethical prominence, cultural integrity, creative accomplishment and academic excellence as modeled by Classical, historical and present day Higher Order preeminent African American and African World exemplars.”

National examples of such academies include Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago, J.S. Chick and S.B. Ladd schools in Kansas City, Imhotep Charter School in Philadelphia, Nsoroma Institute in Detroit, and the Marcus Garvey Academy in Los Angeles.

Two of the primary success ingredients of “Old School” instruction, of the HBCUs and particularly of African Centered schooling is “Culture” and the exemplary Black model teachers/staff that are placed in front of the students reflecting the best and Highest Order examples that the culture ancestrally, historically and current day can produce relative to the student’s profiled social development, character cultivation, and achievement expectations.

In the absence of a community’s responsibility to properly “equalize” its children and its membership, the following brief samples of what this writer calls “Social Trend Outcomes” as documented by cited news headlines will result: less than half of Black males graduate from high school and represent only 4 percent of college students; academic proficiency of Black students found to be lower than expected; No real progress in grade school reading scores in 20 years (Chicago); 67,000 Black people murdered by Black people in 9 years; High prison rates, low-performing schools linked; 72 percent of African American children born to unwed mothers; HIV spike seen in young Black males in the country, and Plight deepens for Black men, studies warn.

A casualty of social integration and this false mythical sense of a present “race transcendent society” is our responsibility as a collective people in a multicultural society. One’s primary culture is everything. As expressed in a highly regarded African wisdom verse:

Culture is a peoples’ collective memory, a set of seeds that carry solutions to the problems of everyday life! We cannot be like children and play games with these seeds, nor can we hoard them for personal selfish greed.. Our seeds must be planted and nurtured in our own community gardens, watered, fertilized, weeded, and given plenty of sun if we expect them to grow and ripen; if expect to reap a bountiful harvest. This is work we can only do for ourselves!”

The “seeds” of course is our children and our youth. All groups in the world understand and practice this prescribed mandate. You cannot plant your seeds in someone else’s soil and expect them to give it the same identity, purpose, direction, care, attention, cultivation, strength, tools and vision for competition, victory and success and you would your own.

Taki S. Raton is a school staff consultant in the African Centered instructional model and an adjunct professor at Springfield College in Milwaukee. A writer and lecturer on the national stage detailing African World historiography with emphasis on culture, history, education, the social development of Black youth and African American male issues, he can be reached by email for presentation and consultant inquires at: [email protected]


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