Dr. George Wright’s Odyssey
African American scholar recounts impacts felt by diversity
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 15:09
NDSU welcomed Dr. George Wright, an African American scholar and president of Prairie View A&M University, when he came to speak to students and staff about his personal experiences and struggles with diversity on Friday.
Dr. Wright began his speech by noting the importance of athletics to Prairie View A&M University, stressing that the reason he was at NDSU speaking was actually because of the football game, which took place the following evening. Wright then expressed his excitement at the interaction between Bison and Prairie View students and staff.
“As excited as I am about the game, just think about it; the game’s only going to last a few hours, but we [Wright and NDSU President Bresciani] have been interacting for the last few days, and our students are going to be interacting here,” said Wright.
Getting to the heart of his speech, Wright began to talk about his own personal “odyssey,” or life story and experience with diversity.
“The reality is, given the age of those of us in this room, I suspect you all could do the same thing, and you could talk about changes you have seen occur in society over a period of time,” said Wright.
Wright considers himself to be a proponent of diversity in American society, and feels America has always benefitted from diversity.
“To me, what really makes diversity important is that after you get beyond the distinctiveness, the uniqueness and so forth, I think it’s most important to show the commonality in all of us,” he said.
Before beginning his own story, Wright acknowledged the different kinds of diversity across the United States, encompassing both race and gender, adding that by being at NDSU and sharing his story, he hoped to inspire the Bison in attendance. He then began his own story.
“I am a person who personally benefitted from all of the changes that occurred in American society in the 1960s and thereafter for African American people,” said Wright. “If you really think about it, what did I do that led to my benefitting from them? It’s very simple: I came along at the right time.”
Wright was 13 years old when the March on Washington occurred in 1963.
He wasn’t in attendance when Martin Luther King spoke, instead, he was in Kentucky playing baseball.
He didn’t participate in any of the activity of the Civil Rights Movement, but he reaps the benefits.
“When I think about the changes I have benefitted from, I think about the white people, I think about the black people, I think about the American people involved in all of it,” he said.
Born into a racially segregated society in Lexington, Kentucky, Wright remembers being prohibited from going into the public library. Instead, African Americans had to go to a bookmobile that came around the neighborhood every two weeks. He also remembers being allowed into an amusement park only on Negro day, which occurred only twice each summer.
“I used to love when my mother said, ‘What do white folks do in bathrooms that we don’t do? They must do something different, right? Since we can’t go in there,’” said Wright.
Wright also recalls living in a black community and working as a dishwasher for a white country club. He recalls noticing how much his mother did to make the best living she could for her children, and he recalls vowing to “make something” of himself.
Attending the University of Kentucky on a scholarship after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Wright now has a Ph.D from Duke University. He also wrote three books on race in Kentucky, one of which goes into depth about public lynching.
Wright then travelled Europe, doing research on diversity and race. His research brought him to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, as well as Vietnam, Singapore and Australia.
“Take your president, from Andrew Johnson to Barack Obama, take whichever one you want, or take them all. Every one of those presidents have been given the opportunity to apologize for slavery, to speak boldly about the injustices that occurred in this country, and those injustices can be documented… The United States government, we are first world; Australia is not. We have refused to issue an apology like the Australian government did,” said Wright.
Wright said he thought he was a broad-minded person, but after seeing the world he learned how narrow-minded he had been, especially when it came to food.
“Everything I think is, quote, “normal” is not normal for everyone,” he said.
Bringing his speech to a close, Wright left his audience with one last thought.
“I have benefitted from looking at the world through black eyes in a white world,” said Wright. “It dawned on me that all of us put too much emphasis on race.”