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Young black grads told they still have much work to do

(From left) Malcolm Williams his brother MarvWilliams Nnaji Iwunze (CQ) all Chicago adjust their caps prior marching 2013 Mass Black

(From left) Malcolm Williams, his brother Marvin Williams, and Nnaji Iwunze (CQ), all of Chicago, adjust their caps prior to marching in the 2013 Mass Black Male Graduation and Transition to Manhood Ceremony held at Chicago State University in Chicago, Ill., Saturday, June 29, 2013. The event, sponsored by the Black Star Project, recognized African-American males from around the city and suburbs for the achievement of graduating high school. | Guy Rhodes~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 2, 2013 7:13AM

Dozens of young, black men who recently graduated from area high schools gathered Saturday to be honored for their achievement, but they also got a dose of reality from rapper Lupe Fiasco.

The local rapper began by saying, “Congratulations, you have graduated from one of the most terrible, substandard school systems in the entire world. You have just spent the last . . . 12 years receiving one of the worst educations on earth. You are at least four, five steps behind people in other countries that are younger than you.”

Organizers labeled the event a Mass Black Male Graduation and Transition to Manhood ceremony. Distinguished “elders” joined in the ceremony — among them doctors, lawyers, businessmen and politicians. The rapper also pledged $100 for each of the 150 area graduates who attended the event, organizers said.

In delivering the keynote speech, which was peppered with cheering and applause from the crowd, the rapper captivated recent grads and told them their achievement wasn’t as impressive as it was made out to be. He told the teens to focus on their future, instead.

He said: “Transition to manhood is the most important thing that’s going on right now. The caps and the gowns and your tassels and your honorary blah blah blahs don’t mean nothing. That’s just dress. That’s just some clothes. Meaningless clothes, too, because they have no real purpose in life. They don’t keep you warm. What do they do? They just represent to someone else that you’ve achieved something. But then when you look back at it, what have you achieved?”

Instead, the rapper, who said he was a product of local schools, told the young men they had to earn and maintain their manhood because, “for young black men . . . it is one the last things that we have . . . and one of the last things that we can control. Manhood is connected to humanity.”

Fiasco, who never named a specific school system, urged the teens to stay off the streets.

Phillip Jackson, the executive director of the Black Star Project, said Fiasco’s speech was “exactly what the young people needed.”

“He gave the young people their first real dose of reality,” said Jackson, whose group organized the ceremony at Chicago State University.

Jackson also pointed to the speech delivered by civil rights attorney Thomas N. Todd, who’s known as “TNT” for his oratory skills.

Todd’s skills were in full force when he spoke, telling the teens their work isn’t over.

“I don’t care how smart your smartphone is, I don’t care how great your technology is, I don’t care what you have — You still cannot download freedom,” Todd said to rousing cheers. You must work to be free. Education has always made the difference for us.”

Jackson said both the lawyer and the rapper were just being honest.

“These speakers are telling them, ‘You’re about to enter into a new reality, and that new reality is a world that is traditionally not kind to black men,’” Jackson said.

Sharon Hunley, who was thrilled to see her 17-year-old son wearing a cap and gown, said Fiasco’s speech was “candid.”

“They needed to hear that,” the Dolton woman said.

For his part, Hunley’s son, Samuel McCullum, said he was touched by the speakers, especially Todd. “It gave me some wisdom . . . words that I could take with me,” said the recent Thornridge High School grad.

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