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Updated 11:00 AM January 23, 2006




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Alum: Civil rights is a matter of valuing all life

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Thomas Jefferson advanced the notion that all men are created equal even as he owned slaves and had a relationship with one of them, Sally Hemmings—the latter an account of the history of one of our founding fathers that continues to be hotly debated.

"It was a contradiction in the democracy," Na'im Akbar said in a campus event Jan. 16, but it wasn't just about unjust social structures. It arose from not valuing all life as much as white male life.

Blacks who internalized that lack of value for 60 generations add to the problem by neglecting their health, not pursuing education or perpetuating violence, he said.

"Until we recognize the value of all human life, we cannot be truly civilized," Akbar told a full house at the Dow Auditorium in U-M Hospital gathered for the MLK symposium event sponsored by the health sciences: dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and social work, and the U-M Hospitals and Health Centers.

"We have not healed from 300 years of the devaluation of life," Akbar said with the passion of a preacher, drawing murmurs of support. "We still operate on that hurt that has not been fully dealt with."

Akbar, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology from U-M under the name Luther Weems, describes himself as an Afrocentric scholar, studying and speaking out on social concerns affecting African-Americans. His interest in the psychology of Black people came in part from wanting to understand himself and his family better.

Akbar formed his own publishing company, Mind Productions and Associates, and a private consulting firm, Na'im Akbar Consultants. His books include "Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery," "Visions for Black Men," "The Community of Self," and "Know Thy Self."

Akbar said it is only natural that researchers apply their scientific minds to extending lives, maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Historically that has meant advancing the wants and needs of white men, he said.

At the macro level, that's at the heart of health disparities between whites and minorities, he said. If the medical establishment is predominantly white and male, then doctors, researchers and medical journals will focus most of their attention on those who are like them.

Now that the Civil Rights Movement has ended some of the social prohibitions that kept Blacks down—blocking their access to education, for example—Akbar said it is vital that African Americans stand up for themselves and help those who come after them.

"You are where you are because of the people who came before you," he said. Though he said he never saw a Black psychologist before the day he received his doctorate and looked in a mirror, today Akbar proclaims a mandate to keep the door open for those who will follow. Do otherwise, he said, and "you are a betrayal to those who opened the door."

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