Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rising Above the ‘Triple Quandary’ of Being Young, Gifted & Culturally Diverse: Celebrating the Strengths of Diverse Gifted Learners

{This is post is dedicated to my brother, the late James Robert Lawson, Jr. whose birthday is today--one of the most  gifted people I have ever met...whose strengths were often overlooked, and thus, his gifts never fully developed. I know you're watching, Jimmy, and I hope I'm making you proud}

As a young man, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was identified as a ‘gifted’ by school officials and embraced by community leaders who helped to provide resources to assist DuBois as he attended a predominately white, affluent high school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois, the son of a single mother, excelled in the school environment, published his first writings early, and became well known within the community (Lewis, 1993).

In 1890, Du Bois was the first African American to earn a graduate degree from Harvard University. While he excelled and was successful as a student and young leader, he was often challenged by his ‘double consciousness’, that of ’being an American and being a Negro’ at the same time.  I would daresay that part of his struggle was also that he was profoundly gifted and functioning in a predominately white environment posed certain challenges for the young black scholar.  In his own words, DuBois noted:

“one ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring souls in one dark body, whose ‘dogged strength’ alone keep it from being asunder”

Many years later, Dr. A. Wade Boykin, noted African American scholar, wrote and provided some clarification of this ‘double consciousness’ as he researched the challenges faced by many African American students who find themselves having to cope with the oppression of the minority experience in America, live in mainstream society, and maintain their black legacy and traditions (Boykin, 1996). Boykin’s ‘triple quandary’ theory described a complex existence of these young people- likening their condition to a quandary- which is defined as a ‘dilemma, predicament, jam, or a sticky situation’.

These students often find themselves often having to live in three worlds simultaneously: Being a member of an oppressed culturally diverse/minority group; being gifted; and being a participant in mainstream society. As challenging as this ‘triple quandary’ existence appears to be—there is documentation that some minority group learners have also shared that they possess their own forms of ‘dogged strength’ characterized by a strong sense of identity/purpose, ability to rise above negative circumstances, and have a confidence that enables them to self-actualize, envisioning themselves as positive and successful in the future. Students who have shared their unique abilities to succeed despite external circumstances and biases they face on a regular basis - appear to have some traits in common (Davis, 2007; Grantham, 2002; Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif,1998):

Ø  they have a family member or other person who has been a strong source of support;
Ø  they have found a peer from a similar community with similar goals;
Ø  they participated in an advanced educational program or had a mentor; and
Ø  they are often encouraged by their circumstances to ‘prove the stereotypes wrong’.

This is a verbatim quote from a successful gifted high school female living under challenging circumstances. Her words demonstrate an exceptional confidence in her ability to survive and rise above her day-to-day circumstances.  

‘Being that my home environment is not as lavish as some of my peers, I feel that it keeps my self-image as an achieving student alive. When people see my home and..surroundings, they’d expect me to be of low education or incapable of educational success, because let’s face it, that’s the unavoidable stereotype….my environment encourages me to be successful in school in order to prove the stereotypes wrong’ (Davis, 2007).

An APPEAL to Parents, Families, Community leaders & School Personnel-

Each of you plays a critical role in the success of our students. In all communities are countless numbers of highly creative, intellectually gifted young people, who are looking for someone to believe in them. Someone to believe that they are ‘wise beyond their years’, and they have the ‘creativity and courage’ to work through the daily challenges. They are looking for someone who is willing to provide opportunities that match with their abilities & needs.

I encourage you to advocate and create programs at schools and in the community where they can interact with students who look like them and share the same interests. I encourage you to support their dreams and visions for success, listen to them, and take their concerns about being ‘different’ and sometimes ‘being misunderstood’ seriously.

I encourage you to expose them to successful adults from their communities who have gone through life’s difficulties, left the challenging circumstance (or ‘made it out’) and have a ‘life story’ to offer as encouragement. These young people are counting on us to believe that they have what it takes to succeed even if they sometimes feel like they are in the ‘strange predicament’ or feel ‘out of place’ or that no one understands their plight.

In closing, I must admit that this is a very complex and sometimes controversial subject, the very notion that students from challenging environments can be successful, has not been entirely embraced by the educational community. We tend to look more at what they can’t do -deficit perspective,  than what then can do- strengths perspective (Ford, 2010). This is just a continuation of the conversation. There is more to share than can be discussed in this limited space.

The purpose of this blog is to enlighten more advocates and share information that you may not have had access to before. There are numerous resources that can be provided, I’ve listed a few here and hope that they will help you to help these talented young people out of the ‘quandary’ of their daily existence into a life of hope and realized dreams.

Boykin, A.W. (1996). The triple quandary and the schooling of Afro-American children, pp57-92. In U. Neisser, Ed. The School Achievement of Minority Children. Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum Associates.
Davis, J.L. (2007). An exploration of the impact of family on the achievement of African American gifted learners originating from low income environments. Unpublished manuscript.
Ford, D.Y. (2010). Reversing Underachievement Among Black Gifted Students, 2nd Ed. NY: Teacher’s College Press
Grantham, T.C. (2002). Rocky Jones: a case study of a high achieving Black male’s motivation to participate in gifted classes. Roeper Review, 26(4), 208-215.
Hrabowski,F. A., Maton, K.I.,Greif,G.A.(1998). Beating the odds: Raising academically successful African American males. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, D.L. (1993). W.E.B. Du Bois, Vol. 1: Biography of a race, 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt.

Other Recommended Books
A Hand to Guide Me (2006)- Denzel Washington, Actor & Philanthropist
Bright, Talented & Black: A Guide for families of African American Gifted Learners (2010).  Dr. Joy Lawson Davis
Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American children (1994). Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings
It Worked for Me (2012)- General Colin Powell with T. Koltz
Reversing Underachievement in Black Gifted Children, 2nd Ed. (2011) –Dr. Donna Y. Ford
The Pact: Three young men make a promise and fulfill a dream (2003)- Drs. S.Davis, G. Jenkins & R. Hunt
Special Populations of Gifted Learners: Understanding our most able students from diverse backgrounds (2010)- Drs. Jaime A. Castellano & Andrea D. Frazier

Exemplary Programs/Info Websites
Jack Kent Cooke Scholars/Foundation
Meyerhoff Scholars Program, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Project EXCITE- Northwestern University-
Sponsors for Educational Opportunity-
Uplift, Inc –Washington DC

All rights reserved by Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D. Reproduction without written permission of the author is strictly prohibited.


  1. Thanks for including us in this amazing article.

    -Leshell Hatley
    Executive Director
    Uplift, Inc.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. Your program is an exemplary model and I wanted to be sure to share it w/ others!! Let's stay in touch!!
      Dr. Joy Lawson Davis

  2. On behalf of Dr. Roslin Growe, Professor Dept of Educational Foundations & Ldrshp University of Louisiana, Lafayette:

    Dr. Davis:

    Outstanding and informative commentary on the unrecognized gifted black/minority young people among us. Hopefully, this population of individuals will be identified appropriately and their myriad of issues pertaining to their talent minimized as they struggle to "find their place" in society.

    Thanks for keeping me informed. I am very interested in this topic.

    Dr. Roslin Growe

    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership

  3. Another excellent book: Whistling Vivaldi, about how stereotypes affect performance.

    1. Thank you so much for the resource and for reading the site...
      Dr. Joy

  4. dr. davis, would you know of any research/writings for gifted adults/gifted adults of color? I'm sort of living out a life of someone whose giftedness was addressed only up until middle school. ironically, one had to test in to the school I attended and it was basically geared toward a range of very smart to highly gifted students. but this was in the 1980s and there was much about being gifted that didn't get addressed at all. I do want a chance to live out the life I was meant to have as the person I was meant to be. but as studies show, this can be very difficult without guidance, mentors, peers, and mutual support, even as an adult. thank you, -Erica F.

    1. Yes, there is research re: gifted adults, but not much on gifted adults of color. I'll check for you and post some links/papers here. Please feel free to write more specifics and also visit my other website. for more information.

      thanks for the feedback.
      Dr. Joy

  5. Your site is a breath of fresh air!

    1. Many thanks!! Please keep reading and sharing w/ others.

  6. On behalf of Cynthia Barnes Booker:

    Thanks Dr. Davis for an inspiring and insightful article. As a parent, I know how important it is to be an advocate and the biggest cheerleader for your child. These are the kinds of articles that give families a much-needed historical perspective.

    Cynthia Barnes Booker/Cleveland Parenting Examiner -

    Cynthia Barnes Booker
    Media, Public Relations & Marketing Consultant

  7. Congratulation to you. I am happy after reading your post that you have posted in this blog. Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this.
    Education News Dubai