When Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. spoke Tuesday evening (Feb. 25th) at the University Center Theatre at the University of Memphis, he spoke from the topic, "The Education Before the Education."
Co-sponsored by the Student Event Allocation, Gossett's address covered such topics as progress and issues concerning race. He provided the audience with insight and wisdom, a characteristic of someone who's learned from his experiences.
And Gossett has quite a bit of experience under his belt. For example, in 1953, when he was 16 years old, he landed his first major role in the Broadway play "Take A Giant Step." He beat out 400 other aspiring actors, which launched his career.
Gossett won the Best Supporting Oscar in 1982 for his role as a tough drill sergeant in "An Officer and a Gentleman." He has since appeared on the big screen and television numerous times. But most people may remember the actor as "Fiddler" in the landmark ABC miniseries "Roots," which earned him an Emmy.
The purpose of addressing the audience, he said, was "to give you, for what it's worth, an education before an education."
"People my age tell stories, for what it's worth, to you young folks. I'm paying attention to you because, here lately, I don't think too many people are teaching you..." the actor said.
He emphasized the importance of understanding the responsibilities that individuals have to realize in order to make it in what he referred to as the "Promised Land."
"Dr. King said, 'We will get to the Promised Land,' and his prediction is true today; we are in the Promised Land. But there are some questions that he didn't say that he passed onto those of us who are still alive."
He asked the audience, "What responsibilities do we have to bring with us so that we can behave like we are in the Promised Land? What's to learn right now?" Then he answered his questions with a reference to his great grandmother.
"Something my great-grandmother said before you go out the door, 'Your dress code, your attitude, the knowledge of your culture, your respect for the opposite sex, your spirituality, ...and the admiration of the elders ... pass it on.'"
Gossett also touched on religion, race, and progress.
"I think the devil is working very strongly in Florida. We've lost two upstanding young men. What the devil is trying to do is to interrupt our wonderful progress in Florida. I predict it's going to happen again until we get angry enough and lose 100 years of our progress...."
There's a bigger test than what's happening in Florida, Gossett said. "It's nothing but a test of you looking for your progress. The devil wants you to distract yourself from your wonderful progress, but this country can't survive without your lessons."
He urged the audience to be ready to contribute 100 percent without revenge and anger.
"We can't be one nation under God, indivisible until we conquer racism," he said. "Racism is not just the white men and the black men. It's us against us. God is in charge of all of us -- all of our colors. We no longer can survive on this planet without compassion for each and every race and every religion that exists."
While discussing the negative impact of holding on to resentment, he mentioned his anger and frustration over the way some people treated him even though he'd won an Oscar, and that he'd had some trouble finding work at one point.
"Dr. Mandela and others said the worst resentment that I could have was the one that I could feel justified to keep. It used to put poison into my system," he said. "I had high blood pressure. I had cancer. I pulled in negative thoughts and actions until I got rid of [resentment]."
Gossett also addressed the importance of recognizing roots, reconnecting generations, and understanding backgrounds.
"Today, it's 100 percent necessary for you young people to know upon whose shoulders you stand," he said. "Bring those messages here to these universities and apply your energies to reconnect the generations as much as possible."
He encouraged students not leave their roots once they've made it in the world. "You need to bring some of that back home and enjoy and share that with your people so that everybody wins...
"We have to learn to understand not just where we come from, but where somebody who's not like us comes from," he said.
The actor seemed satisfied with his visit and content with the impact he made at the University Center Theatre, saying, "Maybe I've found what I'm on this planet to do, and I do it today."