Going back to school can be the same old tedious ritual–shopping for school clothes, binders, protractors and the freshest kicks on the block. We spend endless hours in Wal-Mart and Staples making sure that our kids have every material needed to navigate the first day of school.

Education has historically represented a rite of passage for many American children.

For young Black kids, however, it’s a matter of survival.

Our ongoing fight for education has always had an underlying purpose of releasing us from mental enslavement and an inherited social position, which dates back to our earliest days on Southern plantations.

More than 150 years ago, it was against the law for Black children to learn to read and write–a mission that was at the center of the slave codes. In fact, Alabama had three separate laws that prohibited anyone from teaching a non-White person to read. They weren’t even allowed to own books, including the Bible.

The obstruction of education was a systematic strategy that allowed those in power to maintain control over the minds of their slaves.

Bob Marley wrote in his masterpiece “Redemption Song,” “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” His philosophy was rooted in the tradition of freedom, making a clear association between education and emancipation.

The potential for Black children to excel and recognize their possibilities is close enough to grasp. Nina Simone recognized it in 1970, when she wrote a song dedicated to her dear friend, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “in this whole world, you know, there are millions of boys and girls who are young, gifted and Black–and that’s a fact.”

Simone’s goal was to offer Black children a message contrary to what they had been accustomed to hearing for years. Society generally labeled Black men and women lazy, uneducated and inferior. Combating that message allowed Black kids to gain the confidence necessary to carry out their purpose.

By the time Whitney Houston’s epic 1985 performance of “The Greatest Love of All” saturated the Black community, we internalized the message, “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.” While those words are a bit clichéd for some 26 years later, they ring truer than ever for us.

These words encourage young kids to go back to school with the intent of challenging their capacity to create, think and inspire others. Black children have a history of innovating and creating some of the most innovative movements in the world, and we have yet to see their full potential materialize.

This year as thousands of young Black boys and girls tread back onto the blacktop, they must stay rooted in their purpose. We’ve learned over the years that the drop-out rate for Black kids is much higher than any other race and that the percentage of Black men and women in the prison system is enormously disproportionate. Maintaining an attitude of purpose will allow both of those numbers to decrease significantly in years to come.

James Brown boldly stated in his 1966 political piece, “Don’t Be a Dropout,” “without an education, you might as well be dead.” Brown’s sentiments paralleled the ideas of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Both groups actively encouraged Black kids to advance their education with purposeful intent.

The reality, however, is that it is ultimately our responsibility to raise our children with all of these ideals in mind. We will either socialize them to do the bare minimum just to get by, or to value education and congruently their freedom.

That’s the same freedom Nas imparted to us in 1996 as Lauryn Hill sang “If I ruled the world, I’d free all my sons.” Now that the slave codes have been lifted for more than a century, we must enact our own codes of purpose.

On our quest to teach our children well and let them lead the way, we should provide a sense of hope that there is indeed a precise purpose for our children expanding their academic capacity–survival.

James B. Golden is a Los Angeles-based music journalist. He has previously edited the Hip Hop Think Tank academic journal and Kapu-Sens Literary Magazine. He is the author of a Hip Hop poetry collection entitled “Sweet Potato Pie Underneath The Sun’s Broiler.” He may be reached at www.JamesBGolden.com