Recently, I met with a young man who is at a fork in the road. He is unsure as to how to proceed with his career and personal life. As we talked, I recognized that he was knowledgeable of the tools, templates and strategies commonly used in personal development work. He described with great pride, an icon poster that he developed some years back. This poster had the likes of Michael Jordan and Denzel Washington on it. I asked him why those two people, to which he couldn’t really answer with any clarity.
This concerned me! We run the risk of giving our power away when we admire individuals and don’t know why we are drawn to them.
I challenged this young man to spend time thinking about why he admired these two individuals and to get clear about the specific attributes that they embody, that he admires. Whether he knows it or not, the very things that he is drawn to in each of those individuals, he already possesses. Being clear about the specific attributes they embody, will allow him to engage those icons mentally, as equals. So long as this young man admires Michael and Denzel without any clarity, he places them outside and above himself, which makes him less powerful.
I also challenged him to take down the prized poster he created of the two of them, when he knows why and what specific characteristics he connects with.
Personal development work should be a process where we as individuals discover our power, not give it away in the form of hero worship. When we lack clarity as to what draws us to people moving in a direction that we see ourselves going, we open ourselves to possibilities of manipulation, vicarious achievement, and ultimately deep disappointment.
When you know what & why, “Take’em down”!
The tools used in personal development are meant to be terminal. Tools left in place after they have served their purpose become distractions or worse, roadblocks. Consistent growth in personal development work is tied to our ability to move on past any tool, template or strategy that we use to bring into a growth reality that we want for ourselves. This is the idea that I was attempting to share with this young man. I recognized that he was missing the fact that he was already half-way ‘there’ and not celebrating this about himself. In the end, it is not about the two individuals that he admires on his icon poster that matters, it’s him (it’s you).
In January 2018, on the inaugural episode of The Van Jones Show, Jay-Z gave us the allegory of the super-bug when offering his opinion on the infamous former L.A. Clippers basketball team owner's comments. The simple wisdom of his allegory is instructive for those who are or desire to be activist, passionate pursuers of justice, and social change agents. Within the first 10 minutes of his interview, Jay-Z gave us the allegory of the super-bug saying:
“… this has been going on, this is how people talk, this is how they talk behind closed doors. There was a moment where Donald Sterling had been exposed as this racist on a private phone conversation that he was having and they took his (Los Angeles Clippers) team from him. And it’s like ok, that’s one way to do it, but another way would have been, ok let him have his team and let’s talk about it together, and lets, maybe some penalties, cause once you do that, all the other closet racist just run back in the hole. You haven’t fixed anything, what you’ve done is spray perfume on the trash can, and what you do when you do that is you know when the bugs come and you spray some thing and then they come, and you create a super-bug right. Because you don’t take care of the problem, you don’t take the trash out, you just keep spraying whatever over it to make it acceptable, and then as those things grow, you create a super-bug”.
The expectation for swift, cutting, and punitive action on individuals and groups who exhibit racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and the multitude of other socially intolerant and bigoted behaviors is completely understood and warranted. Certainly, this type of punitive action is symbolic and “sends a message”. However, those who are committed to social change know that symbolic victories alone does not necessarily change the environment, the individual, or the trajectory of humanity. It merely satisfies the immediate hunger pangs for retaliation.
We need more examples in our society that embody social justice as a restorative process, led by those with a comprehensive understanding of how the transgression impacts the community, and accountability measures that require effort on the part of the transgressor to engage the individual or community affected. Finally, scalable redress to the individual and/or the community impacted by the transgressor, with significant input from those affected, as to the appropriateness of restitution.
Social justice must be BOTH symbolic and restorative, exacted by members of the community who are well prepared to mediate restorative processes.
Leaving, then, the world of the white man [whiteness], I have stepped within the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, -the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls. All of this I have ended with a tale twice told but seldom written . . . And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the veil?
-W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
With the recent passing of U.S. Congressman John R. Lewis, those on the opposite side of the veil have been given a rare peak into Black life and culture. Rare in the sense that those who are not a part of the Black lived experience here in America have the luxury of not being required to know our truth. The televised funeral of Congressman Lewis at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia gave America yet another peak into an aspect Black culture. This was also true of Aretha Franklin’s funeral, or even the recorded sermons the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, nefariously manipulated in an attempt to undermine then Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run. The Black church is one of the ways that America accesses our culture.
As an educator in sociology, when I think of DuBois’ reference of the veil, I understand it to be a separator of cultural space as a result of what he called back then “the problem of the 20th century”, the problem of the color [racial] line.
And to think 117 years later, what DuBois called the color line is still a problem!
It’s troubling that those who would not otherwise be interested in coming within the Black side of the veil, have the temerity to enter and project their attitudes and opinions onto the culture. Even more troubling is how these individuals and their institutions steeped in white cultural values, can cross- enter and exit the veil without being required to pay toll. Not toll in the sense that they pay money (though at times this is certainly appropriate), but rather paying toll in the sense that these visitors are obligated to learn, respect and be held accountable for their visits into Black cultural spaces.
At Congressman Lewis’ funeral, former President Bill Clinton had the temerity to pit Stokely Carmichael (later name changed to Kwame Ture) legacy against John Lewis’ legacy. He took the liberty to elevate Lewis’ legacy above Ture, when both were prophetic Black cultural voices in their own right. No matter how much Clinton might be esteemed as an ally by many of us within the veil, he’s still a visitor.
At Aretha Franklin’s funeral, primarily white news media pundits lost their minds and could not understand why Louis Farrakhan had a seat on the rostrum. Many of them took liberty to assert a narrative about how he is a problematic aspect of our culture that we need correct. It’s still a mystery in the minds of these outsiders, the earned nuanced place that Louis Farrakhan has within the Black side of the veil.
Finally, the case of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, former shepherd to President Barack Obama. In 2008, the other Clinton, Hilary in her presidential run was the first to cross the line into Black cultural space. She took a clip of Reverend Wright’s sermon and manipulated it to fashion a false narrative about one of best theological practitioners in Black liberation. Soon media outlets committed to white cultural values took up the narrative, spewed their vitriol and attempted to decimate his character and legacy, all the while trampling over one of the strongest religious examples unique to our Black cultural space.
I highlight these cases not necessarily to bemoan the actions of those individuals and media institutions committed to attitudes and values steep in whiteness. Rather, it is an admonishment to those of us within the veil to take up the responsibility be culture keepers who actively guard the uniqueness, beauty, and nuances of Black life and culture. No outsiders can be allowed to cross the color line and enter or exit the veil without paying toll. Similarly, those from within the veil who choose to exit and wed themselves to the norms, values, and attitudes that prioritizes whiteness at the expense and oppression of Black life and culture should too, be made to pay toll. Culture keepers are responsible to put forth healthy and accurate narratives, and provide commentary and interpretation our lived experiences within the culture. While we are not monolithic, we are the only ones qualified to preserve, protect, and articulate our diversified and nuanced truth. We are obligated to guard the beauty and diversity of lived experiences within the Black side of the veil.