You know who I used to be. I was that kid, young, gifted and black. You were the aunt that pinched my cheeks, the minister who called me up to the altar and put his hands on my shoulders introducing me to the congregation. You were the kid who sat next to me in class and asked me a question.
I’m here to tell you that I did fine. I’ve had a good long climb in America and got higher than I expected to. I could die happy tomorrow, except of course nobody wants to die. But something else happened to me. I graduated from a school of hard knocks that everyone still expects me to be attending.
Let me get to the point. Are you your race or are you your class? Of course you are both, but in practical terms which are you more likely to do, break you racial loyalty for the prerogatives of class or break your class loyalty for the prerogatives of race? I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over such questions from the practical perspective of being the kind of success I want to be. In the end, the choice was remarkably simple. I chose class.
What’s funny is that when I discuss race with folks who are not black, they have rather sophisticated ideas and notions. It’s actually not difficult to read all the right books, listen to the right commentators and get all the right information – it’s everywhere. What’s difficult is to have all the right friends. You cannot, in a certain sense, know and understand blackfolks unless you live around them every day. Unless you are constantly exposed to whatever their attitudes and expectations are of you and of society. If that’s what you want. My lived experience tells me that blackfolks in Tampa are different than those in LA are different from those in Houston. If you’re black in New Hampshire or Rhode Island, you’re going to have a different experience with different attitudes and expectations than if you lived in Arizona or Nevada. So what do you want?
Once upon a time, I sat down in the University library and opened up a book called Who’s Who Among Black Americans. An older and different company than the one that makes it today published it. There in black and white were hundreds of pages of thousands of names. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, professors, scientists, executives, ministers of all sorts were listed in every city across the nation. Those were the people I wanted to be around, no question. All I needed were a couple hundred to be my friends and family. I could imagine us chilling in our giant brick houses, sipping cognac and listening to Frankie Beverly. What college freshman doesn’t dream?
What I surely didn’t want to do was hang out in the world that Grandmaster Flash rapped about in The Message. Rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat? No thank you. I didn’t want to live where it’s a jungle sometimes. I wasn’t close to the edge and I wasn’t going under. So you could push all you want, I wasn’t losing my head. In fact, I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha and learned to recite poems like Invictus, which was written in 1875. As I shivered with my line brothers in the cold, bearing up under the old school trials of my fraternal order, I was inspired by those words. And what indeed did I have in common with a long dead Victorian English poet? Why was I at university at all? How much of what I intended to study had been knowledge in the world long before my grandfather was born? Indeed what was I inheriting? Why was I trying to change myself?
It was ambition. I wanted better. I wanted to go from rags to riches. It wasn’t because I was black. I never had a problem being black, no identity crisis here. Black was my flavor, but not my substance. I was on a mission to fill my black head with the ideas that ran the world. I was climbing a ladder. And I did.
Like most people, I often confused flavor for method. In some ways I didn’t think I had a choice. You enter an unfamiliar territory; you think that you need a black mentor. The black mentor shows a way, a path, a method, and you bring along your flavor. So when I was in student government, I was the black student in student government. There was a lot of ‘this is how we roll’ in that black pride. One could ‘represent’. But in the back of my head, I knew that everything I did in college still didn’t rank me high enough to get into that Who’s Who book. Even when I listened to black astronauts come and speak on campus, I knew that no matter how dominant cognac, brick mansions and Frankie Beverly were in my flavor, that there were other methods. By the time I finished college, I knew without a doubt that there was no single black community, no single method towards black success.
It’s sometimes a hard lesson to learn, but it ought to be apparent when people demand freedom, that there is no monopoly of method. It ought to be apparent that the most important thing about a free black man is that he’s free, not that he’s black. Yet when it comes to talking about race and class in America, people get stuck in second gear, revving up their engine noise without ever getting very far or very fast. People mistake flavor for method and method for substance and substance for flavor.
So I’m interested in this moment to talk about something I’ve managed, which is to sublimate my race for my class. What is in fact permanent about me is how I’ve decided to live – what constitutes my life, my sanity, my legacy. And I acknowledge my flavors and my methods but what matters most is the substance I have gained to build the creations of my life. These will be my legacy. What I mean to express is that I have put race in its place, and I am liberated because of what I have become in substance, something that owes to my own initiative, character, talents and ambitions for which there have always been racial prescriptions but never a racial solution.
I asked my friend the other day if I should write about race. He said, and I agreed, that it’s a compelling subject. Yet I hate being a race man. I don’t object to writing about the subject, but I couldn’t stand the idea of becoming popular because of that. It’s not what I went to college to study. It is not the mark I wish to leave on this world. This morning I thought about why people always want ‘to have a dialog about race’. I’ve decided that it’s the same reason why standup comics always talk about relationships. It is an endless supply of fascinating human drama. Comics will never stop talking about relationships. Americans will never stop talking about race. Children will never stop playing tag. Birds will never stop crapping on my car. But that doesn’t mean the answers aren’t out there. No matter how Louis C K or Chris Rock talk about the perils and pitfalls of single life or marriage, there will always be people in good marriages who have settled all the questions. So I’m interested in class.
I am interested in class for what might seem to be obscure reasons, but I’ll try to put it plainly. I took upon myself what I called a generational imperative. My father joined the Marine Corps and engaged heavily in community affairs as a young father. For me that represented politics and war. While I was in high school I came across this quote by John Adams that has remained with me all through my life:
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
This represents to me a classic American progression. For some families it might take two generations, for others five. Adams speaks of the generations’ duty to civilization, of the progress of a nation. Yet I took it very specifically as my generation’s imperative to study commerce. That was MLK’s dream for me. He fought the war so that I could build the business. Bound in my family is that very mix. And here I am having studied mathematics and philosophy, specifically in computer science, now writing about the same things.
I happen to believe that Adams spoke more presciently than he may have imagined, and that he speaks to more than just America but to the world. Today we herald the emergence of not only black Americans, but also a global middle class. As civilizations are put right and nations grow in peace, this progression is not inevitable but it is inevitably desired. I didn’t want to war with Grandmaster Flash against roaches and rats of the burned out South Bronx. I wanted a white-collar job with IBM in a glass tower downtown working digital systems, and I wanted to get married and let my daughter have piano lessons and ride ponies. I am not alone in that desire, and race; no matter how compelling a subject it is for discussion, did not push me close to the edge. I’m sure that is a common dream everywhere on the planet. I declare for that common class.
I love the emergent global middle class, and I love that we didn’t blow up the world during the Cold War. I am willing to bet that people will forget about that whole world and get bogged down in race. People do. But I’m here to remind you, in many different ways as I might, that these new generations are taking their imperatives seriously, and all of these ambitions are working at different speeds in different places all the time. I’m one of those who has had a marvelous career in Adams’ second generation, and it still inspires and fascinates me every day. Yet I will never forget, that in pyramid for civilization, that politics and war are still the very important foundation that always needs proper attention if we are to remain free.
So I write as a free man, giving some attention as is necessary to those parts of our society that lack as they do from time to time. I have some flavor and method to share about what I have done in my journey to substance and triumph. I’m in a class, a global class that has recently emerged with some spectacular results. I put serious focus on the prerogatives of class because so many people have confused flavor with method and substance. We stand at a point in our history when people are failing to distinguish the three, and I have some responsibility as a writer, to be a constant reminder that certain wishful thinking is not so. I am to do so with the hope that I not be a scold but something of an inspiration. I might even write a poem or two. You never know.
My class has class. It is open. It’s free. You need only bring your initiative, character, talents and ambitions. Join me.