Reach – Changing the Way We See Ourselves

Ben Jealous and Trabian Shorters, co-authors of Reach, brought their message of change to NYC speaking to a packed room of mostly professional black men. A wonderful sight to behold! Their book, Reach, highlights the stories of 40 black men on living, leading, and succeeding.  The goal is to change the way young black boys see themselves to inspire them to greatness. Panelists included: moderator John Seifert of Ogilvy, Dalila Wilson-Scott of JPMorgan Chase, Baratunde Thurston of Cultivated Wit, Kevin Clinkscales of REVOLT, and Brett Perkins of Comcast. Moderator John Seifert commented that although the book is geared towards young black boys, the stories are universal on how to create leadership for the millennial generation.

Co-author Trabian Shorters wants to change how not only young black boys see themselves, but we as African Americans view who we think we are. Benjamin Jealous stated that on the birth of his daughter, he wanted her to have the option of marrying a black man. However, statistics show that black women are more represented in college than black men. Upon the birth of his son, he was concerned because boys grow up to be what they see. Unfortunately, the images of black men and young black boys in America are negative. Images of professional, enterprising, and wealthy black men are rarely seen, let alone promoted. Jealous emphasized the importance of telling stories of how we as black people have changed our world, so that the younger generation of boys can change their world.

Kevin Clinkscales hit it home when he said that black men speak at least two languages. They speak the language of the corporate world that encompasses their jobs and the language of the streets, how they relate to their brothers. The problem arises when black men do not know how to switch between both languages seamlessly so as not to be conceived as the “angry black man.” The challenge is how to be black and navigate both worlds. His words reminded me of something W.E.B. DuBois said decades ago.

A black man would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.  He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.  He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.  – W.E.B. DuBois

Seifert stated that one theme he noticed in most of the stories was an entrepreneurial spirit. Ben Jealous said that entrepreneurship has always been part of the black community. He is tired of the “lazy” stigma used in reference to black people. What he sees in the neighborhoods he visits are people with 2-3 jobs. People getting their hustle on trying to make it in spite of the odds. Entrepreneurship is something that we as a people did since the Emancipation to survive in a Jim Crow, segregated, separate but equal society. He continued noting that the height of black entrepreneurship was in the 1920s. Black Wall Street and entrepreneurs thrived in Jim Crow oppression. When white businesses refused to service us, we created our own businesses. Jealous summed it up by stating that entrepreneurship is not new to us as a people. It was and is our survival skill. Unfortunately, as noted in one of our previous articles, Punishing Impunity & Judging Discretion, when black entrepreneurship proved successful during Jim Crow, too often those businesses where targeted and burnt down by those not happy with our success in the face of oppression.

To further cement the issue, Trabian Shorters said that there were statistics ten years ago that stated there were 100,000 black millionaires in America. Athletes and musicians only comprised 5,000 of that number. However, no one has talked about the other 95,000 black millionaire entrepreneurs. His seminal statement that he returned to throughout the evening, “Who do you think we are? Because the stories we tell create the lives we’ll live. Tell your children positive stories to inspire them to create the lives they want to live.” I remember when the Cosby Show first aired. So many black people said that it was not real. Middle class, upper middle class, and a black aristocracy exists in America. However, we deny its existence and warmly embrace ratchet reality television as the “truth” of black culture. One of our articles, Ferguson a Recipe for Disaster, mentioned a disturbing study that showed young black boys are viewed as older and therefore more culpable not only by law enforcement, but society at large. Young boys are being held to the standard of an adult simply because they are black. “Who do you think we are?” becomes a much deeper discussion when that study is thrown into the mix.

The message from Reach is similar to the mission statement of Mr. Refined, to change the story of the young urban professional man of color. It is possible to be refined and embrace your blackness while navigating corporate America. Someone said, “You do not know what you do not know.” If we do not know the stories of professional, successful, entrepreneurial black men, then we will believe the narrative that is streamed in the media that we are lazy, angry, and ratchet. The poet Countee Cullen said it best in the poem, Hey Black Child.

Hey Black Child
Do you know who you are
Who you really are
Do you know you can be
What you want to be
If you try to be
What you can be

Hey Black Child
Do you know where you are going
Where you’re really going
Do you know you can learn
What you want to learn
If you try to learn
What you can learn

Hey Black Child
Do you know you are strong
I mean really strong
Do you know you can do
What you want to do
If you try to do
What you can do

Hey Black Child
Be what you can be
Learn what you must learn
Do what you can do
And tomorrow your nation
Will be what you what it to be

Ronda Lee, JD

Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She's a blogger for the Huffington Post and you can follow her musings on her blog, Ronda-isms- Good Bad & Ugly. She has launched her own snack mix, Auntie Ronda's Snack Mix. Her goal is to get her books published.

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