By any objective measure, the two most successful and influential black men in the history of America are Barack Obama and Tiger Woods. As a practical matter, they are two of he most successful and influential men of any race, color or creed in the history of the world but our focus in this moment is more localized. Both of these men rose to the top of their respective fields in fantastic fashion and with astonishing speed. Even more impressive, they dominated their competition in areas where black men have historically been shut out of competing.
You can go back through the entire history of the nation and you could fit all of the PGA tour winning black golfers and black presidential candidates who have ever won a primary into one sport utility vehicle. Or maybe even a mid-sized sedan. Considering the fact that both of these men are current players on the world stage and have actually shared time and space together, it is worth asking what these two men have in common. Maybe there is some valuable intel for the rest of us black men dwelling in the land of mortals.
It is easy to see that both of these men worked their asses off to get where they are and that they are clearly members of the Talented Tenth of W.E.B. DuBois’ imagination. But there is an element to these men and the success that they have achieved that poses a difficult challenge to all black men in America. While both of these men are as black as any of the rest of us by the standard that this nation assigns race, neither of these men had a traditional black experience or black cultural imperative growing up. They were not raised in a black environment. Neither man was born to a black mother, but this is more about nurture than it is about nature in my assessment.
While it is obvious that these men are exceptional, it is also obvious that they entered the game of life unencumbered with the cultural dead weight that so many of us carry into the world.
What are the chances that Barack and Tiger were both trained on how to take care of their personal credit while growing up? Would you bet for or against the suggestion that Barack and Tiger were both trained on reproductive responsibility as teenagers? Any chance they faced ostracism for academic achievement or rejection over what brand of sneakers they came to school in? I do not mean to suggest that these men had a skate through their childhood and teenage years- far from it. Every young man has problems and challenges he has to face. But what kinds of problems and challenges you face can make all the difference in the world.
If a young man can solve his problems by applying the values of excellence in his work and preparation for responsible living he’s got a clear pathway for a bright future where he will be free to pursue his own visions, however grand they may be.
On the other hand, if a young man must solve his problems through his most base survival instincts such as violence and group conformity, he will have to overcome those coping mechanisms to get back on a path to full self-actualization. We really need to examine our culture if two black men can literally rocket to the top of the world strictly on their talents and against all odds but neither of them are products of an upbringing most of us can relate to. Whether we like it or not, it really does say something about our culture.
I acknowledge that there is room for disagreement on this subject but I am taking on this issue with both the benefit and the burden of first-hand knowledge. It would be hard for a young man to have a blacker experience than mine- growing up splitting time mainly between Detroit and Atlanta, always living in the beating heart of the urban center. I have an intimate knowledge of the black dominated environments that most brothers come from and the white dominated environments like the ones that both Barack and Tiger came from. To top it off I did an 18 month stint living in the white inner-suburbs of Philadelphia as a preteen where I heard “nigger” shouted at me from passing cars and buses about 17 times a day so the range of my black experience is pretty tough to top.
But when a lady friend of my father’s contacted a group of rich white folks in Boston and conveyed tales of my talents and test scores they decided to pay my tuition to any prep school in the country that I could gain admission to. Because of those people my world was expanded in a way that it took me many years to fully digest.
When I got to The Paideia School just outside of Atlanta, the world was literally turned upside down for me. All of the characteristics that had earned me the scorn of my classmates at my public high school on the south side of the city cast me in an entirely different light in this elite prep school. From day one at Paideia, I was something of a minor celebrity. They had some black folks there but not black like me. For the most part the black kids that already went there belonged to parents with a lot of money, political connections and some, even fame. So a REAL black guy like me was something of a novelty. My folks were professionals but not power brokers and believe me there is a difference.
By simply traveling 1 hour on the train and the bus, crossing from southwest Atlanta to the northeastern corner of the metro-area, I went from anathema to a bona fide success-symbol. I flourished in that environment- scholastically, socially and even athletically. I reached heights that were simply not reachable from the spaces and places that were prearranged for kids like me because, quite frankly, the jumping off point was just too damned low for my capabilities.
Nearly everything good that ever has happened to me as an adult has its root in that experience or at least is connected to it. Yet, while I learned to be at home in the culture of the established, mainstream and upwardly mobile white folks, I wasn’t OF the culture. But what if I had been of the culture- the way Barack and Tiger were? God only knows. But I do know one thing: so much of what I had gleaned from my experiences prior to that has pretty much proven to be of depreciating value- if any value at all. My scholastic capabilities boosted me up out of there, but the other hallmarks of the culture- things I picked up in order to fit in and in some cases survive stayed with me and eventually wound up weighing me down. And I doubt very seriously that this dynamic is unique to me.
Examples abound. I had a lot of fights growing up. Won my share, lost a few, but recall them all. I earned respect for my skills with my hands but I never did get that ass-kicking check from Chase Manhattan Bank in my mailbox. Not even for the fights when I was outnumbered.
Same goes for my experience with young ladies. There are much more colorful ways to put this but I’ll keep it clean and just say that I went through a period of sexual hyperactivity coming up. I was slow to the show but once I got there I was insatiable and unstoppable. Where many young men may have taken a pause for the cause with the scene below in front of them, I was diving in head first and staying down there as long as I could until I’d eventually have to come up for air. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I built some solid street credibility. No denying that.
But with all of that going on, still no check in the mailbox! Evidently, Wells Fargo and Bank of America were not particularly interested in or impressed by my sexual conquests. So the checks never came. And if ever there was a frightening street fable for you, it is this: four girls came to cheer for me as I graduated from prep school and over the course of that summer, three of them turned up pregnant as I sowed by wild oats. That’s pretty bad for any young man, but particularly for a prep-school graduate heading off to the University of Michigan who had all the reason in the world to know better. Perhaps the old saying bears repeating: you can take the kid out of the ‘hood but you can’t take the ‘hood out of the kid- SAT scores and grade point average be damned.
But I sincerely hope that is not the case- particularly considering the environment that young bloods are coming up in now. The world gives less of a damn about us now than it has at any point in my lifetime so we need to get our heads on straight and get our asses in gear. In case we missed the alarm that sounded on November 8th of 2016 it is game time and there are no more excuses. Our cultural commitment to niggerosity just has to go and we need to put something useful in its place- courtesy of Barack and Tiger. We need to dig a big hole somewhere deep into the desert and bury “nigga” in there, pour gasoline on it and set it on fire.
That assessment is rough but it’s fair: despite my raw intellectual skills and academic promise, my cultural imperatives impeded my path along the way. But let’s be clear about this fact: I am no victim of circumstance. None of us are. Same as everybody else, I own every mistake I ever made and could have made better choices that may have propelled me further on my road to whatever I identify as success. My career path has been impressive in its own right- far better than most of the guys I grew up with- but suffice it to say that I am not going to catch Tiger or Barack before my life’s race has been run.
But I’m cool with that because these guys kicked ass so good that no white dudes will ever catch them either and they won’t even come close. What makes me different from the white guys is I relate to these two men personally. I understand the path they walked to get where they are and what it might have cost the world had their path been too much like mine. That is the reason why my young son sounds a lot more like Tiger when he speaks than he sounds like me. He has never even been in a fight and despite his mother’s greatest fears Becky hasn’t introduced him to the joy of sex yet. And by my design, his environment is a lot more like Barack and Tiger’s than his father’s. So rather than waiting on a check that is never coming, he will be investing his energy where he will get real returns. The rest of us black men in America would be wise to do the same- while we still can.