Solitude: the Successful Black Man

There’s a plethora of educated, successful, hard-working family men who happen to be black, writes Jackie Summers. So why is it that no one sees them?

It is impossible for CK to enter a room inconspicuously.

At six feet four inches tall, he towers over most people. His expertly custom-tailored three-piece suit hides–but just barely–the kind of musculature that might make a panther jealous. If I didn’t know him personally, I might find him intimidating.

Fortunately for those who do know him, his imposing physical presence belies his gentle demeanor. At 33 years old, CK is happily married, with no children–yet. The warmth and intelligence behind his smile betray any hint of the menace the media has taught us to expect from a black man born and raised in the South Bronx, during the crack riddled 1980s.

You probably will never see CK in the stands at Fenway Park, despite him being a vociferous baseball fan. Partially, this is because if you’re born in the Bronx, you root for the Yankees; it’s mandatory. Attendance at day games is virtually impossible, as he’s an officer at a major financial institution. A dual-degree undergrad, night games are also unfeasible, at least until he completes his MBA in January of 2012.

Education has always been his pathway to success.

This is not to say that, at some point, like most boys, he didn’t think about playing professional sports. A naturally gifted athlete, his parents struggled to make sure there was always someone at home to help him finish his schoolwork–a prerequisite before going out to play. His mother worked days and his father worked nights to put and keep him in a private school, as the local high school–Stevenson, in the Soundview section of the Bronx–was infamous for (at the time) having one of the highest incidences of violence in the nation.

Sports was a reward, not an end-goal.

The same could be said for CK’s friends. Both publicly and privately schooled, his childhood cronies eschewed crack vials for bats and gloves and street corners for baseball diamonds. Associating with kids who–like himself–had parents who valued education over athletic achievement, helped him steer clear of people with nefarious intent.

With loving, hardworking parents, CK needed only to look across the dinner table for role models. He modeled his baseball game–but not his life–after Darryl Strawberry. One of the few people to play on championship teams for both the Mets and the Yankees, Strawberry’s prowess on the diamond could not be overlooked. His personal life, however, was unworthy of emulation. Darryl was plagued with drug and spousal abuse problems and their inherent legal issues, diminishing and shortening what might have otherwise been a Hall of Fame career. CK’s father made it clear to him: separate the person from the action. By all means, imitate his sports acumen, just not the lifestyle that came along with it.

If you ask CK, he doesn’t consider himself the exception to “the rule.” He knows a plethora of black men who–like himself–have never been incarcerated, are happily married and spiritually grounded. They’re not on drugs and don’t have scores of illegitimate children they don’t care for. They are successful family men: bankers, doctors, lawyers. He even has one friend who–after finishing his education–is expected to sign with the NFL. My question to CK then was: if you’re not an anomaly, if you know so many educated, successful, hard-working family men like yourself, why do I never see you represented in the media?”

CK shrugged his enormous shoulders. “Because” he sighed, “it doesn’t sell.”

♦◊♦

Let’s play a game. Name five black men with a net worth of over $100m. You’ve got ten seconds. Go.

Who’d you come up with? Jay-Z? P-Diddy? Shaquille O’Neal? Tiger Woods? Kanye West?

Now let’s play the same game, but with one minor qualification: Name five black men who aren’t professional athletes or entertainers, with a net worth of over $100m.

You’ve got ten seconds. Go.

Who’d you come up with this time? Alphonse Fletcher Jr.? Quinton Primo? Kenneth I. Chenault? R. Donahue Peebles? Ulysses Bridgeman, Jr.?

Congratulations if you recognize any of those names. Generally speaking they aren’t mentioned in “mainstream” media. If a rapper farts into the wind it makes the 11 o’clock news, but when’s the last time you heard an interview from the CEO of American Express?

You haven’t. Because it’s not sexy. He’s one of the wealthiest, most influential men in America. And yet, like CK, he’s invisible.

“People don’t pay to see a black man get their MBA” CK laments. “They pay to see someone put a ball through a hoop or over a fence, or to see a concert where someone preaches a licentious lifestyle. I don’t sell anything; my path doesn’t sell anything.”

Having spent the past two decades in advertising and publishing, respectively, I understand what he’s saying. Sex sells. Scandals sell. And if you’re trying to maintain race-based income disparity, it’s especially useful to sell the idea that black men are lazy, illiterate, and socially irresponsible. If your only exposure to people of another culture is how they’re portrayed in the media, it’s easy to believe that black men come in only two categories:

  1. hyper-aggressive physical phenomena, who are rewarded for their ability to entertain, be it as an athlete or performer, or
  2. hyper-aggressive, shiftless, thugs, with their pants sagging below their asses, who’ve decided that the former path is inaccessible, and so pursue criminal activity.

To be clear, the minstrel show that is professional sports should by no means be a gauge of the intelligence of anyone but the individual performer. The collegiate system makes hundreds of millions of dollars by selling tickets, merchandise, and viewing rights to their sporting events. At best, this is a modern day form of indentured servitude. The players–largely minorities–are entirely uncompensated, and aren’t truly required to educate themselves as to how to manage the money they might make, should they be among the 1% that actually turn professional–or how to provide for themselves should their careers end abruptly, as happens frequently.

Also, to be clear: the 1% of collegiate athletes who turn professional are not wealthy. As Chris Rock so aptly put, “Shaquille O’Neal is rich. The person who signs his paycheck, is wealthy.”

♦◊♦

None of this is to say, of course, that the fault is entirely the media’s. “You can’t claim you want to be judged on the content of your character” exclaims CK “and then feed into a stereotypes. You have to do your part to uplift.”

There’s accountability on the part of the individual. There’s responsible parenting. And there is the privilege of the media to choose to represent individuals that are actually worthy of imitation.

“My parents worked literally day and night to provide for my education” CK says. “I paid for my own school. I pledged Kappa Alpha Psi because their motto is: honorable achievement in every field of human endeavor. As an alumni, I give back to the community. I mentor youth and help them to see they have choices. I tell them it’s okay to admire athletes, but know that education is a far more viable road to success. I use myself as an example: I could have easily slipped into being a statistic, but I kept my nose clean; I didn’t give anyone a reason to arrest me. I tell the kids: edify yourself; if you’re going to choose a role model, pick an athlete that’s a Rhodes scholar.”

♦◊♦

 After he attains his MBA, CK is looking forward to completing his CFA certification, and then becoming a portfolio manager. In the very likely event that he becomes successful–by his own definition–both in a familial, spiritual and financial way, it’s still highly unlikely you’ll see him in the stands at Fenway–he still hates the Red Sox. He’s also likely to stay invisible, because the only people who see him–and men like him–are those that want to. In sports, we deify or vilify individuals based on personal performance. Maybe someday we will progress as a society to the point where we judge individuals based on their character, and not just their race.

Education is the best pathway to success, both for people trying to better themselves, and for the society that doesn’t acknowledge their existence.

© Jackie Summers 2011

photo: www.socialskills.tumblr.com

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About Jackie Summers

Jackie Summers is an author and entrepreneur. His blog F*cking in Brooklyn chronicles his quest to become a person worthy of love. His company, Jack From Brooklyn, Inc. houses his creative and entrepreneurial enterprises. Follow him on Twitter @jackfrombkln and friend him on Facebook

Comments

  1. The only two black men that I know quite well (one is a second cousin and the other is a close family friend) are university professors. Both are quite well-spoken, and for that they have been accused of “acting white” by some of the more stereotypical black people they’ve met. Particularly my second cousin, who has taught in the states. I have trouble understanding where the urge to verbally beat someone down or take away their race comes from when they attain success outside of what the media has deemed possible.

  2. I hear you…I am a 45 yo Asian-American female who looks more like 16…I constantly get incredulous comments on the local commuter train by older people who are amazed I can read the New York Times (I have been doing it since age 10!)….That said, don’t get mad…..just talk to people and have a conversation with them….it’s better than letting your blood boil…some people are just ignorant but if you can change one person’s limited perception of a certain type of person then more power to you…Sometimes being underestimated may be a good thing…for me, looking much younger than my real age is good for relating to teenagers and kids (since that is crucial to my particular profession)…You might be able to reach certain people that no one else has an in with….Make use of your unique qualities….

  3. Donna, that persecution comes from ignorance and jealousy.
    Certain people who lack experience and perspective have issue with anything outside their defined worldview.
    And depending on what area and culture in the U.S. that one deals with, the problems in the article and in your comment are very common.

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