The Hatemongers Call For Unity, And Why I Cannot…

This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – November 14, 2016

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Recently I was asked to recall the moment that I first encountered racism. How about this answer? The moment I was born. It has to be so, because I know that before I learned to keep my bike upright, I knew to stay away from white people. Because by the time that I began to lose my baby teeth, I knew who I shouldn’t stare at and where I could not walk. Because by the time I could remember having a substantive thought in my head, I already knew that the color of my skin could get me badly hurt or killed. So it must have been hereditary. In the blood. Because I never remember being without the affliction of race in my life.

However, it was different for my daughter and my son. My wife, Jeanne, who is white, and I purposely kept race out of the conversation because their lives didn’t depend on their being aware at such an early age. They spent their early years looking at a black father and white mother, running from one to the other without ever considering the difference. Without understanding the negatives that accompanied our marriage and their existence. It wasn’t until our daughter was in first grade that the specter of race entered her life. Jeanne and I met her on the school playground one day and a white classmate looked at her and at us and then said to her, “Oh, so that’s why you’re that color.” When our daughter seemed confused by what her friend meant, Jeanne gave her the first lesson in understanding her race. “You see,” she said. “If you take a cup of coffee like Daddy and cream like me and mix them together, you get you.”

We did not have our heads in the sand. We understood that sooner or later the monster would come from under the bed. We began to do what we could. We enrolled them in a school created specifically to teach black and white kids together. A school that was dedicated to the discussion of race and its impact on our society. Between school and home, we began the conversation in earnest. We taught them the worth of every human life. We used our love as an example of how the bridge to understanding could be crossed. We attempted to fill their lives with people who loved them for them, but we did not shelter them from the real world and the unfortunate curse of being brown.

And I am glad that we opened their eyes, because our son was prepared when after Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, he was accosted by an older white male and asked why he was in the neighborhood. Our neighborhood, that is. The one that my son had called home for all of his life. My son explained that he was in search of Skittles and iced tea. His would-be intimidator grunted and left him alone. And so what had been up until then micro-aggressions of racism had become bigotry – fully developed.

Our children marched and shouted in the streets of our cities and on campus after Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. They published their hurt and confusion about the inequities of race in America. And although they battled, they didn’t do so in vain. Or so it seemed. It looked like better times were on the horizon. A black man was still president. The nation seemed to be moving, though not without pain, toward freedom to marry whomever you chose, toward women being free to make their own choices regarding their bodies, and for families like ours to be represented throughout our media, becoming something less… different.

But then we elected Donald Trump.

For 18 months, he filled our lives with a kind of public bigotry that I hadn’t experienced since I was born into it. He became ground zero, the host for a sudden epidemic of bullying and racial vitriol that people seemed to take as funny until it was too late. Now, he is the president of the United States of America. And now that he is president, he and his surrogates are telling us that we have to come together with him. That we have to, I guess, forgive and forget. That we have to provide unity.

But my daughter is newly engaged and I think about her and any children that may come along. As people are attacked in the streets of our country for their religious beliefs, for being gay, for having a vagina and for being black, I now believe that it is quite possible that my grandchildren, like me, will be born infected by the plague of racial hatred. I don’t want this to happen. And so President-elect Trump, I cannot help you unify the country if it means the new normal is to be like the campaign environment that you created in your own image.

I cannot.

I will not join you in your racism.

I will not join you in your homophobia.

I will not join you in your misogyny.

I will not join you in your ethnic intolerance.

I will not join you in your anti-Semitism.

I will not join you in your mass deportation of people.

I cannot all of a sudden give approval to ideals that go against everything that I am and that I have taught my children. I will not change my soul for your unity. I cannot pretend that those who voted for you did so without the “-isms” in mind. I will not meet you in the hate-mongering world of Trumpland.

I will, however, join with any who believe in the strength of our nation’s diversity. I will join with those who believe in acts of kindness rather than mountains of hostility, degradation and self-glorification. I will meet with like minds at the phrase, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

 

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Here At Last, Here At Last. Thank God Almighty, It’s Here At Last. Visiting The New Home For Black History On The National Mall

This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – November 1, 2016

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I am standing on the National Mall where the ancestry of my people has built a home. The National Museum of African American History and Culture rises, gracious and majestic before me. As I move toward the doors, I can’t help reflecting upon the fact I am in the land of the free and the brave which is at the moment burdened by and shrouded in the specter of unadulterated bigotry, hatred and intolerance. Even so, and strangely enough to some, I find my safe zone and I smile. As an African American son of the south, I am practiced at living the best I can amid such contempt.

But it is finally here. After all the years of raising two children in this city, trying to help them find themselves in the treasured museums of the Smithsonian, it is here. Not a museum about Africa or piecemeal exhibits about us. But something full, real and as complete as a good Sunday supper. Once inside, I am stunned by this building and all that it holds. It’s like someone laid out the strands of my DNA all around me. I think about what this building would have meant to me as a child.

I follow along with my wife, Jeanne, and our friends Dabney and Joe. Joe’s company has created several of the films on display and many of the interactive exhibits. He knows his way around and we follow our personal docent. And there is so much to see. Some pleasing. Much of it painful. Somewhere between Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and Emmett Till’s coffin, I get filled up. Somewhere between the shackles of shameful bondage and a display celebrating our first family, I get proud. At the end of one hallway, Muhammad Ali is shouting, “I shook up the world!”

At one point, we pass a group of people standing by a window, pointing outside toward the stage and grounds where the opening ceremonies took place. For a moment, I think that would have been nice, but then I change my mind. After decades in the journalism business, I have learned to look beyond the obvious. I think that while the celebrities and the president helped to bring appropriate attention to the creation and opening of this museum, the real story was unveiling itself before me in the eyes of the regular folk making their way through the exhibits.

There, on the ramp, an old man in a wheel chair is being pushed by a loved one. The ramp is crowded but he doesn’t notice. He has on a ball cap with what looks to be some kind of faded military emblem on it. He stares up at the training plane once flown by Tuskegee Airmen, hanging high above him. Maybe the look on his face is full of memories. Maybe just full of being so close to the men who fought for the chance to fly and fight for their country. A country that did not welcome them home. As he’s pushed closer to me, I have the urge to reach out and touch his hand. I want to just smile at him and share the moment, but in the end, I decide not to disturb him. Somehow, I don’t feel worthy.

Joe stops before one of the films he’s made. It’s a massive work projected on a wall across from the landing on which we stand. The video is impacted by the graininess of the cement wall. Like wrinkles on a face, adding depth and texture to the heroes on display. As pictures dissolve from one to another I overhear two women standing close to me, loudly and proudly identifying the people represented. I think they are together until one leaves and the other stays behind, speaking aloud to herself the names of people like James Baldwin, Fredrick Douglass, and more. Finally, she gets to Sojourner Truth. And when she says the name her voice cracks. I can’t look at her. It’s enough to feel what’s in the sound of her voice. Sista to Sista. Across time.

Finally, we end up in a room looking at a film in 360 degrees. All around me black people are huge and living their lives amid the contempt. And it isn’t just famous people but everyday people doing everyday things. People who look amazing and exceptionally powerful. They just look bold, confident and free. Finally, I am overcome. I say, “I have never seen us – black people – on a scale like this. I don’t know how to put it, except to say it’s like our Mt. Rushmore.” I try to explain it better by asking them to imagine people, from another planet even, who didn’t know our country or its history. I imagine that after seeing this museum and this film they would walk outside and see a rich and proud people and point at us in awe. They would never expect a people like that could be shot down unarmed in a city street.

I look at Dabney, who is white, to see if she understands. She puts her hand on my arm and tells me that she understands slavery and its legacy. She understands the unfairness of systemic racism. She knows it wrong. She feels like she understands the importance of the museum. Still she says, “Jeffrey, I could never see or feel what you are explaining to me now. I couldn’t have reached what you are feeling right now. That’s why I’m glad I’m here with you today.”

In the cab, I’m still thinking about the visit. I’m thinking about the absolute sea of black faces which makes me smile. I’m thinking about the black woman who collided with Dabney in the movement of the crowd. They both reached out, holding onto each other’s arms, steadying each other, laughing and chatting for a quick moment. A vision of hope in the company of slavery’s pain. And exactly the image I want to carry in my heart to remember the day that I entered my people’s home on the National Mall.

Hey, WNBA! What’s a guy gotta do to get a Diana Taurasi jersey?

This essay was first published on Medium.com – September 4, 2016

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I discovered Diana Taurasi in her second season at the University of Connecticut. I am not a person who believes that an athlete should be labeled a hero or proclaimed a role model simply because she has mastered the craft of her sport. However, I wholeheartedly appreciate the fierce competitiveness, the smarts, the power, and the grace of a world class athlete. I became a dedicated Taurasi fan after just one game.

My daughter, Julia, was eleven years old and looking for a sport to fulfill her middle school athletic requirement. So I invited her to watch a UConn game and, like me, she was hooked. Although she would go on to play volleyball through high school, we remained fans of Taurasi. When DT turned pro, Julia quickly requested and received her very own Taurasi Phoenix Mercury jersey which she wore proudly. When the Mercury flew into DC to play the Mystics, we went to see Taurasi play. Watching this amazing athlete made for some wonderful father-daughter moments.

During the first week of the Rio Olympics, I got a text from Julia, who is now 26 and living on her own. She asked if I was watching the US women’s basketball team. I was and we shared some thoughts about the game. She then asked if I had any pictures of “little Julia” in her Taurasi jersey. “I would totally tweet it at her.” I promised to look.

In the meantime, I began to think about all of the time I’d spent being a fan. It might be pretty cool if I got my own Taurasi jersey. Julia and I could get a shot of the two of us in our jerseys to tweet. But that’s when the problem began.

I went to the WNBA website, credit card in hand, to buy my jersey. But I couldn’t. There were no jerseys available for men. This couldn’t be. I went directly to the Mercury site which led me back to the WNBA. Could it be that the WNBA didn’t believe their sport and players were credible enough to be worthy of marketing them to a male audience? To be fair, there were hoodies and t-shirts but they have to know that none of those items rise to the level of wearing the jersey of your favorite player.

For comparison’s sake, I went to NBA.com. There I found an entire section where women could buy the jerseys of many male stars.

I tried a different sport. At DallasCowboys.com I found merchandise for women. Not only did they have jerseys for the women, they had them especially cut for the female figure.

I found this all incredibly disappointing, but I had one more avenue to try.

The US women’s basketball team, led by Taurasi, was handling its competition with relative ease. They were a team of superstars and surely TeamUSA.org would have their jerseys on sale — even for men. But I am sad to say that they didn’t.

But the more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that this was in the category of more of the same. The same sexism. The same minimizing of the female athlete and her accomplishments. My jersey issue is surely the bottom rung of a skyscraper height ladder of disrespect. Maybe this is why NBA players sign contracts that take our breath away while Taurasi and her teammate Brittney Griner end up in Russia during the WNBA offseason playing for real money. Maybe this is why NBA star Derrick Rose’s wearing of a t-shirt with the words “I can’t breathe”, in support of African-American Eric Garner who died in police custody, brought a mild refresher about the dress code, but also respect from the commissioner. However, when WNBA players wore plain black shirts during the warm up period to raise awareness about rising tensions between some African-Americans and police, they were quickly fined. The players publicly questioned the discrepancy and stood their ground. Said fines were eventually withdrawn, but wait…not until after NBA star Carmelo Anthony joined the chorus of protests, publicly stating his support for the women.

Since I didn’t have Carmelo to run interference for me, I decided to call the WNBA and raise the issue. On August 18, I spoke with a press officer who seemed genuinely taken aback by my question of why there were no jerseys available for men. She responded by stating that I was raising “a valid question.” She promised to get back to me with an answer.

Three days later, the website had been changed. The label “women’s jersey” had been removed. Now there was no label, leading one to think that what was a women’s jersey three days ago was supposed to be, I guess, unisex. There was even a men’s section in which the same unisex jerseys were copied and pasted, but they don’t look like any jersey I’ve ever seen a male wearing. That section has since been removed. I suppose there’s some progress here and I should be satisfied, but I’m not. This was a hasty and not very smooth or permanent fix to a problem that is deeper than the jerseys and they know it. The WNBA should believe that its players are worthy of being marketed to both men and women. It seems a gross failure to ignore the huge male sports market. Maybe they don’t think any self-respecting guy would lower himself enough to put a female athlete’s name on his back. Maybe they’re wrong. I want to support the WNBA and its amazing players and I want my Diana Taurasi jersey.

A Common Man

Daddy & Me

Many years ago, I asked my father to save my life, though at the time I didn’t understand what I was asking or what his response would mean for the rest of my life. I still dream about it today. I am very young. I stand in the kitchen and the sunlight streaming through the screen door is so bright that it hurts my eyes. But before I can turn away, the door opens and a figure begins to fill the doorway without introduction or a knock on the door. I know where everyone in my family is at this moment, and even in a less safety conscious, early 60’s Smithfield, I know something very wrong is happening. I run. I run for my father. In my dreams, I hear myself call out in a voice trembling with fear. “Daddy,” I yell. “Somebody is coming in the house.”

He was reading the paper on his bed. He never asked me what I saw. I guess he could just see the fear in my eyes. He rose from the bed, the paper falling next to my mother as he moved with purpose and speed. I saw that his face showed no hesitation…no fear. He brushed by me, his hand landing softly on my shoulder, as he passed by me to meet the unknown.

These days, I often wake up after that dream. I think about the meaning of that moment in time. How basically, I challenged my father. I asked him to show me how much I meant to him. I asked him if he would endanger his life to save mine. I asked him to show me how much he loved me. I asked him to save my life. Even though the threat was not to be a real one, he proved everything to me that day. Even if I was too young to really understand it.

Now that I’ve lived a few years and witnessed life on my own, I realize that not everyone is as lucky as my brothers and me. Not every father steps up to the plate like mine did.

When he would come home from a hard day of tending the farm and I would want him to help me fix my bike, I asked him to show me how much I meant to him. Don’t you know as tired as he was, he helped me fix the bike? Every time we asked him to do homework with us, when we knew there were a thousand other things that needed to be done, we wanted to know how much we meant to him. Don’t you know he always did the homework? When he had worked hard all year long and he had his three weeks of vacation coming and we asked him to take it all with us – to drive us here and there and do what we wanted, we asked him to show that he loved us. Don’t you know that he always took his vacation to be with us? When he didn’t have to, he added working/surviving in the meat packing plant to his life as a farmer to give us a better life and prepare to send us to college. We asked him to go to this place where I would later find out, people regularly were injured and lost body parts, got strange sicknesses like hog fever and over time, simply broke down mentally and physically. We asked him if he would endanger his life for our future. Don’t you know he went to work there every day and saw all three of us through college? He stretched himself physically, emotionally and financially for his sons. But in the end it wasn’t the things he did with us or for us that made the biggest difference. His greatest influence on our lives was a quiet one. It was just in how he lived. It was about strength of character, dedication, work ethic, treatment of your fellow man, common decency and finally and most importantly, it was about the ability to dream that even in the shadow of Jim Crow we could all be something special in this life. By the time I reached my teens, I knew the dream was possible because he had already achieved it. On an overnight at my grandparents, in a room he slept in as a child, I lay in the dark talking to two of my cousins. One of them talked at length about his life and at some point got around to his father…or the lack thereof. He said to me, “Man, you’re lucky. You’ve got Uncle Ed. I wish he was my father.” Or when I would be introduced to someone and they would say with a certain tone, “This is one of Edward Blount’s sons.”

I would be so proud and I knew how special you had become in your own life. How could the three of us lose with your example, with other people wishing you were theirs to tuck them in at night?

A common man – of uncommon grace.
A common man – of uncommon dignity.
A common man – of uncommon strength.
A common man – with an uncommon ability to love.
A common man – of uncommon faith.
A common man – of uncommon devotion to family.

I have found myself in many places that a farm boy should rightly never expect to be. And I have met many men that I would have never expected to meet. Powerful and famous with worldly influence. Role models to many. But in my life, I have had only one role model as a man, a husband and a father. He is, in my opinion, the greatest man I have ever known. And my brothers and I are lucky because we get to call him….Daddy.

Happy 90th Birthday, Daddy from the 7 year-old you saved so long ago and the 56 year-old who is proudly walking the road you have already paved.

With love.
-Jeffrey

“We are only as blind as we want to be.”

Black NFL players’ silence is complicit in keeping team’s racist name

 This essay was printed and published first by The Grio.com on April 7, 2016

When the news broke that Robert Griffin III had been drafted by the Washington Reds***s, I was elated. My good humor, however, had nothing to do with how many times he might lead his team to victory on the gridiron. He was a first class athlete, a media star and the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. He signed a four year $21-million-dollar contract, $13 million of that guaranteed. He rolled into DC on a tidal wave of positive PR as the new face of this storied franchise. All of this, I knew, brought him serious clout; great power and respect on and off the field. I hoped he was ready to use it.

Like many African-Americans of my generation and before, I have never been a fan of the team. During my youth, it was well known as the last NFL team to integrate its roster. The owner, George Preston Marshall, famously stated, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” The team was so resistant to having blacks on the field that in the end, it took the threat of eviction from D.C Stadium by the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to force the much needed change. Mostly because of this history, I carried my dislike of the team into adulthood. Many of my football watching brethren have tried over the years to get me to move past this issue, pointing out the fact that the majority of the team was now made up of African-Americans. Point taken, but my concern was never about how many African-Americans were on the team. It was that racism has always been and still is a major part of this team’s identity. In fact, it was stitched into the very fabric of the burgundy and gold. It was in the logo. It was in the very name. Now, it’s in owner Daniel Snyder’s refusal to change that name. And black players, coaches and staff are, in my opinion, complicit in this legacy of bigotry. They are a part of the willful and malicious denial of the fact that they have been helping to build an organization and making themselves rich/wealthy while ignoring the damage being done to an entire race of people.

This is why I’d put such hope in the idea that when confronted by media about the team’s racist name, Reds***s, RG III, who had very little to lose, would stand up and say that the team’s name, logo and mascot should be changed. But he didn’t. He said, “When it comes to those conversations, it’s just not the time.”

When I heard that answer, I was deeply, deeply disappointed. RG III sounded like many white people in the south during the Civil Rights Movement. The ones who kept saying that black people needed slow down, be patient and understand that these things take time. I wanted to send a letter to RG III, inscribed within, a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Now, through shameful inaction, a black man with power was a major player in justice delayed. In fact, so were his teammates. In fact, so were all the African-American ticket holders and fans all around the country who constantly found artful ways to deny the fact that the name is demeaning to Native Americans. In fact, so were those who were not friends of the team, yet stood by and watched in silence. That would include me. But this is what I’ve come to learn.

“Native youth experience the highest rates of suicide among young people. With studies showing that negative stereotypes and harmful “Indian” sports mascots are known to play a role in exacerbating racial inequality and perpetuating feelings of inadequacy among Native youth, it is vital that all institutions – including professional sports franchises- re-evaluate their role in capitalizing on these stereotypes.” -Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports…

Dr. King, Jr. wasn’t just talking about African-Americans when he declared that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But somehow it’s okay not to care about the plight of the First Americans. We say, well some “Indians” don’t mind. Some like it. Well, some black people didn’t like the Civil Rights Movement. But they couldn’t stop the rising tide of what was right. We didn’t allow inhumanity to win then and we shouldn’t allow it to win now.

Some say, “I’m part Native American and it doesn’t bother me”, ignoring the fact that they’ve lived an entire life as another race with no real desire or ability to see and feel life through the prism of Native people.

We are African-Americans. The descendants of 400 hundred years of slavery and injustice in this land. Almost every day, we are reminded of this fact. And every day, somewhere, we fight back individually and through the organization of groups bent upon securing racial equality for our people. This is an honorable and just fight. We know the pain of justice denied and its ramifications. We know the power of caricature and stereotype to wound and diminish. Truthfully, what people knows better than us? So why do we participate in perpetuating the Jim Crow-ism of another people? Are we now the bigots?

In my opinion, Daniel Snyder is on par with former Alabama Governor George Wallace. And like Wallace, he is standing – blocking the doorway to social justice and with a loathsome passion, he is declaring something akin to Wallace’s “…segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Let’s not stand with Snyder when he says he will never change the team’s name. Let’s stand for a people trying to say treat us with dignity and respect. To the players, I say listen to those who have come before you.Sure they should have said something when they played, but they are speaking now.

“[If] Native Americans feel like Reds***s or the Chiefs or [another] name is offensive to them, then who are we to say to them, ‘No, it’s not?’” – Art Monk

“It deserves and warrants conversation because somebody is saying, ‘Hey, this offends me,’ and then you have a conversation.” – Darrell Green

Years ago, one of my friends asked me why I wanted black men to take a stand and risk their livelihoods. After all, they fought hard to get to the NFL. They could be throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime. Back then, I guessed that we were fresh out of athletes like Muhammad Ali. If I was having the conversation today, I would point to a group of young men at the University of Missouri. In 2015, when racism, sexism and homophobia raised their ugly heads on campus, the school’s football team refused to take the field. Because it was the right thing to do, they were willing to risk the season and in many cases, their future careers. The men who play for Dan Snyder and the fans of his team should do no less.

Dr. King Jr. also said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I wonder. Do we think he meant that it bends only for us?

The title of this essay is a quote from Maya Angelou

The Father of My Country was a Slave

This essay was first published and printed by the Washington Post on February 14, 2016

Today is President’s Day. Through ceremony and remembrance, we celebrate our commanders in chief with a particular emphasis on the first, George Washington. Most Americans refer to him as the father of our country, but not me. The father of my country was a slave. I may not know his name, but I feel him. I do not know the plantation on which he labored beyond reason, hope and dignity, but I am with him there. His contributions are substantial but they are buried. But I have a shovel, and I dig.

The earth I turn is rich, moist from tears. It easily gives way, as if weary from covering up the innumerable stories of the unheard.

After the father of my country made cotton king, he was promised 40 acres and a mule. After all, his drudgery accounted for more than half of his nation’s exports and built the northern textile industry, U.S. banking and an extraordinary portion of the British economy. Who has his land? Where are his mules?

Eight U.S. presidents went to Harvard. Five went to Yale. The schools educated 21 Supreme Court justices. The father of my country helped make that all possible. Profits off my father’s life of unyielding toil funded Harvard Law School’s first endowed chair. Profits from the trading of his and other precious human lives helped found Yale University and provided for the first scholarship there and the construction of the university’s library. A continued sizable portion of our nation’s brain trust is groomed for leadership at the expense of the father of my country.

I live in our nation’s capital. So did the father of my country. He worked without any choice in the quarries near the city, digging stone and hauling it, carrying the lumber that would be fashioned into the great symbols of our nation. The father of my country represented half of the workforce that built the Capitol and the White House. He was not paid, but his owner was. I look up at the statue atop the Capitol’s grand dome, and I think about Philip Reid, the slave who helped to create it. The figure is called Freedom. Such ironies are never lost on the father of my country.

The father of my country is man and woman, field hand and mammy. The father of my country has many names. Most of these names we will never know. But I am proud of the ones — Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs and others — that we do. Turner and the Sons of Liberty fought for the same thing, did they not? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom.

The father of my country was not a slave owner. He did not name someone else’s child, or rape or maim without conscience. He did not sell lives. He built a nation.
I love my country and, like my father before me, I would put on a uniform and defend her if necessary. Still, like the father of my country, I am not blind.

The First of His Kind

Several years ago, I stood before a group of high school juniors and seniors, all of whom were African-American. I watched as their school counselor introduced me, reading from a bio which I had provided. And although this was a professional visit, I’d handed in a very personal bio which included mini bios of my parents and my two older brothers. I felt that if I told them my whole story, it would convince them that humble beginnings did not have to derail dreams of success. I was there as a black professional with the goal of impressing upon my young audience the idea that success was a tangible achievement and that, in my opinion, it all began with an education which had the potential to open the doors to many satisfying careers.

The counselor finished his introduction and the kids looked in my direction, immediately sizing me up, merging me the person with the boy and man in my biography. I stepped forward smiling, my first bullet point to hit rattling around in my head. However, I was beaten to the punch. A young woman spoke up. She said angrily, That story can’t be true. I, frankly, was stunned and it showed in my sudden inability to move or speak. When I didn’t respond in due time, she continued to make her point crystal clear by saying, You lie!

But I didn’t lie.

As a family, my branch of the Blount tree, came of age late in the spring of 1978, crossing the Rubicon into a world of respect we never imagined. I was eighteen and sitting in an elegant and historic room at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. As a young black male, I was in awe of the situation and nervous about being with all of these highly educated white people in this incredible room at the second oldest college in the United States. We were the only black people in attendance. I felt small and ashamed of feeling that way all at the same time, turning constantly toward my parents and my oldest brother for moral support.

From the row in front of us, a white woman kept half turning, quickly stealing disbelieving and even angry glances at us, which didn’t help to ease my discomfort. Maybe she thought I was the help and that I’d brought along my family to celebrate the child I took care of, my mother later considered. What we did know for sure, based upon our many combined years of professional blackness, was that she was highly offended at our presence. How could these _____ (you fill in the blank), show up and stain this day in my life?

My father, R. Edward Blount, was a small farmer, born and raised in Smithfield, Virginia. He was the oldest of eleven children, growing up in the heat of Jim Crow, surviving in the American south. He was smart and eventually entered historically black, Virginia State University with dreams of becoming a dentist. However, a farming accident involving his father required that he leave after a year to come home and help work the family farm. His dreams of advanced education were dashed, quickly becoming a distant longing.

Although my mother’s family’s roots were also in Smithfield, Doris Delk Blount, was a city girl, having grown up in Philadelphia. She too was an excellent student, but college was not in her future either. She went directly to work, helping to take care of herself and her mother who worked as the help for several different wealthy families.

In the great migration, much of the Blount family and Delk family moved to Philadelphia. My father would often drive his mother north to see her sisters. On one such trip he met 19 year old Doris Delk. Two years later, they would marry and she would leave the city to move to the very rural farmland of Smithfield where they would have three boys and make a promise to each other. Their children would have the education that had eluded them; the education they knew in their hearts was the key to the promise of many unaccustomed accomplishments.

My father worked the land. My mother worked our minds. She took a job as a teacher in a church run kindergarten where she and her friend, Mary Ford, felt it was their duty to prepare African-American children for a changing world. They taught with patience, love and a firm belief in the extraordinary capabilities of their students. They demanded that their students believe the same and we did. Even at that young age. We worked. We wrote; we did math; we had history lessons and most of us left there already knowing how to read when we walked into our first grade classrooms. Teachers at the segregated, public, elementary schools coveted the graduates of The Martha James Memorial Kindergarten.

At home, my brothers and I went to school as well. My parents went over our lessons of the day. They made sure we did our homework and stepped in to guide us when necessary. What they felt the curriculum lacked, they made up for at home. They also made sure we helped each other, though I was mostly the recipient as I was the youngest. This shared work ethic became a part of who we were as a family and my parents consistently led the way, at every turn letting us know that they were in this game with us. They worked at our elementary school whenever they could; my father eventually becoming president of the PTA. They went to every parent-teacher conference; they raised money and their hands whenever something needed to be done. They lived this dream of education and my brothers and I fed off of it, becoming excellent students and unfaltering advocates for each other. On the eve of the final exam in my physics class, my brother Richard came home from college just to help drill me and my best friends in the subject that he had come to love. And when our mother decided to go back to school, we rallied around her and when it looked like this whole education thing might be too expensive, my father went to work at one of the meat packing plants to supplement the family income. How could we not believe? When Richard was a senior in high school a fellow classmate asked him if he were going to college. Richard, who had never pondered such a question, responded almost innocently, You mean there’s another choice?

Not in our home.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is the oldest and most venerated academic honor society in the United States. It dates back to 1776, its first chapter created on the campus of The College of William and Mary, which is where my mother, father, oldest brother and I sat on that day in the spring of 1978. This particular gathering was to celebrate the new members from that year’s class. When the doors opened and the honor graduates walked through them, my middle brother, Brian, led the way. I tried but I could not see the look on the face of the woman who sat in front of us. She was no longer stealing glances. To this day, I still wish I could have seen what the vision of my brother, at the head of all the white students, did to her.

Brian was the only black William & Mary student in the room that day. It was an extraordinary moment when we stood with two of the Society’s officers and one smiled as he said the words, We want you to know that Brian is the first of his kind in the history of the college to receive this honor. Even though he didn’t seem to know how to refer to us, which created a little awkwardness, they chatted amiably, shook all of our hands and at that moment, at least in that room, we were looked upon as a family of intellectual equals. None of us ever looked back. Brian’s achievement instantly provided me with a determined confidence to continue my dreams of success in college and beyond.

Richard, an exceptional student, had graduated the year before from Old Dominion University with a degree in Physics. He would become a nuclear engineer and eventually Site Vice President of the Surry Nuclear Power Plant. At one point in time, he was the only African-American in charge of and running a nuclear power plant in the United States.

Brian became a world-renowned religious scholar with 15 published books to his name. His title, Revelation: A Commentary, was named by The Academy of Parish Clergy as the best reference book of 2009. His most recent, Invasion of the Dead, was included in the Academy of Parish Clergy’s Top 10 Books for 2014. He is now presiding as the first African-American President of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. Years later, when my daughter visited William and Mary as a prospective student, she would find his name and its historical significance on a brochure and swell with pride.

And then there is me. On that day back in 1978, I was a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, boosted by an academic scholarship from one of Smithfield’s meat packing companies. I would go on to become an Emmy award-winning television director and like my brother, an award-winning author. At one time I was the only African-American director at all of NBC News. I am happy to say that is no longer the case.

Many years after that remarkable day, just after helping my daughter, Julia, get settled in her freshman dorm, I took a walk. I found a quiet place where I could call home. My mother answered the phone. I said, Mama, you know where I am right now? I am standing on the grounds of Princeton University. After all the years of hard work you two put in. After staying the course. After fighting so hard for that dream, you have made it to the Ivy League. You both did this. She would not be here were it not for you.

She cried. And so did I.

I did finally respond to the young woman who questioned our story. I was saddened by the fact that she believed it impossible for one African-American family to produce three successful children. I offered her proof. Luckily, they’d put me in a classroom with a computer so that I could have them Google my brother Brian, because in my heart of hearts, on that fateful day in that splendid room at William and Mary, he made my parents’ dream real for me, he gave me hope, and he brought to life something my parents had always said. No one is better than you. No one is smarter than you, no matter what their color might be. Go out there and prove it.

It is the truth that we did, I told the students. It is also the truth that you can.