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April 18, 2005

Return of the Bogard

This is for the [black male] youth.

What I can't do is undo what I've done. I can't go back before the age of 14 and be back in all black schools in the hood. I can't unlearn what I've learned. I can't suddenly put the fear of whitefolks back in my head, but I can try. Hanging with Lee helped remind me of all the distance I've travelled, of all the hard work that put me in my happy spot, doing what I never thought probable or even possible back in the day. So thinking about what I think is real for young black men today whose future is dicey, I'm going to come up with my best advice. For what it's worth. And I'm thinking in particular about some of my young cousins down south, whom I don't really know, but I'm just guessing.

As usual, I start with Baldwin.

All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact - this may sound very strange - you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.

Probably the hardest thing about being a young black man in America is that nobody believes anything you say or do that doesn't confirm some stereotype about black men. It's like you simply don't exist and nothing you say or do will make you seem real to people unless you add something typical at the end, nah mean? You don't have to say a word, and the cop thinks you're a suspect. But you can go to a job interview and talk all day about your real character and they still don't hear you. That's real. And guess what, it never ends. You are going to have to talk your way into every situation and keep reminding people honestly about what you are expecting, even if it sounds stupid - like damn, why do I keep having to explain this to you?

#1 Bogard
You have to Bogard. You have to talk your way in, even when you're not sure you have what it takes. You have to get into a situation where you can try and fail until you get it right. You have to let people believe that they're a little bit more responsible for your success than they actually are. After all, you're doing the work. But that's how people are a lot of times with black men. They don't believe we can do without their assistance because they can't just look at us and percieve our skills and potential. Bogarding means trading on your potential, never forgetting your potential, not being worried about hearing 'no', and never stopping pushing the envelope. As soon as you fail, and you will, you're going to hear the same old crap, and the moment you start to believe it, then you actually will be heading in that direction. There are 6 billion people on this planet. There are at least 1000 who have got your back and can help you. Find them. They're waiting to hear you.

#2. Listen and Learn
You're young, and you don't know anything. What you have going for you is energy, ambition, and nothing to lose. Therefore you need to soak up knowledge in every form that's related to your ambition. Be all about it. Get the magazine, watch the TV show. Read the books. Find the experts. Become a geek about it. Show your love for that thing, because this country is big enough for you to make your fortune in it, whatever it is. It's almost scary how much you can accomplish just by listening. You really have your whole life to learn it. That's why you follow your love.

#3 Get Out
Get out of your comfort zone. Get out of your old habits. Billions and billions of burgers have been sold at McDonalds, and everyone knows what's on the menu. But I bet that you order the same thing every time. Order a vanilla shake from McDonalds next time. I bet you never have. Watch a TV show you never watch. Buy a shirt you would never wear and see what happens. You are more flexible than you think. Listen to me, I sound like Morpheus. But it's true. You have to be able to think on your feet, because you already know the same stuff that's coming to you where you are. But the most important thing to do in this category is to travel. If you have a car, get a map point your finger at a place and drive there. Get out of your car and walk. Be there for a while.

I remember several years ago talking to brothers in Oakland who went to the Million Man March. One of them had never left Oakland in his entire life, he was in his 30s. They rented Ford Explorers, him and about 10 partners and drove clear across the country. He said that the trip was far more interesting than the destination. Why? Because he couldn't have, in a million years, guessed how people across the country would have treated him. He told me about stopping at a truck stop in Iowa and a conversation he got into with some white truck drivers, and he couldn't believe how easy and friendly the people were. But he needed that excuse, 'going to the MMM' to get him out of Oakland.

This is not about making friends with white truck drivers in Iowa, this is about expanding your social ability. Making friends is going to be one of the results. People trust people who feel they can handle them. And the only way to be able to handle all the strangeness about people is getting out with people different than yourself. I go to Baldwin again:

Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.

#4 Be Intimate
Everybody thinks they know who you are and what you're all about. You need to have imagination to get out of that. But you also need to be intimate with people. You have to let people into your sphere. That's difficult.

I hated people all up in my business. I liked handling my own business because almost nobody could give me what I needed. So why bother telling them about yourself? Because everybody knows somebody, and that somebody might be the key. So you should let people know what you're all about, even if you think they disrespect that, or can't help you in any way whatsoever. At the very least, you get associated with your ambition. It's better than the alternative which is they make up their own minds what you are all about without any real input from you. People talk. People can't shut up. Use that to your advantage.

#5 You Are Not The First Black Anything

And the cieling gets higher every day. What do you think blackfolks who've got it going on have been doing all this time? There are miles and miles of headroom. There is no place I've been and nothing I've studied where there haven't been blackfolks with great accomplishments. Anybody who tells you different just hasn't been out much. But you're still going to be outnumbered. That's neither here nor there. You are responsible to the people who are responsible to you. There is not a great big club out here waiting... well, there is the NBS Summit, but just take it for granted that the black race is doing just fine. You just need to get your hookup in order.

#6 Save.
Handle your money well. Get into a relationship with your bank today. Read everything possible about money and remember this. The best feeling in the world is walking through a mall and knowing you can afford anything in it that you want, but not buying one thing. Save your money. The only way to get money is to keep money. Buy savings bonds, and live low.

#7 Don't Doubt America
America is the country where things work. Whatever it is, if it's possible, then it's happening here somewhere. If it doesn't work in your neighborhood, then you're just in the wrong part of America. The fact that you can read this is proof. If you think you can fight with 'America' and win, you've got it all wrong. Lose that attitude because America is a lot bigger than you think. You'll find your place in it.

#8 Do Not Ignore Luck
You have to learn how to handle misfortune, and good fortune. That was hard for me to learn. I wasn't prepared to take advantage of any situation that wasn't completely in my control. Why? Because I assumed that the outcome would always be bad. I wasn't prepared to be surprised either way. In the end I would just end up mad because I couldn't take all the credit. But sometimes you just have to take the leap of faith.

#9 What Goes Around Comes Around
It's true. You will pay for your mistakes with people. You need to apologize and move on. Don't try to make your enemies pay. When you are actually powerful enough to do so, others will gladly do it for you. But until that point, you need to just collect your stuff and walk away. Don't give anybody a reason to do dirt to you, because you will be in delicate situations.

#10 Find Your Chillout Zone
You must find something you can do, on your own, that chills you out. You cannot depend on somebody else for that. You need to be able to get into your chillout zone when life throws you a knuckleball. For me, it changed. When I was in college, I ran. I could run for 10 miles and just leave the whole world behind. After that it was cycling. Then it was writing all my demons out on paper. But whatever it was, I knew I could come to that thing and find peace. Nobody had to come and restrain me, I didn't find myself on my knees like Usher begging for forgiveness for my own peace of mind. It had to come from within.

#11 Recognize
If you can get half of these things right, you have a good shot. But it won't change the perception of black men in America. So you have got to do a little to recognize others who have their heads on straight. And this is more than just a head nod in passing. It's affirmation of good work or a good deed. It's not paranoid, we brothers got to stick together when you know you or this other man is wrong. It's acknowledgement of achievement, not just survival. A black man can survive in jail. That doesn't mean anything. It's not just about living, it's about living right. It's about making a social space for doing good and keeping that space clean.

Men make choices and live with their choices. These are all tools that I think can help young black men keeping in mind the specific things I had to learn as a young black man. I come from a strong family, but these things still weren't obvious. But look at these lessons closely, see how universal they are?

Posted by mbowen at April 18, 2005 02:57 PM

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Just about what I tell my seed.

Posted by: DarkStar at April 18, 2005 06:17 PM

Black, White, Yellow or Green, damn fine advice.

Posted by: Dennis at April 19, 2005 11:24 AM

Thanks for this. I'm ready to make it into a poster and present it as a gift to my 13-year-old son.

Posted by: Kim Pearson at April 20, 2005 04:05 AM

and there we have it.

Posted by: Anonymous at April 20, 2005 05:47 AM

Great advice. I also think it is quite relevant for young African-American females.

Posted by: Ms. World at April 23, 2005 06:13 AM