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When I was growing up in the fifties, I could never have imagined that one of Harvard’s most respected departments would be a Department of Afro-American Studies and that twenty professors would be teaching here at the turn of the century. Our experience at Harvard is just one instance of a much larger phenomenon. Since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, individual African Americans have earned positions higher within white society than any person black or white could have dreamed possible in the segregated 1950s. And this is true in national and local government, in the military and in business, in medicine and education, on TV and in film. Virtually anywhere you look in America today, you’ll find black people. Not enough black people, but who can deny that progress has been made? In fact, since 1968, the black middle class has tripled, as measured by the percentage of families earning $50,000 or more. At the same time-and this is the kicker-the percentage of black children who live at or below the poverty line is almost 35 percent, just about what it was on the day that Dr. King was killed.
Since 1968, then, two distinct classes have emerged within Black America: a black middle class with “white money,” as my mother used to say, and what some would argue is a self-perpetuating, static black underclass. Is this what the Civil Rights Movement was all about? Can we ever bridge this black class divide?
What does the success of this expanding middle class-W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth, the college-educated black person, even now only 17 percent of all black Americans-mean for the progress of our people? Is this economic ascent the ultimate realization of Dr. King’s “dream” of integration?.How do we continue to expand the size of the middle class? And most scary of all, is this class divide permanent, a way of life that will never be altered? Writing in the New York Times on May 31, 2003, Jack Bass, author of Unlikely Heroes: Southern Federal Judges and Civil Rights, quoted from an interview with John Minor Wisdom, “the legendary jurist and scholar,” which Bass had conducted just four months before the judge’s death at the age of ninety-three in 1999: “He told me he was uncertain which was more important,” Bass wrote: “how far blacks have come in overcoming discrimination, or ‘how far they still have to go.'” This question arose in another form in an amusing, signifying interplay between the titles of William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and Cornel West’s best-selling Race Matters (1993). There can be no doubt that “race” is far less important as a factor affecting economic success for our generation than it was for any previous generation of African Americans in this country. Still, there can be little doubt that the fact of one’s blackness remains the hallmark of our various identities in a country whose wealth, to a large extent, was constructed on race-based slavery, followed by a full century of de jure segregation and discrimination in every major aspect of a black citizen’s social, economic, and political existence.
I decided to talk with some of the most remarkably successful African Americans of our generation who-because of opportunities created to one degree or another by affirmative action-have been enabled to excel in positions of authority that our antecedents could scarcely have dreamed of occupying, or even aspiring to hold. Had they become the Putney Swopes of our generation? I could think of no place more appropriate to begin than at the offices of the U.S. secretary of state, General Colin Powell.
Since 1963, we’ve had seventy-five black congressmen and congresswomen, two U.S. senators, a whole slew of mayors, and two Supreme Court justices, but only in the last few years have we penetrated the heart of executive political power in Washington. Just a generation ago, the idea of a black president was a joke we’d tell in barbershops. We figured that a black man could be king of England before he’d be elected president of the United States! Yet today one of the most important political figures in the world is a black man, a man fourth in line to the presidency. Many people think that he would have easily defeated Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
General Colin Powell grew up in the Bronx, the son of working-class Jamaican immigrants. He joined the army after college and saw combat in Vietnam. Like many of us, his career benefited enormously from affirmative action. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a five-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He commanded our troops in Desert Storm. As national security adviser to two presidents and now as secretary of state, General Powell is the most powerful black person in the history of the American government and is one of the most powerful people in the world.
I asked Powell if race had been a hindrance to his career path, or even to his aspirations. He replied, “I was raised in a family that never felt constrained by their poverty or by their race … And I was raised in a community that had blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans … a melting pot of the New York City environment. So I never really knew I was supposed to feel in some way constrained by being an inner-city, public school black kid, the son of immigrants. I just went into the army and I found an organization that said, no, no, no, we’ve changed, we’re ahead of the rest of the society. We don’t care if you’re black or blue, we only care if you’re a good green soldier. And if you do your best, you watch, you’ll be recognized. If you don’t do your best, you’ll be punished. And I started out as a black lieutenant but I became a general who was black.”
I asked him if his position as secretary of state had made his race a nonissue, had, in effect, allowed him to transcend his racial identity. “When you walk into a room,” I wondered, “if you go to Asia or the Middle East, do the people you deal with still see a black man first, before they see you as the secretary of state?”
“Yeah, sure, but they also see the American secretary of state and they know that I’m not coming to them as a black man; I’m coming to them as a representative of the American people, as a representative of the president of the United States. I represent all the values of this country and the power of this country, its military power, its economic power and political power. Once they sit down and get past whatever color I am, they want to do business.”
I asked Powell what he thought was the responsibility of those of us within the African-American community who have made it to those left behind, an issue that still plagues my friends and that especially worries me. “I want to continue to be a role model for the kids in the neighborhood I grew up in, and for other youngsters in America,” he said. “Not just a black role model in that stereotypical sense, but an example of what you can achieve if you are willing to work for it. And second, those of us in the African-American community who have been successful financially ought to give some of it back to the community. You can do it through scholarships, through donations, through mentoring, through adopting or sponsoring a school. There are lots of ways to do it, and everything I’ve just mentioned I have done, or try to do. You don’t have to scream and shout about it but just get it done, reach back and help these youngsters who are coming along.”
But why do we have more of a responsibility, it seems sometimes, than our white counterparts? I asked.
“Our youngsters need us more perhaps, for one thing,” he said. “And our youngsters are still living in a society that is really only one generation removed from racism, discrimination, segregation, and economic deprivation, and we’re still suffering from that.”
The tension between societal factors as the causes of our people’s social and economic disadvantages, and those traceable to individual initiative or the lack thereof, would become a leitmotif within the interviews I conducted throughout the black community. I think it’s fair to say that it is the largest single point of contention within the black community itself. Like General Powell, I, too, worry about the values of certain aspects of black urban street culture and the self-destructive behavior that reinforces the cycle of poverty- behavior that helps to keep the black poor impoverished. But the inner-city culture that General Powell says holds us back is also the source of the tremendous creativity found in hip-hop culture. If hip-hop is the culture of the black poor, it is simultaneously the face and voice of American popular culture. It is also rich with a few phenomenal success stories.
I traveled from Washington to New York to meet the king of hip-hop culture, Russell Simmons. Simmons has transformed black urban street culture into the lingua franca of American popular culture worldwide-and into a music and fashion empire that grosses more than $300 million per year. “How old were you when you became an entrepreneur?” I asked him.
“When I was sixteen,” Simmons said, “I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but selling weed was one of the few options open to me.”
“Really? When did you become legitimate?”
“I used to give hip-hop parties when I was at City College. People would pay to get in-all the hip-hop artists, DJ Cheeba and all these guys. I had this music thing I loved, and I was lucky enough to get a job in the music industry.”
Simmons’s career took off in 1979 when he produced “Christmas Rappin’,” by Kurtis Blow, on Mercury Records. It was phenomenally successful, and the rest, one might say, is the history of hip-hop.
Simmons’s company, Def Jam, brilliantly punched hip-hop from the ghetto straight into the heart of middle-class, teenage white America, launching bands such as Run-D.M.c= and Grandmaster Flash. Simmons, a brilliant marketer, has branched out to fashion design. His Phat Farm label is the rage from Harlem to Harvard Square, from Watts to Westwood.
How did he create a business based on rebellious black culture and make it as American as apple pie? Simmons’s genius was to take an underground movement and turn it into the common language of American popular culture.
Where did his understanding of the entrepreneurial system come from? “The entrepreneurial spirit came from within me,” he said. “I was never offered a salary; they didn’t like what we did. There was never an interest in giving me a job, or even making a record deal, so we started our own company… I wanted to be in the fashion business. Do you think anybody wanted to hire me or give me a job? I wanted to be in the advertising business. These things had to be forged with a little bit of resilience and vision… “The independence that was forced on us by managing some part of our culture, or ideas, is the same independence that’s creating a whole new lifestyle among young black people. All I had was drug dealers, some numbers runners, and an occasional pimp. They were the entrepreneurs. Now all these young people have images. It’s true that a lot of them are hardheaded and kind of twisted and unsophisticated. That’s why they did it in the first place. You think if they spoke the King’s English, if they went to school and were told, do what you’re supposed to do, that they’d be doing what they’re doing?… They came from the street and they did what they had to do and they created what they’ve created.”
Are these the new heroes in our community, people like Simmons, people like Richard Parsons and Ken Chenault, the CEOs of AOL Time Warner and American Express, respectively?
“Parsons and Ken Chenault and people like them are huge role models… But Puffy’s a much greater hero, a much greater inspiration,” said Simmons. “He’s self-made. The same sophistication and education that guys like Parsons and Chenault have can come from some of our kids who will have enough experience to take on businesses that have smaller margins. We are spreading out. Do you know how many energy drinks are made by kids in the ghetto?
“I see the way young people are so excited about being entrepreneurs, and I believe that’s the climate that will make a difference economically in our community. And the education part of it, they all recognize it’s necessary.”
For Simmons, the inner city is a font of entrepreneurial activity; the black entrepreneur is the true black revolutionary today, the inheritor of the legacy of Maroons and other renegades from slavery, the “bad nigger” characters in traditional black folklore and literature. These figures stole the white man’s secrets, penetrated the logic of the system, and then used these acquisitions to attempt to liberate black people. Where once the means to our freedom was thought to be literacy, or reclaiming the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or utilizing the legal system-or taking up guns-for hip-hop entrepreneurs, the means, according to Simmons, is hardheaded capitalism, and the goal, massive profits. Is Simmons a visionary who has redefined the black entrepreneur as the new urban revolutionary? As he rightly argues, the black ghetto has always been full of entrepreneurs; moreover, success in that world doesn’t even require a high school diploma or a college degree, opening up, as it does, economic opportunities otherwise closed to so many African Americans whose choices are limited because of their education.
We certainly need more entrepreneurs in the inner city, but not at the expense of education. In a highly technological world, formal education is the principal conduit out of poverty, just as it has been for our people since slavery and the days of Jim Crow. Our people’s need to stay in school is even greater and more urgent today than it was back then, in harsher times under legal segregation.
Simmons is correct that success in this world doesn’t require a high school diploma. But that also concerns me. Does the kind of success that Russell Simmons- and hip-hop-encourages also help our kids to get an education and expand their options?
From Simmons’s office in Midtown Manhattan, I went to see another African-American icon, one who uses his particular genius to seduce inner-city children into the love of learning and the value of school.
Maurice Ashley is the world’s first and only black Grand Master in chess- a title held by only seven hundred people in history. Ashley is the Tiger Woods of chess. As with golf, we think of chess as a pastime of the upper middle class. Ashley was born into poverty in Jamaica, then grew up in the inner city in Brooklyn. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has helped to make chess black. I asked Ashley why chess, of all things, would be relevant to black people. “Chess transposes the imagination of inner-city black kids so they can see themselves in the back row where all the power pieces are… It’s much harder for inner-city kids to understand why they should learn something that seems to have no meaning for their future life. But in chess, I’ll show kids a move and five minutes later they can use it against their friend. In another five or ten minutes, they’ll win the game and come back to me and say, show me something else, ’cause I just won that game and I wanna win again. It’s self-reinforcing.” How did he get involved in chess? I asked.
“I learned to play many different games at an early age… By the time I was seven or eight, I could beat the other kids and I could compete with all the adults,” Ashley said. In America, he told me, “in tenth grade, when I was fourteen, I had a friend who played chess a lot. I thought, I’m better at games than all the rest of the kids, so I’m going to play this guy and beat him. He crushed me. It was ugly. Then one day when I was at the library, I came across a book on chess… It was love at first sight… That’s when I discovered that reading could open your mind to the wonders of everything you wanted to know. For the first time, I understood the power of books, because after I started reading them, I began crushing players I couldn’t beat before.”
In 1991, Ashley shook the chess world-and America-when his team from Harlem, the Raging Rooks, beat elite white private schools to become national champions. Stereotypically, black people weren’t supposed to excel at intellectual activities, and these inner-city black kids had won a national chess tournament! This was news.
Ashley realized that chess could be the lure to hook schoolchildren into attending school regularly and focusing on their classwork. Chess could be a “black thing,” its mental rigor and discipline transferred into new study habits in every other school subject. By kids learning chess, grades-and graduation rates-would go up. In 1991, at the Mott Hall School in Harlem, he and businessman- philanthropist Dan Rose helped establish an educational program in which chess was an integral part of the curriculum.
Part 1 | Part 2