Tuesday, May 3, 2011


 When I was growing up in the racially segregated 1950s, there was a very common saying among black Americans that I heard over and over again. The saying was this: "A black person will have to work twice as hard as a white person to get half as far."

I remember that when I first heard this from family members, it struck me as being unfair. But then I thought, "Who says life has to be fair?" So I did the math. If I had to work twice as hard to get half as far as my white contemporaries, then I'd have to work four times as hard to break even with them, and six times as hard to truly excel. That meant no days off. No vacations. No partying. Those were luxuries the people of an embattled, oppressed race could not afford. (I recall my late chairman of English at UW, Robert Heilman, once saying to me, "You're always relaxed but you never really relax." I had to laugh because he was right and had figured me out.)

Being a product of the 1950s, I took this "law" of black American life during the era of segregation to heart. (I recall reading an interview with Condoleezza Rice where she said she heard the exact same words from her family members.)  So it had been, I knew, for all the black people I admired like Du Bois, the Tuskegee Airmen, and all my black predecessors in this country. So why should it be any different for me? The harshness of the black reality that gave rise to that formula softened in the 1960s, especially when policies supporting affirmation action were in place, but by that time the racial "law" that applied to being black in Jim Crow America had sunk into my DNA.
 It became part of my make-up because I had great examples of hard-working black men in my life, starting with my father who at one point in the 1960s held down three jobs to support my mother and me---a day job doing construction, an evening job as a night watchman for the City of Evanston, and on the weekends he helped an elderly white couple do repairs on their home. Watching him work this way for our family, seeing his frugality, religious piety, and the simplicity of his pleasures as well as his good spirit as he labored, I just understood that I would always have to multi-task; to embrace the meaning of sacrifice; to work in two or three artistic and/or academic disciplines; and to hold down daily more than one job during my lifetime---and all that without complaint or whining, as he did.  He was a proud man, was my father. And he took pride in his work more than anything else. (Later, I would see that formulation for his life in Sartre's phrase "Existence precedes essence" and the Buddhist concept of karma.) When I was growing up, he wasn't my "role model." He was my hero. Both my wife and I were struck by how much he was like the character played by Morgan Freeman in the film, Driving Miss Daisy. All during my adult life until his death at 81 seven years ago, I thanked him for teaching me "how" to work, and for making me see that a man defines himself, first and foremost, through his deeds.

I remember when Dad and I were working together on something or doing any chore---like unloading items from a truck, for example---and we'd come to the last item that required our labor and sweat. A big smile would come across my father's face when he saw this final item; he'd take his cigar out of his mouth, and he'd say, "That's the one I was looking for."

That's how I feel when I reach the last page of anything I write. Or finish the ink-work on a drawing. Or the last move in a martial form. Or the last bench-press I have to push into the air. Or the last class I taught in a career of 33 years in higher education, with my father's voice whispering up through my memory: That's the one I was looking for.

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