As Black As God Made Me

The recent flap over whether or not Washington Redskins rookie quarterback and NFL phenom Robert Griffin III – RGIII – is “black enough” reminds me of the importance of being raised by good parents. RGIII was raised by a mother and father who both served in the armed forces, and who instilled in him from the very beginning the values of self-discipline, hard work and striving for excellence in everything you do.

The success of his parents’ teaching is apparent not only on the football field, but in the public spotlight and in the classroom. He appears completely comfortable with expressing himself to the media, and speaks smoothly and confidently on any topic addressed to him.

His academic achievements, although less well known, speak for themselves.

He graduated from Baylor University in three years with a degree in political science, earning a 3.67 grade point average along the way. He immediately began work on his master’s degree in communications, and he simply has to complete a thesis or a graduate project in order to finish. In every respect, he is an accomplished young man and a role model, and I’m confident the only time he’ll appear before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is to receive accolades for his conduct.

As an aside, when addressing this topic in social media, a football fan said they were tired of hearing about RGIII and wanted to promote Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson instead. I jokingly told them:

I wouldn't call attention to Russell Wilson…he's married to a white woman, got his college degree in three years, is a devout Christian, and he's articulate, well-dressed and well-mannered. The "authentically black" police might come looking for him!

I can certainly relate to RGIII, not as an athlete, since I have little natural athletic ability, and all I had going for me in football was a desire to play, a willingness to work hard, and a fearlessness about hurling my body into the path of other bodies.

In terms of being raised by good parents with high values and even higher expectations, however, we share a similar background. My father is also a veteran, having served a career in the U.S. Air Force, and we traveled the world, and saw people and places and had experiences unknown to most Americans. Our parents took advantage of these opportunities to remind us how blessed we were, and how we had a responsibility to show through our lives our gratitude for those blessings.

One of the most valuable of the many lessons I learned from my parents, married for 53 years as of this past May and still going strong, is to be indifferent to the opinions of ignorant people. They taught me the difference between right and wrong, to accept correction when I did wrong, and to hold fast, regardless of what others might say or do, when I was doing right. Too many black children fail to realize their full potential because they want to fit in with the crowd, and they succumb to peer pressure as a result. I was fortunate that my parents taught me to be true to myself, and to dismiss those who would exhibit a “crab bucket” mentality and try to drag me down to their level. There is great freedom in not caring what people who don’t know you – and some who do - might think of you.

Those lessons stood me in good stead during my seventh grade year in Lake Charles, Louisiana, as I recount in my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch:

When my father was sent overseas to Thailand in 1971 for a one-year unaccompanied tour, the family returned to Lake Charles and there I endured the worst school year of my life. I was going into 7th grade at Lincoln Junior High School which, despite integration, was predominantly black. I soon found myself to be a fish out of water. The children there ridiculed my speech, accusing me of “talkin’ propah” or “talkin’ like a white boy.” They jeered my dress, my grades, and my respect for the teachers and administrators—almost everything about me.

My only friends were two white boys who I’m convinced were left back a couple of grades. They took a liking to me and figured I needed their help if I was going to make it through the school year without being beaten up. When my father returned from Thailand and we got our next duty assignment to Spain, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

I’ve read a lot of studies and commentary suggesting that claims of black children dismissing academic achievement and proper speech among their peers — or accusing them of “acting white” — is a myth. You can throw all the numbers at me that you want, but you’ll never convince me. I lived it for a year and it left an indelible impression on my young psyche.

I was fortunate to have a mother and father who, despite not having their high school diplomas at the time, encouraged my love of learning and reading, bought me books and took me to the library, and celebrated when I brought home a good report card. They were proud of me for speaking and writing well, and they never, ever told me I wasn’t “black enough.” If anything, they were proud of my achievements, and if they had written a military award citation to reflect their pride, it would probably read, “the singularly distinctive accomplishments of our son are in keeping with the finest traditions of excellence in the black community, and reflect great credit upon himself, our family and our community.”

Excellence was once a goal to be reached, a status to which we aspired. “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism,” thundered Jesse Jackson from the pulpits and the podium. Speaking and writing well were badges of honor, in keeping with the great history of black orators and writers in America. Our parents and teacher worked hard to instruct us on how to present ourselves to the world. Writer and attorney Leigh Arthalia Cravin recalls the emphasis her teachers and mentors in the segregated schools of her Texas hometown placed on the mastery of the English language, and how to be composed in public:

I grew up during the period of total racial segregation in America and was not exposed to a white classroom until I was [a] junior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Before 1967 every teacher and principal I had was black, and every classmate was black. But what I do remember is that my teachers inspired us to eloquent speech and oration. They did so by assigning poetry to memorize and recite. I still remember boys in my seventh grade class who learned and recited James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” I can still remember how these boys walked out onto a school stage, neatly dressed, completely composed, momentarily stood silently, made contact with the audience, and then began speaking: “And God stepped out on space and said, “I’m lonely I’ll make me a world.” I can still remember boys, even at the poor black school in Shamrock, Texas, who recited from memory Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain, our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.”

Throughout my elementary, junior high, and high school years I was encouraged to remember and recite poetry. I still remember my high school English teacher having us recite Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “ Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as life the town-crier spoke my lines. “Back then” we recited poetry and prose in school. At church we memorized and recited whole chapters of the Bible. We were told to “spit out those Ts” and not to say “dem” and “dat.” Black teachers and other adult mentors taught us to stand tall, not wriggle our hands or shuffle our feet, not to roll our eyes toward the ceiling or sway from side to side, but to garner self composure and to speak well.

She goes on to remind us of great black orators of times past, including one of my heroes, Frederick Douglass, who overcame slavery and the lack of a formal education to become one of the truly great speakers, writers and statesmen, indeed, one of the greatest men in American history.

Because of our rich heritage of excellence in all endeavors, it puzzles and pains me to hear black people today equate eloquence of speech and academic and professional achievement as “acting white.” It’s a self-defeating attitude because it presumes blacks are required to be inarticulate and ignorant in order to be “authentic.” and it’s inaccurate because it’s safe to say that these traits are not typical of a large number of white people, either. If anything, the ability to speak, write, learn and reason well isn’t tied to race as much as it is to aptitude and attitude.

Many black people may find solace in a collective identity, but we should never take that to mean we should all be the same because, by the grace of God, we are not.

Aren’t we falling into a trap when we stereotype ourselves, especially when it comes to the negative behavior and character traits associated with that stereotype?

Remember when former president Bill Clinton was called “the first black president” by author Toni Morrison, presumably in jest? Was it because he was an accomplished speaker, writer and public figure? Was it because he was a Rhodes Scholar?

No, it was because “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” I'm sure his promiscuity was implicit in that label as well, since Ms. Morrison declared, “I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.”

Is that what it means to be “authentically black?”

I have relatives who have been addicted to drugs and alcohol since youth, barely finished high school, can't hold jobs, can't stay out of the reach of the law, and can't string two understandable sentences together. Yet, in the eyes of one of the family elders, they were "black through and through" while I was "a white cake with chocolate frosting."

Is that what it means to be “authentically black?”

Who made the decision that “authentic blackness” precludes academic, professional and oratorical excellence, or diversity of political or social thought, or dating or marrying for love rather than ethnicity? How audacious was it for the Reverend Jesse Jackson to tell CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, when discussing the paucity of black anchors on that cable news channel, that “You don’t count”? Is her black mother irrelevant because Jesse Jackson says so?

Is that what it means to be “authentically black?”

And who bestowed upon these people the role of arbiters of blackness? As I wrote in my book:

I don’t know if other ethnic groups struggle like we do with diversity in our own ranks, but our uniqueness as individuals should be a cause for celebration, not condemnation. All our battles for liberty and acceptance as equal heirs to the American Dream are in vain if we aren’t free to be whoever God made us to be.

As far as I’m concerned, only the One who designed me has the authority to declare my authenticity. His Word says “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and He declares, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart (Jeremiah 1:5).”

He knows us personally and individually, so well that, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Luke 12:7).”

He encourages us to be everything He made us to be, “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).”

Think about that. God put together a mission statement, vision, objectives and task list with your name at the top of it, and he then designed and constructed you exactly as you needed to be for the work He laid out for you. You want to talk about authenticity? That’s what it means – to be true to how God made you, and to the purposes for which He made you.

I’m sure RGIII’s parents taught him to have a God’s-eye view of himself, because he is clear about whose path he follows. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10).” The word in Hebrew which has been translated to “fear” in fact means awe, reverence and honor, and RGIII has chosen to give God all glory, honor and praise, and to demonstrate his awe by being excellent in all things.

Is RGIII “black enough?” He’s as black as God made him, and that’s as authentic as it gets.