S. and I met each other about 4 years ago while I was still working in a group foster home. I still refer to him and his younger brother lovingly as "my boys," although they are rapidly approaching manhood and never really were "mine."
I am honored that they keep me in the loop of their lives and was happy to be given the chance to speak this bit to my dear S. in person at the celebration of his high school graduation this past Thursday.
These people, they don't know me, so I'm going to start with a line I stole:
"Excuse my French / Emotion in my passion / But I wear my heart on my sleeve like it's the new fashion"
I also want to set our stage with another phrase:
I am enormously proud of you.
(That one's all mine.)
I also stole this line:
"Know you are where you are not by chance, but by the design of your Creator, for your own development and for the development of those around you."
It reminds me of an article I read once.
There is a tribe in East Africa called the Masaai. Wikipedia tells me that the Maasai are an ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known of African ethnic groups, due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa. They speak a language the name of which I cannot pronounce that is a member of the Nilo-Saharan language family that is related to Dinka and Nuer. The Masaai are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania: Swahili and English.
They have cultural traditions that look nothing like ours. Or at least that's what it looks like when you just look with the eyes that allow you to see only the surface
The Masaai distinguish the men from the boys. Becoming a Masaai man involves these special rituals with special clothes and special colors and music and behaviors. The men in this culture tend animals, hunt other animals, and fight to protect their home, their women, their children. They do that fighting with spears, with knives, and with their hands.
Now, back to my article.
It was about a young college student named James Nampushi. Mr. Nampushi said:
"I must work hard. I must work hard. This is a miracle to me. To be here, is God. I must work hard because I know where I came from and where I am now. So I have to do something..."
S., there is something you have in common with this man beyond the fact that your skin color is much closer to his than it is to mine.
S., you must work hard. You must. That you are here, this is God. You must work hard because you know where you came from and where you are now.
The last part is the clincher: So you have to do something.
You and Mr. Nampushi. You both have to do something.
Mr. Nampushi grew up in the tribal Masaai community that taught him certain things about what it means to be a man. He learned these things, and then he decided that the salvation of his people in a world that is growing by leaps and bounds involved, at least in some small part, continuing his education in a land far, far away from his comfort zone to learn things that the people in the culture he came from couldn't teach him.
Things that he had to learn for himself.
From the rest of the world.
From people who were different from him.
Sometimes drastically different.
Ms. B, what's your point? I can hear you asking with your eyes, kiddo.
Here comes the preachy part. Get ready.
As a Black man who grew up in an urban environment and finished growing up in foster care in South Carolina, the statistics that you face at this critical juncture of your life are damning. Do not, do not, DO NOT LET THIS LIMIT YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF YOURSELF. Push the messages of thug life, victimization, materialism, the voices of entitlement and violence, as well as the voices that tell you that because your skin is brown your brain was not made to process just as much information as anyone else walking around away. Throw them away. Ball them up, tear them into shreds, and incinerate them. Open the windows of your life, and blow the ashes out into the breeze.
God has done a lot to bring you to this point. You and I can both think of times in your life when He could just as well have abandoned you in one way or another. He didn't. Think about that. Think about what it means that the All-Knowing, All-Wise Provider and Creator of All decided to hang onto you. Decided to provide the hearts of all of the people in this room to love you and believe in you and try to show you what you are made of. Do you think that this was an accident? Think about it.
You have been blessed with a voice. You have choices about how to use this voice. By now surely you have learned that people listen to you. Consider what you hear, consider the biggest picture you can, and choose your words and actions wisely.
Your academic achievement to this point has not been indicative of your capacity. We both know that, and now so does everyone else in the room. I get it; you were busy with other things. Your childhood included more violence and loss than mine, and your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes plans and provides motivation, has been otherwise occupied over the past few years.
I've got news for you. You've landed. From now on, not nearly as many things are going to be handed to you as you're used to. You're going to have to prove that you deserve them. You're going to have to put your shoulder to the grindstone and push. Go show us what you can do.
Actually, forget us.
Show yourself what you can do.
I am proud of you. I don't have enough words to be able to tell you what it does to my heart to see you graduated... to know what I know of your story, to see you tall and strong, to see your clear eyes looking off onto the next thing... proud isn't the right word. I am blessed. Blessed and richly favored.
Don't mistake this for a stopping point, though. True, you get to pause, be congratulated, and look back at how much road you've covered... but, baby, it's so far from done. It's really only the beginning.
Go get it.
Go get into it and on it and all over it.
There's work yet to be done.
We're your tribe... we're your people... and we need you.
And by we, I mean the world.