Before we get started, take five seconds and think about the first thing you wanted to be when you grew up. OK, do you have it? For me, it was a fighter pilot. In retrospect, this makes absolutely no sense, since I am deathly afraid of heights, but I was in fifth grade, had just seen Top Gun, and believed I could do anything. I can remember the rush I felt seeing the F-14s take off to the music of “Danger Zone.” It felt like all those times when I ran to the playground, shoestrings untied, jumped on a swing, and pumped my legs to get higher and higher, imagining I was flying a million feet in the air. Yes, I know a million feet would’ve landed me in outer space, but I believed in my dreams. I wanted to reach to the stars.
It wasn’t long before I realized that my belief in myself was in stark contrast to how others perceived me and my capabilities. As a black boy growing up in Rialto, California, I was surrounded by no shortage of dream killers. With every cynical adult who looked at my skin color as a deficit — whether it was my biology teacher labeling me “a minority failure from a broken home” or the police forcing me to the ground while I was walking to school because I “fit the description” of a robbery suspect — holding on to any hope for my future proved more difficult. By the time I was 17, I had failed out of high school and given up on dreaming altogether.
In the United States today, we constantly face a hailstorm of statistics highlighting achievement gaps, incarceration numbers, and dropout rates that focus on the shortcomings of black males. And while all of those challenges are real, they represent only a small part of the truth.
The larger truth, as Trabian Shorters, the CEO of the national nonprofit BMe (or Black Male Engagement), often highlights, is that you probably know more black men in college or who serve and protect our country in the armed forces or who own their own businesses than you do who are violent criminals. The larger truth is that the high school dropout rate for black men has been falling, that black-owned businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of the US economy, and that we recently had a young black man named Kwasi Enin accepted into all eight Ivy League schools. The larger truth is as it has always been: Black males are one of the pillars that this country rests upon and will need to rely on to continue to prosper.
Even after I failed out of high school, my university professor mother and her new husband never stopped believing in me. My mother and stepfather, in their most sincere tones, spoke the rejuvenating words “you can do anything” in my ear again and again until I heard them. Then they spoke them some more until I believed them, and they kept speaking them until I acted on them. They unbound my dreams and provided the support I needed to pursue them all the way to Harvard, where I am now a doctoral student, and beyond. More important, they helped shape my identity by building on my strengths and bringing into focus the rich history and assets that I, as a young black man, possessed.
I’m a father now myself, with two beautiful black boys of my own, and my dreams are shifting to thoughts of their future. Like my mother and stepfather, I will raise my sons to believe that they can do anything and that the world is theirs for the taking. I also know that I am going to have to prepare them to face the dream killers who would relegate their aspirations to a box built of ignorance, insecurities, and fear of their beautiful blackness. The half-truths we tell about our black boys are robbing our nation of potential doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, and, yes, even fighter pilots at a time when our country is in desperate need of this talent and leadership.
As I reflect on Father’s Day, I remember when my eldest son was 2 and delivered to me a framed picture of himself wearing a pair of my dress shoes, my French-cuffed shirt, and a striped tie. The inscription on the photo (with help from his mom) read: “I love you, Daddy. One day I hope to be able to fill your shoes.” But I know my sons will go far beyond the things I have been able to accomplish. What I want more than anything is for our country to see our black boys not as problems to be fixed but as the national treasures they are. And I want our black boys to know that they can soar.