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raceAhead: Invest In Tomorrow’s Luminaries

Sometimes, a good way to move forward is to look back.

I’ve been thinking about the cultural treasures of our strange new era, the people who have been shaping the broader conversation about race, inclusion and system change. What can we learn from their early work?

Writer, columnist and cultural critic Rebecca Carroll raised this issue herself on her Twitter feed. “I often wonder how my first bk (pubbed in 1994) wd be received today in this era of The Black Woman, black girl magic, and renaissance of black art. It is, in a sense, a book meant for this era,” she tweeted. She was referring to “I Know What The Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers,” which I immediately bought.

Her poignant question offered a glimpse into the lonely early days of an artist finding their first audience, one part canary in an uncertain coal mine, two parts revolutionary in training.

The quest has taken me down some funny cultural rabbit holes.

Searching for the first trace of actor John Cho, who has literally become the poster child for Asian representation in Hollywood, took me almost to his first public performance. In 2000, Cho played a disaffected 20-something in My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk, a play by Korean American playwright Euijoon Kim. It was described by Variety as a “surly, profanity-driven sojourn through the lives of Generation X Korean-Americans.” While the reviews were mixed, it showed Cho’s early affinity for the conversation. I couldn’t find a copy of the play – or trace of the playwright — but Cho clearly looked ready for his close-up.

I was twenty minutes into Ava DuVernay’s first documentary, This is the Life, when I realized I’d been smiling the entire time. The film centers on an influential alternative hip-hop movement in 1990s Los Angeles, that was nurtured and nourished by a local health food store called The Good Life. It was like stumbling on an early letter from an epic first love. While resplendent on its own, DuVernay’s unique point of view is already evident, along with her need to shine a light on the people and movements who aim to set things right in the world.

The same is true of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose first book was not the award-winning Between The World and Me, but The Beautiful Struggle: A Father Two Sons and An Unlikely Road to Manhood. Coates is the son of a complicated man: a Vietnam veteran, a Black Panther who carried a gun, a warrior for redemption in crack-afflicted Baltimore, and inspirational figure at Howard University, who had seven children with four different women. Coates, once a brilliant underachiever, used his first book to hone the craft of putting the lives of black folks into context. On the subject of black men and violence, he said in a 2008 interview: “People don’t humanize these folks. They’re numbers to them… This is why we have art. This is why people need to read novels. This is why people need to read history and great detailed journalism.”

It’s funny to think about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony Award-winning truth-teller, paying rent by writing jingles and background music for political ads. His father ran a Democratic political consultancy, and his son’s tunes made their way into English and Spanish language ads for all sorts of New York folks, including Al Sharpton, Carl McCall, a former state comptroller and Eliot Spitzer, the former governor. While the music wasn’t inspiring, his deep understanding of politics, aspiration and the relationship between power and people, clearly left a mark. The money came in handy during pre-Broadway re-writes of In the Heights, a musical which he wrote and workshopped as a sophomore at Wesleyan. If you haven’t seen it, start with this performance at the 2008 Tony Awards.

Enjoying the earlier works of treasured makers reveals more than youthful genius. It shows the underpinnings of a personal conviction that helped them stay the course and succeed. It’s a blueprint for an unconventional life. By choosing their projects and battles carefully, they were able to build the foundations for both their later work and the bigger conversations they’d hoped to spark. To answer Carroll’s original question, I’d say that her early work was a gift to the time in which it appeared specifically because it was so necessary. It helped make her the treasure she became.

I suppose we could all use an unvarnished look back at our earlier selves to make sure the essence of who we once were is still alive in our current work. (Relax, I will not be sharing the dreadful black nationalist poetry I used to write in high school.)

But the exercise also served to remind me that the next Rebecca, John, Ava, Ta-Nehisi and Lin-Manuel are putting their work out in the world right now, and a little love from us could make all the difference. How will we respond when we find them?

On Point

North and South Korea will march under one flag at the OlympicsIt feels like good news at a time when inter-Korean tensions had been on the rise. North and South Korea agreed yesterday to field a joint women’s ice hockey team at the Winter Olympics next month, and march together under one flag. It’s the first such agreement for the two Koreas, and the only joint sporting event since a table tennis and youth soccer event in 1991. The notion of unification through sport is an appealing idea for South Korea, in particular. Either way, something for the world to root for.New York Times

White resentment is a now a powerful predictor of voter behavior
Researchers Adam Enders and Jamil Scott are making an interesting case: The often crude race-based commentary coming from the Trump campaign and now, administration, is not a radical development. While levels of white racial resentment have stayed about the same over the last thirty years, their research shows that it has become a more powerful predictor of political orientation, policy preferences and attitudes. “[E]very political variable we measured has become more closely correlated with racial resentment over time,” they say. Racial resentment is now a good predictor of voter behavior. “[W]hite voters use their attitudes toward race to guide political decisions three times as much today as they did just 30 years ago.” A must read.
Washington Post

Johnson & Johnson: How we’re building an inclusive culture
Sumeet Salwan, global head of HR, medical devices and corporate functions at Johnson & Johnson, seems like a nice person and good at his job. He begins the Q&A with a familiar corporate framing: “I think it’s common to approach diversity from a ‘why it’s important’ or a ‘what you do’ perspective, but at Johnson & Johnson it’s much more about ‘who we are’ as a company.” And then he goes deeper, citing the challenges of leading a global company in times of rapid change, mentioning the refugee challenge in Europe, and even quotes Audre Lord. Particularly useful are his specific methods of shoring up the competencies required for inclusive leadership. Hint: It involves getting real about bias.
Human Resources Online

The Woke Leader

Nigeria gets a prime-time political comedy show. Will it fly?
Here’s just one example of the tightrope the writers of “The Other News” have to walk to make a joke work. When the Ooni of Ife, a traditional Yoruba leader believed by many to be of sacred lineage, flew to Ontario this summer, members of his staff performed a traditional blessing ritual on the plane. The video drew cheers and jeers. The discussion that followed describes the cultural challenges of offering comedic commentary in a diverse and often divided country. Enter a white American named Ned Rice, a long-time comedy writer with a consultancy who was hired to teach the writers how to create a Nigerian “Daily Show.” Is he helping or hurting? Is American-style satire the new white savior complex?
The New Yorker

First person accounts of immigrants tell the complex story of diverse America
Epic Magazine has collected extraordinary stories from a wide variety of people, all of whom had things to say about how they left their homeland and how they were welcomed, eventually, when they arrived in the U.S. The short blurbs dig deeper than most first person accounts; what emerges is a patchwork of insights embedded in a life story. Igwe Udeh, who moved from Nigeria to Norman, Oklahoma in 1980, compares the Igbo spirit of his tribe with cowboy culture. Daniel Pohl, a “spiritual gangster,” according to the Communist leadership of then Czechoslovakia, escaped the country on a homemade zipline. The series also features the woman who is the first Indian American mayor of Manhattan, Kansas. What would you tell Epic about how you got here? Enjoy.
Epic Magazine

Surviving as a single mother in college
As of 2012, there were over two million single mothers in college, more than twice the number in 2000. While the trend is positive, the reality is more challenging. As this Atlantic piece and podcast points out, only some 28% of single moms make it all the way through to degree, and their fraught financial situations often put them in terrible binds: Financial aid makes them ineligible for housing support or food stamps, for example. On the chopping block is Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS), a federal-aid program that provides money for campus-based child care programs. Some states are trying to help, but the barriers can be overwhelming.
The Atlantic

Quote

Sometimes films ignore other points of view because it’s simpler to tell the story that way, but the more genuine and sympathetic you are to different points of view and situations, the more real the story is.
Ang Lee