Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rags to Riches/Riches-to-Rags: Confessions of a Humbled Doer

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

photo by Suzy Gorman


People love a good rags-to-riches story. But it’s only appreciated in that order. Few want to hear the “riches” part from the well-to-do and it’s a “sob story” if someone only talks about the “rags” portion. Me, I had a great rags-to-riches story:

I was a black kid, born and raised in St. Louis’ ghetto neighborhoods; a high school dropout who became a construction worker who got caught up in fast times and fast living; a young adult who begrudgingly enrolled at a community college and, there in its library, became infatuated with the history of my people and the power of words; the real-life narrative became even more compelling in 1987, when I founded Take Five Magazine. It was created out of my desire to activate communities and educate those of my hue with similar disadvantaged backgrounds. After struggling with the award-winning but never profitable publication for 15 years, I was offered the job as a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This was the “riches” part of my story that seemed to resonate with people. Gaining employment with the city’s only major daily newspaper had that much-anticipated Horatio Alger ending. It was an assurance that hard work, determination and sacrifice really can lift anyone from humble beginnings to middle-class comfort.  In the minds of many (and in mine, too) I had arrived. A steady paycheck, benefits, thousands of readers, prestige, respect and recognition -I lavishly lapped it up. Not rich by any means but my wife, daughters and I lived the quasi-middle class dream; a nice 4-bedroom home in a quiet, tony part of the city; two cars; a wallet full of credit cards and the ability to take occasional out-of-town vacations.

In the minds of many (and in mine, too) I had arrived. A steady paycheck, benefits, thousands of readers, prestige, respect and recognition -I lavishly lapped it up.

The traditional tale took an unconventional turn. I was fired from the Post in 2009. My marriage crumbled in 2010. In 2011, I joined the ranks of the 150 million post-recession Americans considered “poor” or “near poor.”  This year, 2012, I lost the house in the quiet, middle class, south St. Louis neighborhood and moved to North St. Louis in an area stigmatized by drive-by shootings and disproportionate rates of crime, poverty and unemployment.

Suddenly, at age 56, unwanted chapters have been inserted into my life chronicles. Yet, in the midst of a steep fall from grace, I have found new riches and new purpose in a familiar and oddly comforting place.

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Despite the unsavory motives that led to my departure from the newspaper, I really welcomed the exit. I had become the go-to guy for all things black; the defender of the dismissed and downtrodden-those grappling with the extremities of my impoverished youth. Instead of ostracizing and incarcerating these people, I preached about investing in their untapped potential. Give them the sumptuous resources we bestow on the already rich, I wrote, let them rebuild their own communities, deal with their own troubled youth and create their own sustainable businesses and jobs.

In reality, I was a drive-by, literary proselytizer; a black man from a white neighborhood, championing change from his cozy cubicle inside a white-owned newspaper building.

Increasingly, I felt like a “talker” when I desperately wanted to be a “doer.”

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In reality, I was a drive-by, literary proselytizer; a black man from a white neighborhood, championing change from his cozy cubicle inside a white-owned newspaper building.

The Bible says “Pride goeth before a fall.”  It was pride whispering in my ear when I refused the union’s offer to fight for the job. It was ego that urged me to disregard advice to sue the trousers off the newspaper. “Screw ‘em,” I retorted, the idea of wasting years and years and spending thousands and thousands to win back a job where I wasn’t wanted seemed stupid. Besides, I had received a lucrative offer from Tom Burrell, the black advertising pioneer, to work with him on his upcoming book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. 

The manuscript was published by SmileyBooks, owned by public TV and radio commentator, Tavis Smiley. That assignment led to several opportunities to serve as a consultant or contributor on other books the company published. But I became frustrated with the lack of take-charge black leaders who weren’t articulating or delivering strategies or solutions that addressed the disproportionately-high rates of unemployment, poverty and incarceration impacting communities of color. I was also still burdened by the fact that I wasn’t a doer.

As blessed as I was to be in the company of some of black America’s top-thinkers, the creative jobs were too far apart and far too few. Pride fed the illusion that I could sustain the debt-heavy lifestyle of my Post-Dispatch years. I staunchly resisted my ex’s pleas to dramatically downsize. To do so, ego argued, would mean the bastards had won.

Recently, while doing research for a client, I listened to the sermons of T.D. Jakes, the popular pastor of the non-denominational mega-church, Potter's House.

“Sometimes God has to break you down to build you up,” Jakes lectured. He added that oftentimes, we have to be “humbled” in order to receive our intended grace.

  I reject the notion that poverty is an automatic penalty for misdeeds. There are too many Americans in states of economic despair due to corporate greed, unscrupulous bankers and investors, unfunded wars and misplaced national priorities. However, I did need some humbling.  I was comfortable at the newspaper and received ego-validation while in the company of high-profile blacks. I was distant and disconnected, trying to enact change from afar.

Universal factors have humbled me. I am no longer the far-off spokesperson for the downtrodden; I now live the life. Once again, I am in the chaotic, unstable and often dysfunctional environment of my youth. Like many of my neighbors, I struggle to maintain dignity, knowing that I’m not really meeting all my children’s needs. I dance the dance of day-to-day survival, compromising while dueling with the ebb and flow of hope and hopelessness. A gnawing fear that I will leave this earth, broken and penniless, pricks at my optimistic Alger-ist attitude.

Yet, there is familiar serenity in this rags-to-riches-to-rags-again saga. I live in the ward of an alderman diligently working to reform an area besieged with societal woes. His efforts have led to an 80 percent reduction in murders; the refurbishing of a once dangerous neighborhood park with a brand new recreation center, bike paths and basketball courts. Now elders and youth can enjoy outdoor concerts and activities without the constant fear of out-of-control hooligans.  I live on a block where old people, doors away, wave and seem genuinely happy to see me. Enticing smells of juicy burgers, fried chicken and fish emanate from a corner store that sells hot food and necessary stipends in an area where grocery stores and fast food joints are only accessible by car. Sometimes, on Friday nights, I hear an unusual cacophony of voices; laughter, bickering and a splendid mixture of “old school” and hip-hop music. It’s as if an entire neighborhood has come out to exhale after a workweek of toil and strife and a hard-pressed life.

Across the street from my flat, sweet potatoes grow on a vacant lot. In early June, I was joined by youth and volunteers with the Sweet Potato Project – a summer program that I kicked off with another nonprofit in my neighborhood. For the past 7 weeks, I have driven to a nearby library where volunteer instructors teach 15 inner-city youth do-for-self, entrepreneurial skills. They will turn the harvested produce into a product and learn that there are other (legal) ways to make money in their own communities.  In less than two months, 15, rock-headed, typical urban teens have made an amazing transformation.  The Sweet Potato youth now talk of being change agents in their communities and “giving back.” Because of this program, I have discovered that I can play a vital role in reaching and teaching so-called “at-risk” African American youth.

The neighborhood is no Shangri-La. There is crime and those more than willing to commit them. But they are outnumbered by people trying to raise their children, take care of their homes, scratch out a living and live peacefully – just like in any other neighborhood. 

I may be economically embarrassed but I am no longer disconnected. Now, when I talk about the inherent potential of black youth, I speak from a position of embedded authority. When I preach about investing in long-neglected urban areas and creating sustainable jobs and businesses, it’s not a wistful fantasy-it’s what we’re doing in MY neighborhood.

There have been intense moments of degradation and fear. Yet, they compete with feelings of vibrancy, meaning, true engagement and exhilarating possibilities.

There have been intense moments of degradation and fear. Yet, they compete with feelings of vibrancy, meaning, true engagement and exhilarating possibilities.

Friends have warned me about writing like this. They say it damages “my brand.” There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But, I’ve written this way for 25 years -- honestly and openly. It is my way. It helps me keep perspective. People who celebrated my ascension to the Post-Dispatch knew of my struggles with my magazine. We all love a good come-back story.

Still, in troubled economic times, few can tolerate “rags” without “riches” tales. Again, I have a great one. Broke but not broken, dinged but not dead, a humbled “doer” embraces the new found riches of his ever-evolving story.


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis, MO-based writer and founder of When We Dream Together Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.

5 comments:

Empress Sanders said...

What an amazing article. At some point we all find our way back home, hopefully to become the change we need to see in our neighborhoods. I'm glad that you're walking in your purpose, which is still unfolding. I empathize with you. Thank you for sharing your story. - Empress

Greg Kern said...

Mr. Brown:
Chris Rocks's now-infamous tweet on July 4th inspired me to begin reading everything I can about what America looks like through the eyes of Black people.

I'm a White male, raised in an upper-middle class family, sent to private schools, and then to college. I finished a Master's degree in 2000, and (including military experience) have enjoyed a comfortable career in Information Technology for 22 years. I also hold Conservative, Tea Party -style Values.

But I have an open mind and compassionate heart, and the inspiration I experience on July 4th was one of those "epiphany" moments for me: Ever since then, I've been reading day and night, about Black history, Public Housing, Urban Renewal, Civil Rights, and a number of other things.

Accordingly, I watched "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" twice in one weekend last month, only realizing later -- as I was investigating a link to "Brainwashed" -- that you were one of the speakers in the film...

So I guess I'm writing to say that I appreciate articles like this and that I am listening to you. You're a very good writer, and I'm intrigued with the story of your life. I mean that as a compliment.

Greg Kern said...

Mr. Brown:
Chris Rocks's now-infamous tweet on July 4th inspired me to begin reading everything I can about what America looks like through the eyes of Black people.

I'm a White male, raised in an upper-middle class family, sent to private schools, and then to college. I finished a Master's degree in 2000, and (including military experience) have enjoyed a comfortable career in Information Technology for 22 years. I also hold Conservative, Tea Party -style Values.

But I have an open mind and compassionate heart, and the inspiration I experience on July 4th was one of those "epiphany" moments for me: Ever since then, I've been reading day and night, about Black history, Public Housing, Urban Renewal, Civil Rights, and a number of other things.

Accordingly, I watched "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" twice in one weekend last month, only realizing later -- as I was investigating a link to "Brainwashed" -- that you were one of the speakers in the film...

So I guess I'm writing to say that I appreciate articles like this and that I am listening to you. You're a very good writer, and I'm intrigued with the story of your life. I mean that as a compliment.

Greg Kern said...

Mr. Brown:
Chris Rocks's now-infamous tweet on July 4th inspired me to begin reading everything I can about what America looks like through the eyes of Black people.

I'm a White male, raised in an upper-middle class family, sent to private schools, and then to college. I finished a Master's degree in 2000, and (including military experience) have enjoyed a comfortable career in Information Technology for 22 years. I also hold Conservative, Tea Party -style Values.

But I have an open mind and compassionate heart, and the inspiration I experience on July 4th was one of those "epiphany" moments for me: Ever since then, I've been reading day and night, about Black history, Public Housing, Urban Renewal, Civil Rights, and a number of other things.

Accordingly, I watched "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" twice in one weekend last month, only realizing later -- as I was investigating a link to "Brainwashed" -- that you were one of the speakers in the film...

So I guess I'm writing to say that I appreciate articles like this and that I am listening to you. You're a very good writer, and I'm intrigued with the story of your life. I mean that as a compliment.

John said...

I have always said, "To be a great writer you must first be a great thinker." Upon reading your words, I amend my saying to include compassion, courage, honesty and many other characteristics I see in your person and writing.

Thank you for sharing. In doing so, you bolster other "wounded eagles" who know what is is to fly high, fall hard, and face starting all over again.

I share you passion to do good with lessons learned. In an age where "maintaining a brand" trumps making a difference, you are making a difference; a badly needed difference.