What is Black Enough?
Success can be achieved
Today, by happenstance, I came across and read the obituary of an extraordinary man of whom I had never heard. Melvin Jackson Chisum, son of a newspaper man, died at 92. Mr. Chisum spoke French, visited every continent except Antarctica, served in the South Pacific during World War II as a Chief Warrant Officer, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted at Harvard Law School though the war intervened and prevented his attendance. It didn’t matter. Mr. Chisum decided that he’d rather be a doctor and, after the war ended, enrolled in and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Dr. Chisum is survived by his wife, whom he met when she was a graduate student in psychology at Penn.
Oh, have I mentioned that Dr. Chisum is black?
Recently, as he often does, Charles Barkley generated some controversy when he said, among other things, "There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don't have success. It's best to knock a successful black person down 'cause they're intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they're successful. It's crabs in a barrel. ... We're the only ethnic group that says, 'hey, if you go to jail, it gives you street cred.' "
I visited a lot of online forums to read responses to his comments, particularly from people who self-identified as black. One of the most disappointing responses was by a young black woman who asserted that African-Americans should not be expected to read and write well in English because it isn’t our native tongue. As English is the only language in which I’m fluent, as was the case with my parents and, I’m assuming, their parents, I find that view disheartening, an excuse to fail and a reason to surrender. I didn’t have the pleasure of ever meeting Doctor Chisum but I suspect he would have agreed with me. I also wonder if he was ever accused of ‘actin’ white’.
The notion that there will ever be a post-racial America is not one to which I subscribe. In America, race has always been what defines you and racism, though less openly virulent, though, in many cases, less obvious, will always exist. However, the degree to which it cripples ambition is a deeply personal matter. It's important to note that Barack Obama could not have twice been elected president without significant support from white voters.
What is extraordinary about Dr. Chisum is his level of accomplishment but he is far from unique. There are millions of unheralded stories that rival his. Born into a deeply segregated America where Jim Crow ruled and lynching was not itself extraordinary, he and millions of other black men and women didn’t just knock on the door of achievement, they kicked it down, fought their way into the house and took their seats at the table of success. I could name names, starting with those who have risen to the highest stations in government, business, the military and other non-athletic, non-entertainment venues but then, I’d have little room to write anything else.
Now, too often, it seems that many of us knock once on the door and then walk away in surrender when it isn’t answered. “Racism,” we say. “Who can overcome that?” I know for certain Dr. Chisum would have the answer to that question.
The self-inflicted social genocide of which Barkley spoke is no secret to many who see themselves as achievers. Once, while working in customer service, I took a call from a young black woman who asked me “Why you talking like that?” And when I asked what she meant she explained “Like white and everything”. She didn’t wallow alone in ignorance. Within our communities are many who firmly believe that speaking well, writing well, aspiring high, are things that define you as “actin’ white”. What a terrible shame that is, particularly for the young and impressionable for whom that is the vilest insult to be imagined and for whom the respect of their peers is the grandest tribute there is, the dreaded ‘street cred’. How many have we lost to this skewed way of thinking and how many more will follow?
This Saturday, I’ll be attending the funeral services for Dr. Chisum, an extraordinary man who I never met, a man of whom I’d never heard, a man who is worthy of and has my deep respect and admiration.
Thank you and rest in peace, Doctor Chisum.