To Be Young, Gifted, & Black: A Letter to a Young Black Leader — Part 2
To Be Gifted
Back in my college football days, I would often share my feelings with my parents about frustrations of feeling overlooked. In my mind, I thought I was a pretty decent athlete, making strides and gains in my craft. I was playing at the highest level and found myself in the lowest of valleys, all because I felt a gap between my perception of my giftedness and my experience of greatness. My mother, the dear woman she is, would repeatedly remind me, “You don’t have to scheme your way into greatness; your gift will make room for you.”
The point she was trying to instill in me was a deep belief that I had a gift to offer to the world. The same is true of you; you must never forget that you are gifted. As I once heard it said, “God never made a giftless person.”
The key is the cultivation of that gift and faithfulness to allow that gift to bless others. Much like the disciples in the good pursuit to be great, there is the ever-present temptation to scheme our way to the top. In a social media world so intoxicated with the need for significance, conversations are dwindled down to latest projects, people are dwindled down to selfies, and personal relationships are dwindled down to personal and selfish interest.
As the young and the gifted, we have been indirectly told that our giftedness must be matched with a “market-mentality.” Our giftedness in some sense always comes with a price tag. But rarely have we asked what this particular mentality has done to us, the black us?
One could suggest that this mentality has produced in us the belief that we would rather capitalize on opportunity than capitalize for our community. Toni Morrison would always remind her students, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else.” She concluded that this blessing of giftedness and the many opportunities that came with it was not “just a grab-bag candy game” but that the power of our gift that God has given us was the job “to empower somebody else.”
In order for me to empower someone else, I must be empowered not only with the deep belief that I have something to offer but the deep conviction that my giftedness and character are bound by an unbreakable cord. My dear friend, character will take you where your gift won’t bring you.
What I mean by character is not some abstract principle of perfection or quaint phrases or false humility. I mean a realization of imperfection, an embracing of the beautiful mess of ourselves, and the action of always journeying to live out the values of the best of our tradition. In our story, the black story, we have the best of us and we have the worst of us. And each of those particular stories has the power to shape a Christ-like character in us that integrates giftedness and greatness in an organic whole.
This will also prove to be a challenge because given our world, it’s much easier to miss the worst in ourselves while trying to capitalize on the best for ourselves. This is the point at which the power and practice of prayer come to light. If prayer does anything for us, it does two things: it allows us to center ourselves in relation to God and center God in relation to ourselves. What I mean is that developing a prayer journey should promote an honesty with ourselves and with God in order that God may do what God does best: lead us away from our resume to his resources. This is the only way we can know for sure that we will reach that place of usefulness without destroying ourselves and others in the process.
Never forget that you are gifted. But also never forget, you will one day be like David and feel the weight of doubt and discouragement. Much like the place I was when talking to my mother, a preacher once called his mother to lament his sermon he “flunked.” He had gone through all of the necessary things for preparation, he felt he had executed the moves of his homiletical dance perfectly, he was “ghosted up (Holy Ghost).” Yet he felt that somehow the help he found in the study didn’t produce the hope he tried to proclaim from the pulpit. His mama asked him, “Did you aspire to be a master in your craft in preaching?” He answered, “Yes mama.” She said, “Boy, don’t you ever lose that. But remember, every piece by a master isn’t a masterpiece.”
The same is true for us. We are young, we are gifted, but every expression of our giftedness will not always yield the desired fruit of our labors. Yet, we keep going. Like the artist from part one, when you keep knocking away at your craft, you will eventually look back and realize the only proper response is “My Lord and My God.” Only the work of God could make something so beautiful.
To Be Black
The most important thing to remember is you are young, you are gifted, and you are black. Even the mentioning of blackness evokes a sacredness. To evoke blackness is to call to memory the pain and suffering of those who have come before us. It is to call to mind the challenges of what it has meant to live the hard words of Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It is to call to mind your mothers, your fathers, your grandmothers, grandfathers, and family near and far who have had to struggle in this world but have had a deep faith in which this world with all its cruelty could not shake. Yes, you are black.
I wish that I could tell you that when you step out into this world that they see you as fundamentally Christian. But the truth is that no matter how many Bible verses you quote, how many great books you read and post, how morally excellent you are, no matter your degree, or any other trait that is “successful,” none of that can shield you from the tragedy of your blackness.
I don’t mean to be fatalistic. We have believed the myth that the greatest thing in life is to distance ourselves as far as possible from our black self and our black life. We have been led to blame ourselves and our communities for failures we never asked for. We have been led to believe that the Invisible Man’s place was to exist underground. But even he too had to emerge from the shadows, finally realizing that he must honor his individual complexity and remain true to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. Despite the worst, our people have had the audacity not only to survive in a racist world but have thrived in spite of the double burden of the black life: the wounds of the black experience and the responsibility for white comfort.
The days are over where we think that our beautiful history of “holding on to Jesus” is optional rather than foundational to how we imagine ourselves and our world. The days are over where we, like W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous words, see ourselves through the gaze of the other. We’ll realize that our black is beautiful, not only in our eyes but the eyes of the Jesus who calls us his own.
It means we are done with working for individual gain at the expense of social uplift. We will build for God’s kingdom through our village. It means that we are awakened to the reality that Jesus is not white, Christianity does not serve the racist status quo, distance from black life is not love, winning at all costs is not the answer, and that hate of the other and our people is the end.
Our youth and our giftedness serve the greater goal of bearing witness to the liberating and reconciling story of Jesus in black life to the rest of the world. We bear witness to the faith passed down to us, we protest a world that’s not built for us, we heal the wounds deep within us, and educate, empower, and engage for the best for us.
Just like Nehemiah, we the young have been called to strengthen the walls that have long since fallen and to restore hope where hope has been lost. Don’t gloss over the names in that narrative nor the normalization of opposition. Each name bears a purpose, each purpose will face opposition, and each opposition presents an opportunity to embrace the profundity of God’s power. It will take all of us willing to lay ourselves before the Lord in his service. It will take much prayer, action, and reflection. But we must hold on to the thought that he who began a good work will bring it to completion. And he doesn’t want to do that work without you.
Young leader, don’t you ever forget: you are young, you are gifted, you are black.
With love and deep affection,