To Be Young, Gifted, & Black: A Letter to a Young Black Leader — Part 1
There was once a story told of a little boy who loved to stop and watch an artist work on a sculpture. As the artist went to work each day, sure enough, the little boy was there also, captivated by the artist’s imagination. The boy was so intrigued that he told the artist that he wanted to learn. The artist chuckled inside, knowing that such a task would take years of training to learn. Yet, he brought the young boy along. Days, weeks, months went by. The artist finally finished the sculpture and It was such a beautiful sight, even to the untrained eye.
He turned to the little boy and asked him, “What have you learned?” The boy joyfully replied, “I’ve learned how to be an artist. I am an artist!” Confused, the artist pondered, “What do you mean?” The boy replied, “I’ve learned that it’s not the final hit that made the sculpture what it is today, but it was every hit that came before. That’s how you are an artist.” The artist smiled and told the little one, “You are an artist indeed!”
Over the last few weeks, this story has stuck with me deeply. To be an artist is such a sacred and holy task. It is the artist who is trying to capture the prophetic possibilities of how life takes shape within the world. For life always takes shape within a world. And in that world lies the raw material by which the artist fashions a hope that the world’s cruelties could not crush. At least that’s what Howard Thurman thought of those great hymns that brought our people over. They were artists in the truest sense of the word. In some sense, we too, are artists and come from a long tradition of them.
What I mean is that to be young, gifted, and black is to be given the task of trying to take what is broken and make something beautiful. This is the world our hands are working in.
Them is Us
It is indeed a challenging world. It is a world not built for our survival. It is a world that will try to use some of you against the rest of us. It is a world that tells you “you are not like them” though if you’re honest, “them” is who you came from. “Them” is the womb that has birthed you. “Them” put money in your pockets when you didn’t have any. “Them” was there praying for you when your back was against the wall.
How often have we the young forgotten “Them”? Nevertheless, it is “them” who are us and it is us who are “them.” There are also some other things I don’t want to ever forget. In the words of Nina Simone and Lorraine Hansberry: you are young, you are gifted, and you are black. Never, ever forget that.
You, like me and many of us, need help, encouragement, and a vision for our day. I don’t think I can say I have that nor that you should necessarily listen to what I have to say. What we do have is many people who have loved us. And it is this love like Jesus’ love that will teach us the way that we should go.
To Be Young
I have often felt that people look down on us because of our youth. It’s not necessarily that they dislike us or what we have to bring to the table but sometimes people don’t know what to do with us. It often seems we are viewed as problems to be solved rather than people to be admired. I never could understand why many view us as a danger. Well, maybe we are. We indeed are a danger to those who are good with the status quo. It seems they have forgotten they were once just like us.
The challenges of growing up in a world with ever-increasing social, political, and religious upheaval are traumatic, and you and I refuse to stay on the sidelines. Growing up in a world where it seems that “making it” is making it like white people is frustrating because we have seen the “dream” and we, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., know it to be a nightmare. We see our friends, our families, our communities that have “made it” and we come to the sad realization that we are all “still n*ggas in America.”
Growing up in a world where the hashtag has become a history book, forever burning in our minds the lifeless bodies of many who look like us is depressing. We see the Church and their lack of inclusion of our ideas and creativity and it’s hurtful. I know what you feel and I know that we can’t be silent. So what are we to do? How does the young, gifted, and black respond in our moment?
Let’s realize that being young presents us with potentials as well as limitations. As young people, we are full of life, full of energy, full of vigor, full of hope. But I have realized (most clearly in my own self) that we are often full of impatience, full of despair, full of doubt of ourselves, and what we believe we have to offer. It is critical that we learn how to live in this tension and embrace the challenges of today and the hopes of tomorrow.
Trust God More
It’s much like the story of Moses and the point he reached when he named his son “Gershom” which means “I’m an alien in a strange land.” We may miss this but names, especially in Biblical times, are important. They tell us a story. And this name seems to tell us is that Moses finally got to the place to say: “This is who I am, this is who I’m not.” One could suggest that Moses couldn’t walk in the purpose that God had for him until he was honest with himself and made sense of his own story, his own trauma, his own anger, his own dysfunction, and his own possibilities.
This will prove to be one of the great challenges for us: bridging the gap between what we say and what we do, what we read and how we live, what we try to form in others and what we are in ourselves.
We must receive our youth as our gift. We must see that the challenges we face in ourselves, in others, and in this world as a process of always becoming and always making each better. I believe God will take the worst parts of our story and use it for his glory. He will transform our scars into sacrifice, our wounds into worship, our anger into activism, our pain into purpose.
You may not see it now, but just as the line of progress is never straight, so too is your life and the vision deep within you. Trust yourself but trust God more. Some of our greatest leaders got early starts; the same is true of you. Though you have so much to learn, you must always have a listening ear and time of quiet self-reflection. Even your critics and haters have a word that will make you holy and more useful.
Like they say, “I’m not where I want to be but thank God I’m not what I used to be.” You have the gift of time; use it wisely and use it for some cause of justice much greater than yourself. Be courageous. Go run after the vision deep down within your heart that you hear the voice of God is calling out. You are building today for the world of tomorrow.
But don’t forget, as my grandmother would say: “In all your getting, make sure you get love and you bet not forget God and your people.”
Part 2 will go live tomorrow!