I was blessed to grow up in a home where stories of great black men and women were served up as frequently as spoon bread and fried apples. My grandmother told and retold stories of ancestors who had been born slaves and went on to found universities and banks and become statesmen during Reconstruction. My grandfather maintained an informal basement bar where I
spent valuable evenings and weekend afternoons listening to his friends, all of whom were born into segregation but rose up above the walls of limitation. My parents told me bedtime tales
about their experiences fighting Jim Crow with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Together, these stories inspired me to dream big dreams of helping to increase opportunity for all people. Perhaps even more importantly, they instilled in me the habit of seeking out the stories of others. Their stories and the dreams they inspired started me on my own path toward leadership.
Since the beginning of time, imitation has always been the first step for those who achieve great things. Children pick up sticks to reenact the battles of great soldiers. Toddlers preach to congregations of teddy bears and puppets. Babies step into their parents’ shoes and try to walk. However, here’s the rub: each of us can only imitate what we know. We cannot imitate
that which we have never seen, heard, or read about.
Despite the rapid advances of technology, young men of color today often lack access to positive images and stories about others who look like them. With the exception of stories about one black man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the reporting we see about men of color on the nightly news often leaves little good to imitate.
Occasionally, the images of our greatest heroes do break through. Black-and-white film reels of Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall flicker in classrooms on rainy days across the country. However, the grainy images place these icons in another era, in a time when the battles seemed perhaps simpler, the outcomes predetermined. Their lives are remembered in a way that makes them so flawless, so impossibly
angelic, that their stories and achievements seem unattainable.
This is a book of everyday heroes. It is a collection of men known and unknown, most of whom have grown up since desegregation, all of whom have faced challenge, and all of whom have lived their lives in ways that are relevant to each of us. It is offered as a gift of gifts: each man featured in these pages sat down with us to tell his story so that it could be combined with the stories of others and handed down from parents, godparents, aunts and uncles, older brothers and peers to young men seeking to find their way.
My hope is that this book will empower you, as my family’s stories empowered me, with examples of black men who have overcome great challenges to do even greater things. I encourage you to read these stories, to ask your elders for their own and, ultimately, empowered with that new knowledge, to live a life of meaning that will leave a legacy for generations to come.
You could hear a pin drop when I told my board of directors at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that I would step down in three months to build a new network called the
BMe Community. The sudden hush was followed by raucous applause.
Through the course of my work at the Knight Foundation, I enjoyed incredible access to elite people and their information, and I stumbled upon a number of discoveries that made it imperative to launch BMe.
We are in the middle of the biggest cultural transfer in the history of the nation. The baby boomers, who have defined the American story for decades, are aging out at the exact moment
that the millennial generation is coming of age. The millennials are inheriting the narrative left behind by these analog immigrants to their digital world, but they aren’t necessarily embracing it.
On the contrary, America on the millennials’ watch will no longer have a racial majority. All of the social myths will be updated, for better or for worse. If we make a concerted effort
to understand each other over the next decade, I think we can change them for the better.
This optimism is based, in part, on the social science that has permeated popular culture over the past few years—the research and writing of Daniel Kahneman, Chip and Dan Heath, and others. Our brains use all sorts of shortcuts to process information. People make decisions based not upon facts, but upon their perceptions of reality, and these perceptions are primed by the stories already running in our heads. As a result, we are prone to certain consistent, persistent mistakes in perception. One of these mistakes is that “what you see is all there is.” When black males are portrayed everywhere we look in a negative light, our brains—no matter our race or sex—are prone and primed to believe that this portrayal is correct, even the norm. In fact, it’s not. Not by a long shot.
People, however, need more than just statistics to change their perspectives. Statistics are often rejected if they do not reinforce preexisting beliefs. On the other hand, stories involving
relatable characters are “experienced” by the mind. When we hear a story, we put ourselves in that person’s shoes for a minute. The story gives us an opportunity to reconsider our perspective
and position. And we tend to choose the perspective that leaves us looking the best, even if that means discarding a mistaken position from before.
This is a book of stories about men whom you know but perhaps have not been erceiving fully. They are normal black men. They are good men. They are imperfect men, flawed, with struggles just like yours and decisions just as good or just as poor as some that you’ve made. Every one of the men in this book is also a community builder, somebody who wants us all
to live in a more caring and prosperous world.
We encourage everyone, of all races and sexes, to explore life through the eyes of these men. Once you do, it will become very easy to see brothers like these in your day-to-day life.
The mission of the BMe Community is to build caring and prosperous communities inspired by black men. All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to support that positive aspiration. Anyone can join the BMe Community, regardless of race or sex, because our mission is actually about building communities, not about saving the black man. We believe in building upon positive people, positive aspirations, and positive opportunities to tell the truth to one another and work together for a better future.