Yesterday at the Explore Memphis summer program kickoff party, I got the opportunity to talk with lots of kids. Lots of kids. Young kids. Those who are still young enough to be completely hopeful. Those who believe they can be whatever they want to be. Something I don’t get to experience as a high school teacher. Listening to the limited views of my students, especially my boys, can be quite disheartening. Some have such narrow views of what life has to offer them. And always I think: I never want that to happen to Cameron.
So I sat down and penned a letter (I do this a lot for all my children) to Cameron. Something I hope will help him keep his innocent spirit of imagining and discovering alive. The more I wrote, the more I realized I’ve said this to my other kids (and students) in one form or another, so I decided to write an open letter to my children. All of them.
“I’ve written this letter in my mind millions of times. I write it when I ask for a hug just so I can have the opportunity to hold onto you. I know it won’t always be this easy to keep you close. I’ve been watching you carefully since you came into my life. I admire your creativity and belief in yourself. I love how if there’s something you want, in your heart you want to do, you never seem to doubt yourself. Whether it be jumping off the end of the couch or filming yourself playing your wrestling game so you can post it to YouTube with your commentary. I love how you listen to your own soul. And as long as I’m around, I promise to protect that part of you and never allow anyone to crush it. But there are also some things I want to share with you so you can help protect it too.
The first thing I want to tell you is not to allow anyone to place you in a box. Don’t let them limit you. Look up above toward the heavens to the planets that exist among the stars. Your feet can trod across those planets if that’s what you desire. Do what makes you happy and never stop listening to your own soul because it will let you know when you are happy. Don’t fight to silence that inner voice.
A big part of contemporary education involves learning to memorize facts and information. How to conform to what others see as successful. View education as only a tool you use to discover your best self. Become a well-rounded, well-educated young man but use the education to help you follow your passion. Never allow an education to become self-limiting. It doesn’t matter if you don’t score as well as the next person. What matters is that you put your best foot forward, give your best, and obtain all the knowledge you can. There’s never an excuse to be ignorant with so much information at our fingertips. But use the education don’t let an established system of meritocracy ever make you feel less than able to accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish. Follow your passion; don’t do what other people tell you you should do. Not even me.
Don’t ever try to be like “them.” Most of them are unhappy because they’ve become what society told them they had to become. But that doesn’t matter. Never judge your life or anything about your life by what “they” have. Play pretend. Imagine the impossible. Listen to the still small voice within your heart and your life will be so fulfilled that you won’t have time to get distracted by “them.”
Know your history. I know it’s hard to watch, read about, or listen to sometimes. But so what. Know what your ancestors suffered through in order to make life possible for you today. And never ever take their sacrifices for granted. Don’t believe the white-washed version of your history that you’ll learn in school. Remember, the goal of education is not to help you become a better you. Some things you have to learn on your own. Take an African-American history class. Take an African-American literature class. Learn about the Civil Rights Movement, learn who Dorothy Dandridge is and Josephine Baker, learn about Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, learn about Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, August Wilson, Gordon Parks, Black Wall Street, and Jacob Lawrence. Learn to differentiate a Romare Bearden from Henry Ossawa Turner. Learn about them like you did the planets when you discovered space. Trains. Wrestling. The rivers. Your addition facts. Listen the way you listened to your grandfather’s stories. Learn about the resiliency and strength of our people. Learn about how black people not only survived but thrived when the system tried to snuff the life out of them. And then you exhibit the same strength in following your dreams. Don’t let the system kill your dreams.
Love yourself. Perhaps I should have told you this first because this is so very important. Love yourself fully and completely. Learn what makes you smile. Learn what makes your heart flutter. Learn what you truly are and love yourself harder than anyone ever could. And once you love yourself, allow someone else to fall in love with you. Never settle. Never. You are too great to ever have anyone settle for you. and that includes you too. Know your own value. Never ever try to convince anyone to love you. And if you love yourself, you won’t fall into that trap. You’ll know that there’s never a need to show or prove to others your value. If they can’t see it, they’re not the one for you. Everyone is not meant to be a part of your life. And that’s okay.
If it scares you, you must do it at least once. If public speaking scares you, do it. If singing a song at the top of your lungs in the rain scares you, do it. If writing your own song scares you, do it. If starting a conversation with a stranger scares you, do it. I’m not encouraging you to put yourself in dangerous situations, but never let fear be a reason why you don’t do something you truly want to do. You can do whatever you have a strong enough desire to do. I promise you there’s a way. I also promise that if you take the risk despite your fear, you’ll feel so much better afterwards. You can be the president of the United States. You can become a judge. You can become a scientist. You can marry the woman of your dreams. You can spend your summers in Paris. You can fly to Africa and immerse yourself in the culture. You can fly a plane.
The police may follow you, may make U-turns to come and question you for living while black, but be respectful. Respect their authority, even if they don’t. So you can live to try and change the unfair and unjust systems. The systems that are intended to break you. Live.
And I mean live! Not just exist.
Don’t ever stop listening to your own soul. You were not created for mediocrity. You were not created to be less than you have the potential to be. Live your life with passion and purpose. Muhammad Ali said, “Live every day as if though it were your last because one do you’re going to be correct.” There’s so much truth in that statement. Don’t wait. You don’t have as much time as you think. Time goes by so quickly. So, don’t allow other people to tell you what you should be doing. Don’t let yourself be stuffed in a box just because other people are comfortable living there.
Don’t let anyone tell you what it means to be a black man. Don’t hurt people you love. Be honest. Live with integrity. Keep your word. Don’t have unprotected sex no matter how much in love you think you are because one day you might just know better. Wrap it up until you’re ready for a family. Don’t buy into the stereotypes, whether positive or negative. Be you! When you have children, don’t make them wonder where you are. Don’t make them long for your presence. Create the life you want. All your decisions, every day, determine the life you will lead. Make your decisions carefully. And when you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to start over. Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.” Please do. Never settle for anything. Live as if one day you’ll die because one day we all must die.
Lastly, don’t forget how much I love you. I will always love you. Especially during those times when I may have to say or do something that may temporarily upset you, please know that my love is always unwavering.”
Peace & Love,