To be, rather than to seem.
I’ve borrowed this motto from my grandmother, Susie Williams Jones. It captioned her high school yearbook photo. My grandmother was the embodiment of “to be.” The daughter of former slaves who went on to earn a college degree, she lived a life of great purpose as a church and community activist. In her home, on the campus of the historically black Bennett College where my grandfather was president, I learned to approach the world with frankness and commitment, tinged with joy whenever possible. “To be,” for my grandmother, was to live out each day with integrity and without pretense. Her life embodied the best of who I strive to be.
“To be” is the quality I try to bring to my work as a writer, teacher, curator, and commentator. To achieve this requires approaching each task by knowing what is expected, and then setting expectations aside. It means peeling away layers and lifting the veil to discover a kernel of truth. To be my authentic self requires burrowing deep and then surfacing to bring new ideas into the light. This is my approach to research, where I explore the history of race, gender, and inequality in the nineteenth-century United States. It informs my commentary as I analyze present day dynamics of race and inequality. It is there in my creative non-fiction, where I explore the inner recesses of my family and our lives lived along America’s color line. Public speaking brings me before many sorts of audiences, but my toughest yet was a room filled with 200 fourth and fifth graders. I think I survived only because I remembered to, above all else, just be.
To my grandmother’s outlook I would add one ingredient: Love. My ideas about love are informed by thinkers from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Thomas Merton and Mary McLeod Bethune. Love here is not romance. Instead, love is the highest expression of our humanity. It enables us to transcend ourselves and work in communion with others toward just ends. In my work – be it as a lawyer, organizer, historian, or teacher – good fortune has led to meaningful collaborations. Out of store fronts in East Harlem and the Lower East Side, I was an advocate for people too often forsaken. From Columbia’s campus on the hill to Michigan’s sprawling Big Ten scene, I teach diverse and compelling students from whom I have learned so much. On public history projects, my collaborators include curators, archivists, and teams from communications and facilities with whom I bring the past to life for large audiences. Throughout, no one idea has proven to be more powerful than that of love. It is the ethic that I bring to all my life’s tasks. And of this I think my grandmother would approve.