If you are a black generation Xer it’s likely you’ve heard similar maxims from the black oral tradition that I did.
“Nothing beats a failure like a try,” my people said.
“Once you get your education, no one can take it away from you.”
“I don’t care if you are a janitor or street sweeper, just be the best janitor or best street sweeper you can be.”
And, who can ever forget “never quit a job before you have another one”?
That last one was from my grandfather, a man who was fully dressed and listening to news radio with a cup of Folgers every day before sunrise.
“Boy, if I was growing up in your time I’d be a millionaire” he’d say. With his work ethic that was a real possibility.
Did they lie to me?
What they told me during my childhood helped back then but it isn’t adding up all these years later now that I’m a worried parent sending bright and creative children into a racist world where most of the respectability rules do little to keep us safe.
I now realize these words they handed down were more than prescriptions for a life well-lived. Underneath they were forward thinking touchstones to be unboxed later when I realized the white world would judge unfairly, discriminate often, and show hostility to my agency.
The instructions our families gave us came from a concern that we needed to be prepared morally and intellectually to be productive and useful adults, just as all young people do, but even more so for us because we were born into a racial last place.
I need to be clear that I’m not discounting what they taught me. In its time and context their lessons were on the money. Their knowledge prevented me from wilting in tough times and caused me to carve my own path even as everything around me told me not to.
But in my lifetime, I’ve seen their advice challenged by the cold reality that no matter how good you are, how fast you run, how brilliant your plan, how innocent your life, you are still liable to the permanence and retribution of white supremacy. All of your self-concept can be erased at a traffic stop, a football field, or a tennis court. Whether pimp or president America will ask for your birth certificate and it will always read 3/5’s human.
So, what I tell my children to inspire them toward achievement while also preparing them for the ice-cold reality of a world where the ultimate authority lies with people who will often be supremely irrational?
I fear I lack the insight of my elders, but here’s what I know: A try does in fact beat a failure. It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up. As my grandmother told me: “when you’re in a fight, win, lose, or draw, make sure the other guy knows he was in a fight.”
Even if you’re going to get your ass kicked, make sure to leave scars on your opponent.
And, once you get an education the fight isn’t over, but it’s damn sure easier than if you don’t.
Even as we’re told by a widening network of very smart people who went to very smart schools and got very smart credentials that education is not a great equalizer or a path out of poverty, welfare and prisons are containers with people with failed educations.
At the same time every power room in America is standing room only with degreed people.
When some of those degreed people say college isn’t for everyone, or “even if you get a college degree it doesn’t mean you will beat racism,” I’ll smile, look away, and tell my kids “college is for you.”
Game will always recognize game.
In that way Serena Williams is a good model for us all. Her recent dustup with a tennis official left her – a powerful athlete and an undeniable champion – in tears saying “it’s not fair.” But it wasn’t a whimpering kind of “it’s not fair.” It wasn’t defeat or resignation. It wasn’t accommodation or subservience. It was truth telling that bore risks.
“You owe me an apology” she demanded and a strong voice that could easily belong to all of our ancestors speaking from the grave.
As someone who beat all the odds coming straight out of Compton to the highest rung of what of the whitest sports, she maintained her poise and realism. You can be tops in any field, but remember the struggle will never end. Win, lose, or draw, you return to the court prepared to leave scars if necessary.
Point. Set. Match.