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Success and the Black Cause

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Recently on the sports talk show "First Take," ESPN's Rob Parker made a few remarks in reference to Washington's rookie standout quarterback Robert Griffin, III. In particular, Parker questioned RGIII's "blackness." Parker referred to discussions with his colleagues in which they wondered if the Rookie of the Year candidate was a "brother or a cornball brother." This comment raises several questions: what is a cornball brother in the first place? Why is a discussion of racial identity necessary on a sports talk show? What does any of this have to do with Griffin's ability to play football? As many Americans voiced these questions, I argue that Parker -- whether through his own desire for publicity or through pure honesty in that moment -- has touched on a much larger conversation that has plagued the African American community for some time now:

In today's social media-driven, hyperactive 24 hour news cycle, what does it mean to be black and successful?

My parents grew up in a small South Carolinian town during the 1960s. It is a beautiful, quiet place filled with farm land and peach orchards. Both sides of my extended family, from great aunts and uncles to my sister and nephew, still reside there today. But in the 1960s, South Carolina was not the most racially harmonious place. My parents met as young teenagers attending the same small segregated high school and would stay together for the next 42 years, until my father's passing in August of this year. Growing up, my parents would occasionally reminisce about stories of segregation and racial mistreatment. In time they found their way to higher education through the marching band and ultimately attended the same historically black college. Their time together was interrupted once by my father's drafting into Vietnam. They married before he left and on his return both finished school and began their life together. They entered that new endeavor with a particular thought in mind: do everything you can to ensure that your children will have a better life.

They sacrificed and dealt with injustice hoping that my sister and I would not be judged on the basis of our race. We were ordered to make good grades, to speak with proper diction, to mind our manners and behave. I don't call my elders "sir" or "ma'am" because of the Army; I do it because in the back of my head I can still hear my parents scolding me when I don't address people properly. Courtesy is not a black thing or even a Southern thing for us. Courtesy is respect, refinement, intelligence, and treating people the way you wished to be treated. And as I grew up in a predominantly white Southern community, I put my parents' teachings to good use and became very successful. I was student council president. I did well in school. I made it to West Point. During this time, I made friends with whom I'm still very close today. The majority of those men that I view as lifelong friends and brothers happen to be white. My parents taught us early on to see beyond race, and view people for who they truly are. I affiliated myself with people based on common interests, personalities, and interactions. I had friends both white and black, but I never chose to isolate myself in one particular group, so that I wouldn't lose opportunities to meet new people and have new experiences. As a result of my cross-racial friendships, I have been called an "Uncle Tom" and my blackness has been questioned. I was labeled based on the way I presented myself and the friends I had. This is why Parker's comments struck such a personal chord for me. To this day I wonder: what does it mean to be black?

If I had chosen to speak slang constantly, to dress more in line with the hip hop culture, to isolate myself with other children of color, would that have satisfied those individuals? In their minds, and in the mind of Parker, is this what Black America represents? Does it matter that RGIII has a white fiancée? (Should it be noted that he's dated the same young woman since college?) Am I less of a black man because I, too, have dated out of my race? What about RGIII's teammate and fellow rookie sensation Alfred Morris who still drives a 1991 Mazda 626 because he wanted to stay grounded? That's not something a "typical black athlete" would do, is it? Showing humility and maturity -- is that a "cornball" move, too? RGIII is an incredibly articulate leader and well respected in the locker room. And he's done this with the help of a team that is still arguably rebuilding turn around a franchise at its breaking point. I believe he can continue to represent a people and culture without being narrowly defined within a stereotypical construct.

And why are we even injecting race into discussions about a quarterback? Why can't we simply be Americans who strive for greatness in all we do without adding additional labels? All races should have pride in their heritage and cultural identity, but they can do so without letting those traits and history narrowly define them. I believe this is where Parker and those who might flat-out agree with him do themselves a great injustice. We live at a time in which our president is multi-racial. Two of the last three Secretaries of State have been black. We have more leaders in industry, higher learning, professional sports executive levels, and national media that are black than at any other time in the history of this country. Why would we continue to begin this sensationalized debate on race that only lowers us as a nation and takes us back 50 years?

Don't get me wrong -- I don't believe that things are by any means perfect. We still have a long way to go in terms of respecting cultural differences and attempting to understand the mindsets of others. In that regard I believe it is necessary to address thoughts such as those expressed by Parker. However, based on the venue and the inflammatory nature of the comments, I'm concerned that it wasn't Parker's intent to begin a national dialogue on racial tolerance and cultural identification. I think he was a guy that wanted people to remember his name and tune in to his show. It's unfortunate for RGIII, sports fans, and the nation as a whole, that to begin a mature and honest conversation, we ultimately had to give him what he wanted.