I can say without hesitation or qualification that I have lived an absolutely charmed life! I have been blessed in ways that I can't even articulate with respect to the family that I have been surrounded by and the love and support that I have basked in every moment of my life. I recognize that most grow up exposed to much more of the "elements" of life that create pain and disappointment. On the other hand, it's been like I have been in a veritable hot tub of positivity, love, and nurturing for my days here! God blessed me first by birthing me to the most wonderful parents on the planet. They instilled in me the most important attributes of a happy, productive life – a profound understanding that I am loved, appreciated, and respected; a core appreciation for learning with a deep spirit of curiosity of the world, the basic belief and confidence that I can do what I want to do in life, an abiding appreciation for the love of family, and a overriding understanding that serving others is the highest human calling. I have been shaped and molded by those precepts and I am proud that they define who I am.
I am eternally grateful for having experienced 30+ years with all four of my grandparents – each who reinforced the lessons from my parents while complementing them with extraordinarily impactful texture and dimension of their own. My grandparents and I loved each other with a ferocity unrivaled! For the longest time, I was the only African American person I knew who grew up with both his two parents and all four grandparents. I remember in college being filled with intense gratitude at recognizing this fact about my life, but also feeling a deep sadness that none of my peers also was experiencing what I was.
Beyond the nuclear, I have also been blessed to be born into a family of ancestors noted for their character and achievement as well. While this has – in my weaker moments – created a bit of pressure and doubt as to whether I could live up to the path that they forged, the knowledge that I share a bit of DNA with those who came before me has fortified me in quite tangible ways. I can look to specific points in my life where when faced with doubt, I reflected on the challenges that past ancestors successfully overcame. Knowing that s/he achieved despite immensely greater odds and obstacles lent me confidence to push forward in my own life. Sometimes, it is those little bits of confidence that we reach back and grab onto that can make all the difference in the world. It has to me.
One of the ways that my family fortifies me is in their encouragement of me in the various endeavors of life. My parents always pushed me to be my best. My maternal grandfather, in particular, was a brilliant beacon leading by both word and example. The most valuable ˜thing' that I own today is a collection of letters that he and my maternal grandmother wrote me over the course of about 25 years. From the mid 1970's up until their death, they wrote me letters of encouragement and uplift that were powerful to me then, but even more so today. They demonstrated love and support. They encouraged. They gently pushed. They defined a proverbial "carrot" to which I should be striving toward in all aspects of my development and growth. Frankly – I am stilling striving to be the person that they thought I could be. Here is an example of something from my grandfather written 28 years ago. Dated June 12, 1979 it reads, in part:
Mama and Papa would like to greet you in a very special way as you reach your 17th birthday. We hope and pray for a great future for you and your life. You are fast reaching the age of adulthood. One year from now you will be old enough to exercise a citizen's right of voting and otherwise aiding in the selection of those persons who govern our society – it's really exciting, isn't it? Soon you may decide – I hope you do – to be among those who offer themselves and their dedicated service as a public official. In the meantime you must enter a period of intensive preparation – preparing yourself by reading, studying, reflecting, and trying to understand and to articulate the great issues which affect the lives of all of us – learning to understand and to express yourself, both in writing and vocally. These one has to do in order to stand and wage an effective battle for the poor and the powerless in our society.
Papa – and I am glad to have you call me Papa – is bringing to a close three terms of service in Durham as a member of the City Council. It has meant some sacrifice to me (but more to Mama) but I am very thankful to God who has given me excellent health and some insights concerning the needs of people, and I am grateful to the people of Durham who have supported all of my election efforts. I will continue to be active, of course. I have been blessed these 12 years to be there where the actions which affect the lives of all of our people take place. And I truly believe that my presence, my interests, and my speaking out for the concerns of these needs have had a telling affect on their behalf.
Now, I invite YOU, as a son, to take up the mantle and carry it to much loftier heights than I have ever dreamed of. I exhort you to "climb every mountain, ford every stream; follow every rainbow until you find your dream". If you have had any doubts about it, please believe me, you have the heart, you have the head to go places in this life for the benefit of those who need you. Mama and Papa love you and truly believe in you. We know that you will bring honor and prestige to your honorable and prestigious family.
We are enclosing a little check, Take it and use it for something you really need. I meant to say that Mama and Papa really enjoyed reading your last letter. Write us another.
Mama joins me in lots of love for your birthday.
I have a whole collection of letters just like this that are wonderful wellsprings of love and encouragement. They represent an enormous gift. To a young boy who profoundly loved and admired his grandfather – these letters were like tablets from heaven! To a grown man who has an even greater respect for his grandfather and all that he represented in life, they are even more precious to me now! Whenever life gets me down or I doubt my place or purpose in this world, these letters instantly refocus and uplift me. I sincerely wish that everyone had something like this to keep their chin up during life's travails. I only hope that I can pass this same gift on to my children and grandchildren in as meaningful and tangible a way as I received it.
Unfortunately society has a way of eroding the self-esteem and confidence of our people – particularly our boys. I pass this commentary, and the letter from my grandfather, along to you with the prayer that it might inspire some of you to reach out to your children to make sure they have as strong a foundation as possible with which to tackle the world. You can be sure that I'm trying with my four sons!!