Sunday, March 22, 2009

My Inconvenient Truth...

I remember the day when I tested for Mensa. I was absolutely certain I'd qualify. My certainty may have seemed a bit strange given that I had walked such a bizarre, several-years long, and circuitous path to arrive at that testing facility... But at the moment when we turned over our tests to begin, I was fully confident that had the test been written in Mandarin, somehow I'd understand it. As I began to answer the questions there before me, I couldn't help but smile... one by one, they all seemed so easy. When it was finished, the 7 of us who tested that day walked out of the Interfaith Ministries building and out into the parking lot. As sure as I was standing, I knew I'd conquered it. I felt like I'd knocked out the heavyweight champ in the first round.

It was just a few short weeks afterwards when I received a letter in the mail from American Mensa. It was my test score (back in the days when Mensa still mailed out test scores). I opened it anxiously and learned that I'd tested within the 99th percentile; above the requisite score for Mensa. I celebrated by joining Mensa, and Intertel, and making an application to ISPE.

My confidence, then and now, stand in stark contrast to the self-doubt and low expectations that I had internalized for all the many years before. I hadn't come from a prestigious school or a well-to-do neighborhood. Aside from a friend of my Grandmother, I had no real educational or professional role models. I was a terrible student with near failing grades, proficient in the art of 'just getting by'. I imagined a world of mediocre possibilities where my ambitions were modest still. I didn't believe in myself or the limitlessness of my potential because ironically, I didn't know that people like me existed.

My aspirations were set low enough to nullify the normal consequences of bad behavior. I made a countless number of bad choices; smoking, fighting, stealing, and drinking, all the while believing that none of these things would in any way jeopardize a life to be spent as a famous rapper or data entry clerk.

It wasn't until I was serving in the Military, walking the banks of the Panama Canal during Operation 'Just Cause' that I began to re-evaluate my life. I remembered that I was the child who was in 'Major Work' at Gracemount Elementary. I remembered that I was the child who started the science club in 4th grade. I remembered that I was the child who got to read his reports over the school's PA system, I was once a straight A student, I did have elementary school teachers like Mr. Charles Pattillo who really nurtured me and told me I was brilliant. And I remembered that my mother and father had always believed in me and my abilities; even when I didn't believe it myself. And I decided, right then, that I would re-learn, regain, and reclaim, any gifts the Lord had seen fit to bestow.

I began to read... anything that interested me, I read... I studied everything from epistemology to fatalism, from Nietzsche to Rand, Religion to Race, Tasawwuf to Tai Chi, and from American history to our contemporary social organizations and structures. And from then until now, I engaged in a constant process of rediscovery and acceptance.

So on that day when I arrived at Interfaith to take the Mensa exam, I felt like there was no question that I couldn't answer. I was smart; damn smart, and I knew it. Through this test, I intended to proclaim it to all who would listen; I intended to refute the negativity, the doubt, the stereotypes, and the stunted aspirations of those in our community who'd never used the words "black" and "genius" in the same sentence. I knew I would qualify; I had to... Through my own myopia, self-doubt, and bad choices I had nearly thrown away my gift and I vowed to do all that I could to prevent other young men and women in our community from doing the same. I was there to take that test because I wanted my story to provide inspiration to parents who inwardly know that their children are brilliant even though their grades may not reflect it. I wanted my example to demonstrate to our youth that there is nothing wrong with knowing the answers to difficult and obscure questions. I knew that I had to take that test, because I wanted to provide the youth of our community with an intellectual role model; one whose accomplishments were not buttressed and could not be explained away by economic or educational privilege.

So last spring, when I received an email asking me if I would be willing to be interviewed for a 60 minutes story about Mensa, I jumped at the chance... I saw it as an opportunity to provide a real challenge to the cycle of self-perpetuating intellectual violence that sentences generations of our children  to lives of mediocrity when they are capable of excellence. I saw it as an opportunity to stand up and tell the truth about the Hobgoblins of "talking white" or "acting white" and to directly confront the notion of black inferiority. I hoped that my story would publicly assault the myth of exceptionalism and show that extraordinary gifts can be found in ordinary folks.

Last evening, I received an email from a producer at CBS who apologized and let me know that the program, originally intended for 60 minutes, was a bit long for CBS Sunday Morning so the Sunday Morning editors cut my interview from the story. Still, I set my alarm clock and got up to watch the segment just the same.

...I can hardly describe how that felt....

I had spent more than 2 hours with the staff and crew from CBS, both in the interview and walking around the convention. We exchanged numerous emails and phone calls, discussing not only my involvement in Mensa, but also my reasons, my life, my story, and what I'd hoped it could accomplish... But in the final edit, the only black male who appeared in the story was a cartoon character from the Simpsons...

So, to my title; my inconvenient truth is this: There is a direct relationship between aspiration and consequence. Set the bar low enough, and even crime can be without consequence... But when one aspires to affect change in weighty matters such as race, intelligence, and the myth of black inferiority, virtually all actions (and inactions) have consequences. From this perspective, this show was far more than a missed opportunity.

The segment was intended to introduce the Nation to the world of the highly gifted. Yet it was edited and presented in such a way that would lead the casual observer to conclude that this world was one where Blacks were absent. Not because it is so... no, the 60 minutes crew had already filmed evidence to the contrary. But it was presented that way because while in the editing process, someone made the conscious decision to excise that footage. Without personally ascribing any sinister motives to that decision, there is no question that the final cut served to reinforce the very notions I joined Mensa to combat. Like the dog that didn't bark, our absence tells a story. And the story it tells is all the more disheartening when you consider that our "absence" was contrived.

Simply put, it matters...

This truth is inconvenient because it calls us to higher degree of sensitivity. This truth is inconvenient because it tells us that racial stereotypes and myths persist only with our active consent, which we continuously grant in the form of the stories we teach and tell, and those we don't. For my part, I will continue in my efforts to affect change through my story... But I would ask CBS, will you?

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Jung/Myers Briggs

INTJ - "Mastermind". Introverted intellectual with a preference for finding certainty. A builder of systems and the applier of theoretical models. 2.1% of total population.
Free Jung Personality Test (similar to Myers-Briggs/MBTI)

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