Open the Unusual Door: True Life Stories of Challenge, Adventure, and Success by Black Americans

Overview

Sometimes life offers us chances to change our direction. These opportunities can be obvious, but many times they come as a surprise and, if we’re not paying close attention, we can miss the door leading to change. All of the authors in this inspiring collection took advantage of the hand they were dealt—a chance to triumph, make a comeback, or, in some cases, simply survive. Barbara Summers has selected an intriguing collection of autobiographical essays and edited them into a thought-provoking anthology that ...

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Overview

Sometimes life offers us chances to change our direction. These opportunities can be obvious, but many times they come as a surprise and, if we’re not paying close attention, we can miss the door leading to change. All of the authors in this inspiring collection took advantage of the hand they were dealt—a chance to triumph, make a comeback, or, in some cases, simply survive. Barbara Summers has selected an intriguing collection of autobiographical essays and edited them into a thought-provoking anthology that teaches us how to recognize the right door, open it, and find the strength to walk through it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Derek Jeter describes his start as a Class A Tampa Rookie League player when he first signed with the Yankees as a humbling experience; Queen Latifah's narrative unspools with the hip-hop beat that first "lure[d]" her to the world of music and rap; and for Colin Powell, his father, a Jamaican immigrant, was "the dominant figure of my youth." These are three of the 16 stories included in Open the Unusual Door: True Life Stories of Challenge, Adventure, and Success by Black Americans, edited by Barbara Summers. The brief biographies may well inspire readers young and old. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
This book includes brief memoirs of sixteen famous and successful African Americans who have triumphantly overcome the odds that they have faced in their lives. Stories of heartbreak, hope, and learning show how they were able to make decisions that positively affected their lives and made them the success stories they are today. Memoirs are included from people in various areas of popular culture and politics, including Derek Jeter, Queen Latifah, Colin Powell, and Whoopi Goldberg. Adolescents can read and become inspired by these stories of real people—people who offer anecdotes, encouragement, and advice for the days and troubles that lie ahead. I thoroughly enjoyed this book; it shows adolescents the ways famous people fought racism, classism, and sexism. These stories tell about real people's lives and are not sugar-coated; they do not try to hide the way that life really is or was for these authors. The authors have created a form of literature that is representative of real life and real African-American culture. 2005, Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Company, Ages 12 to Adult.
—Carole Price
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-A wonderful cross section of excerpts from published autobiographies. The 16 stories tell of challenges met and opportunities recognized and realized. Colin Powell's recollection of his introduction to the military life at City College in New York City stands alongside Russell Simmons's retelling of the turning point in his life when, at 16 years of age, he shot at and missed a fellow drug dealer. Peter Westbrook, the world-champion fencer, talks about his Japanese-immigrant mother bribing him to take fencing lessons to keep him off the Newark streets. Whoopi Goldberg discusses being on welfare and using that experience as a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. Each selection deals with that point in the life of the subject when the opportunity to make a life change offered itself. This little gem of a book should be a first purchase for public and school libraries.-Carol Jones Collins, Columbia High School, Maplewood, NJ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618585311
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,038,949
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Summers’ published work includes Black and Beautiful: How Women of Color Changed the Fashion Industry. She edited I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America and is currently at work on a novel about the Harlem Renaissance. She lives in New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

Before the great writer James Baldwin knew he was a writer—and long before
he became great—he had the good fortune to meet an artist, a painter, a
man who saw something in his young brown face that made him want to
open the door and invite Baldwin inside. Walking through that door changed
Baldwin's life, opened it up to all sorts of experiences he had never imagined.
Baldwin recounts how this painter, Beauford Delaney, often sang Lord, open
the unusual door.

Whether to let someone in or walk through it oneself, at some
point in life we all face an unusual door. Even the people behind the famous
names in this book.
The artists and athletes, the scientists and entrepreneurs, the
thinkers and doers who speak in this collection all faced challenges and
made choices. Many were very young at the time. Antwone Fisher was born
in prison and spent his entire youth without a home to call his own. Dexter
Scott King was only seven when his famous father was assassinated.
Russell Simmons was sixteen when he almost shot a man, not in a rap song
but in real life.
Of course, not all of the storytellers here were so young when they faced a
door or a difficult passage or, simply, the blank unknown. And not all serious
challenges must involve life or death. They don't have to be loud and
explosive to be dramatic or life- changing.
Sometimes the choice is a quiet one. Like the choice Neil deGrasse Tyson
made at age nine to make the study of the stars his life's work. After his first
exciting visit to the Hayden Planetarium, his eyes were opened to the
majestic night sky in a way thatmade him never stop wanting to learn more.
Sometimes the challenge comes from an argument with someone you can't
beat, someone like Mother Nature. Dangerous, stormy weather arose just
when Michael Cottman, a scuba diver, tried to reach back through time to an
ancient sunken slave ship.
But then sometimes the challenge comes from a debate you have with
yourself. Like the understanding Whoopi Goldberg struggled to reach when
her fourteen-year-old daughter announced that she was pregnant. What
Whoopi wanted for her daughter was not what her daughter wanted for
herself. And yet, the fundamental issue was choice—Who decides? And
how? And what are the consequences?
What all of these people experienced—in one way or another—required them
to look hard at the changes they wanted and needed to make in order to
better their lives. They had to open up to new ways of thinking, doing, and
living. That is why their stories are gathered here as examples of challenge
and choice.
Even I have a story to add. When I started putting this collection together, I
read dozens of memoirs by interesting people. Deciding on the final list was
tough. I felt almost as if I had to choose between my best friends. How would
they feel if they were rejected? How would I feel if it happened to me? I soon
found out.
One of the people I wanted to include was Dr. Benjamin Carson. Dr. Carson
is a world-renowned neurosurgeon who specializes in healing children. As a
child himself, though, he had a vicious temper and a bad attitude toward
schoolwork. How he turned around, with the help of his dedicated mother and
teachers, made for an unusually happy ending. I had to have a piece of his
book to put in the one you're holding in your hands right now. Turns out, that
wasn't possible. I felt a little sad. He did, however, invite me to talk face-to-
face with him at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. I felt much better.
If you haven't heard this lesson before, hear it from me now: When one door
closes, another one opens.
I don't know about you, but a hospital is a place I like to visit as rarely as
possible. Still, once inside, I navigated the long hallways, finally pushed open
the door to Pediatric Neurosurgery, and shook hands with Dr. Carson.
Instantly I forgot that these hands were the same ones that had tried to stab
another kid when he was a teenager, and now performed the miraculous
surgery that separated Siamese twins, removed brain tumors, and saved
lives.
I knew that he would be making rounds shortly and that we had no time to
waste. He knew what I was after and got right to that point in his early life
when he had to make a choice:
"I was a person who thought he had a lot of rights. The more rights you think
you have, the more someone is going to infringe on them. It got me thinking
that when you get angry and lash out, the person most likely to be hurt is
you. You hurt yourself. I began to recognize that it's not a matter of what
rights you have or don't have. It's a matter of what opportunities you have.
"One of the things that happened after the stabbing incident—from that day
till this—I started reading the book of Proverbs every day. There's an awful lot
of wisdom there. It says stuff like a person who can listen is wise; a person
who cannot listen is a fool; and a fool is always right in his own eyes. I said,
That sounds just like me. I said, You're a fool, and you need to figure out how
not to be a fool. I kept reading and reading, and I realized that what I needed
to do was listen, listen to people who've already been through it, because
many times they had to learn the hard way. You don't have to learn the hard
way."
Profit from others' experience. Keep learning. Strive for excellence. Achieve
academically. These are some of the things Dr. Carson emphasized in his
talk with me. When I closed the door to his office in the hospital I felt
strengthened in my resolve to put together a book as rich and inspiring as I
could.
What happened next?
That's the question that drives all stories forward, and the ones in this
anthology are no exception. Each story is told in a different way, just as each
life is lived in a unique way. But all the authors share something in common:
a willingness to open the door to readers. They invite us in to tell us what
happened to them and what they did to make things happen. They let us see
who they are, what they think, and how they feel.
So consider this introduction a welcome mat, and open the unusual door.
You might be letting in a stranger who becomes a good friend. Or you might
be letting yourself out to face a brand-new world. Either way, you can't lose.
What are you waiting for? Go ahead. Open it.

DEREK JETER wears number 2 on his New York Yankees uniform, but to
many fans he is number one. Since 1995 he has helped the Yankees reach
the World Series six times and win the Series four times. A gifted athlete, his
steady focus, hard work, and passion for baseball made him a leader and
eventually captain of the team. In 1996 he established the Turn 2 Foundation
which funds college scholarships and provides leadership and antidrug
programs as well as baseball clinics. Although Jeter earned $15 million in
2003, he is careful to insist that he makes the money; money doesn't make
him.
Rookie
I remember sitting in my hotel room on a warm evening in July in Tampa,
Florida, feeling antsy. It was too warm to stay inside the room. Besides that,
I had too many questions swimming through my mind about where I was and
what I was doing.
So I ventured out onto the balcony. I watched the cars buzzing by.
I counted the cars, counted how long it took for the light to turn from green to
red. I did anything to keep me from focusing on baseball. I don't know how
long I was out there, but I didn't get any answers right away.
I couldn't escape from baseball. I felt like I had already failed. I
had been playing with the Class A Tampa Rookie League team for about a
week and it had been torturous since I failed to get a hit in my first 14 at
bats. I stood on that balcony and questioned myself. Had I made the right
decision in signing a professional contract at eighteen? Of course, everyone
would say. You were the sixth pick of the draft and the first high school
player selected, you were fortunate to go to the team you cherished, and you
received a signing bonus of $800,000. How could I possibly think of that as a
mistake?
But the money wasn't helping me much as I stood there watching
cars and doubting myself. I could have attended the University of Michigan on
a baseball scholarship, and I would have spent my first year playing baseball
and hanging out in a dormitory room with no pressure on me. My toughest
decision probably would have been whether to get pepperoni or sausage on
my pizza. Instead, I felt like I'd never felt before in my life. Lost.
I had imagined being in this hallowed position for over a decade,
wearing a Yankee uniform, earning a paycheck from the Yankees, and
playing baseball every day. I knew it was going to be an adjustment from high
school to pro baseball, but I hadn't expected to feel as overwhelmed as I did.
I hadn't imagined that I'd wind up crying in my hotel room night after night
because I was playing so poorly.
When I got to the rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League, I
was late so I missed the first two weeks of the season. I was even late for my
first game. The players took the fifty-two-mile ride from Tampa to Sarasota on
a crowded bus that day. I must have looked like a prima donna when I
hopped out of the air-conditioned car of the vice president of player
development, with a duffel bag over my shoulder. The Yankees didn't let me
play on that first day, a day when the main thing I learned was to stop tilting
my cap back on my head like I was a big man on campus. As a Yankee, you
tugged the cap down tight over your brow to look neat and professional.
I just watched, said hello if someone said hello to me, and tried to
get acclimated. The nightmare started the next day, when I went 0 for 7 and
struck out five times in a doubleheader. I also made a throwing error on a
grounded up the middle that caused us to lose one game. I had struck out
just once in 59 at bats during my senior year of high school, so you can
imagine how I felt. I felt like going home that very first day. Could someone
erase this day from my life and let me start over?

As much as my family was prepared for me to leave, the finality of
it still caught us by surprise. My sister Sharlee was about to become a
teenager, and she was mad at the Yankees for taking me away from her
when she knew that she would need an older brother the most. My mother
was concerned because I didn't know how to iron or how to cook and I had to
live on my own. I was leaving, and if everything proceeded as planned, I would
be gone for good.
My father drove me to the airport the day I departed. I got on that
plane with a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat, and the only thing that
prevented me from crying was thinking I might see someone I knew.
Even though I had been voted the finest high school player in the
country and was the first high school player drafted, I'd come from
Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the talent level there was not nearly as rich as it
is in many of the warm-weather states. We only played about two dozen
games a year, and we played lots of doubleheaders to take advantage of any
decent weather we had. If a pitcher threw 85 miles per hour in Kalamazoo, he
was considered untouchable. In rookie ball, everyone threw harder than that.
The pitches looked like Tic Tacs. So I wondered if I was really as good as
everyone had predicted, and that's what brought me out to the balcony on
that warm night.
I had doubts. I felt like I was overmatched in everything. The
whole game seemed like it was moving in fast-forward. The mound seemed
like it was 80 feet away, instead of 60 feet 6 inches. The throw from shortstop
to first base felt like I was throwing it from center field to home plate. It
seemed like everyone else was on Rollerblades while I was slogging through
quicksand. I was using a wooden bat, not aluminum, for the first time, and
that was an adjustment.
I still think that the rookie league is one of the toughest leagues
any player ever has to conquer. The games in the Gulf Coast League were
played in sweltering ninety-degree heat throughout Florida and there are very
few spectators. If you're not doing well, and I wasn't, you can let those dreary
elements get to you.
I always liked to play in front of crowds as a kid. My mother used
to say it was like I was on Broadway. I would try on my uniform the night
before a game to see how I looked in it. I did that from Little League through
high school, parading around my house like I was a model on the catwalk.
Now, a few weeks after I had forty scouts at some of my games, I was
playing in the pros and there might be as few as a dozen people there. It
shouldn't have bothered me, but it did.
I could have really disintegrated in rookie ball. I could have
crumbled and never recovered. But I kept getting positive reinforcement from
the Yankees and from my parents. The Yankees have an organizational rule
that they will not alter anything a player does in his throwing, hitting, fielding,
or running until he has been with the team for at least thirty days. They don't
want young players to show up and feel like everything they have ever done is
incorrect. They do it to help build and maintain confidence.
I think it's a smart approach, and I think it helped me work through
my problems. Even though I was struggling, I didn't have coaches berating
me for what I might have done wrong. When I was trying to establish myself, I
wanted to feel as though I was making progress and doing something
worthwhile. My statistics stunk, but I didn't lose all of my confidence.
I have to give them credit for their strategy. They worked hard to
keep me focused on what I was doing well and explained why I was still
pretty good at some of the things I hadn't mastered yet. I think that's a great
approach for everyone, not just baseball players. If you can remember one or
two positives from your pursuit of a certain goal, you'll begin each day with
confidence.
It's hard to overlook mistakes, and we shouldn't ignore them,
because we can learn from them. But when you're really toiling, you need to
find those shreds of optimism and cling to them. The Yankees saw me as a
long-term investment, the way a good teacher would notice a potentially
stellar student during his freshman year. The teacher shouldn't worry if the
kid has a little trouble in his freshman year because the goal is to equip him
to make it to college by the time his four years are up.
The Yankees didn't talk about my batting average much in that
first year. They told me that I had a nice feel for the barrel of the bat, that I
was being selective, and that I wasn't totally fooled by breaking pitches. They
liked my habits and my approach and told me that no one would ever
remember what I batted in my first year.
The Yankees started me at Class A Greensboro in the 1993
season and that felt more like the big leagues to me because we'd have a
few thousand people at every game. I was there at the start of the season
and that made a difference, too. I did well offensively, hitting .295 with 5
homers and 71 RBIs.
But I just couldn't get comfortable on defense. By the third week, I
was hoping that no one would ever hit another grounder to me. My footwork
was lousy; I was bobbling balls before I could make plays; and I was trying to
do too much with my arm.
The Yankees took computer images of me fielding, slide-by-slide
snapshots of what I did at shortstop. I was doing things that I didn't even
realize. Those images really opened my eyes to the work I needed to do.
Sometimes I fielded a grounder and tapped the ball against my glove before
throwing to first, losing valuable time. I was like a seven-foot center who
doesn't realize that he dribbles the ball after grabbing a rebound, instead of
taking it right back up and dunking.
You have to want to improve. We all know what we can and can't
do, and it's up to us to try to eliminate whatever weaknesses we can. Be
honest with yourself, tell yourself how you need to improve, and then work on
making those improvements.
When you go into a situation expecting to succeed, whatever
good happens shouldn't surprise you. I don't think I'm being cocky when I act
that way. It's just the mentality that I have. You should always think that
you're going to be successful and you should always want to be successful.
If it doesn't work out for you and you strike out with the winning run on third
or you fail your driver's test, you have to acknowledge that something went
wrong, and adjust your actions and go after it again the next time. The next
time you try that task, don't think about the time you faltered. Think about all
of the times in which you have excelled. That's the path back to success.
One of the more disappointing things you can do to yourself is not
even try to do something because you're afraid of failing. Maybe you want to
design clothes or run marathons or work in Europe for a year. Don't shy away
from it, because ten years from now you will be asking yourself if you could
have done it. That's why I work so hard now – because I don't want to
question whether I could have done more with my career when it ends. I'm
never going to put myself in a position where I wish I could have done more.
We control what we do with our lives. Don't be afraid to use that control to
make things happen.
Everyone wants to be known as a big-game player in professional
sports. When I come to bat in a pivotal spot, I want people to say, "Uh-oh,
here he comes." That's the way it was with Michael Jordan and that's the
way it is with Tiger Woods. If you plant that seed in someone's head, it's one
more thing for them to think about while they're trying to beat you. I'm always
confident because I know I've done well before so I expect to do it again. If a
pitcher senses that I'm confident, it works to my advantage.
This strategy can help you in any walk of life. You have to want to
show everyone that you're good, even great, at what you do. For me, the
important things in my life are baseball and trying to remain the same person
I've always been. For you, it can be anything. Just have a passion for what
you're doing.

QUEEN LATIFAH changed her name from Dana Owens when she broke into
hip-hop, adding a strong female voice to the male-dominated mix. She
challenged lyrics and attitudes that insulted women. By bringing her sassy
self-confidence to the fore, Latifah emphasized the importance of self-
knowledge and self-respect. When a tragic event tested her core values, she
fought her way back to strength. She expanded her award-winning singing
career into producing and acting. In television and movies, Queen Latifah has
developed into a proud, full-figured, full-fledged star.
A New Attitude
The music was the lure. Funky beats I had never heard before, brash words
spoken in rhyme. Kids—dressed in fly sweat suits, baggy jeans, and the
latest sneakers—danced in the center of the floor, surrounded by crowds
forty and fifty deep. And onstage at any given night—Grandmaster Flash,
Dougie Fresh, Eric B. and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, the Beastie Boys, Run-
D.M.C., MC Lyte. This was the Latin Quarters, the mecca of hip-hop in the
mid-1980s. And I was right there in the thick of it all, taking it in.
This was my education in the world of rap. For my mother, it was
Excedrin Headache number 9. I was definitely too young to be going to New
York City all alone and hanging out all night. Looking back on it, I say to
myself, "What were you thinking?!" I was blinded.
But in truth, I do know what I was thinking. Immediately, I was one
with this world. My blood beat to its beat. Not only did I want to be there, I
had to be there, and nothing was going to stop me.
Rap was the newest music. Overnight, it seemed, rap had
become the common language of youth. But it wasn't just music.
It was an expression, a culture, an attitude.
When I came onto the scene, rap was entering a new phase, with
KRS-One, Public Enemy, and the Jungle Brothers. The consciousness
movement was emerging. It was not just simple rhymes over the most
popular songs; the music was about saying something.
Hip-hop transcended ethnic and racial lines. Young people were
getting the chance to voice their opinion, and everyone—from the kids around
the way to the mainstream public to the big white men at the record
companies—was paying attention to it. And simply by being there, I was one
of the people making the culture. It was amazing to be a part of such a force.
The Latin Quarters was on the corner of Forty-eighth Street and
Broadway. It doesn't exist anymore. When I was coming up it was vintage
Times Square, with its funky movie theaters, peep shows, Playland, fake-ID
shops, shady characters, and danger. I ate it up.
The Latin Quarters wrote the bible of hip-hop for me. I would bring
the music, the vibe, the dances back to East Orange, New Jersey, and to
Irvington High. Every night, through the Lincoln Tunnel, I was transporting
clothing styles and a new lingo that turned out to be more than a passing fad:
a dialect that still sticks.
In charge of activities at Irvington High School, my mother was
responsible for getting DJs for the class parties. One day she introduced me
to Mark the 45 King. He was from the Bronx, where rap began, and he was a
master on the turntables. Mark and I hit it off right away. I started hanging out
with his boys after school in his basement in Irvington. That was Jersey's
Rap Central, where everybody was writing rhymes and trying out over Mark's
mixes. At first I sucked. But I knew I had it in me. I could hear in my head
the way I wanted to sound. It was just a matter of getting it from my brain to
my voice.
Mark's basement was always buzzing with people from the
neighborhood—and eventually we became a posse. I was the only female MC
in the group and the youngest, so I called myself Princess of the Posse.
Down there the world was far away and time ceased to exist. We were about
the music. Only the music.
The Burger King on High Street in Newark gave me the money to
afford my hip-hop education. We'd all meet at Burger King on Saturdays after
I got off, around 11:00 PM. In the bathroom, I would change out of my ugly
brown, orange, and yellow outfit and into my hip-hop gear—a Swatch sweat
suit, a pair of K-Swiss sneakers, some scrunchy Guess socks, a Benetton
fisherman's hat, and either my Benetton or Swatch backpack.
I was geared down; you couldn't tell me nothing. When the Burger
King clothes came off, I put on a whole new attitude. My brother had saved
up for a nice gold rope chain, and we would alternate wearing that one chain.
But I would never wear it to the city. I saw too many people get their chains
snatched, either on the train or in the club. I basically played it cool and
watched.
It seemed like everyone wanted to be a rapper.
Ironically, though, I wasn't really thinking about a record deal. I
was content to do my thing in Mark's basement. It was a hobby. I had my
sights set on college. That's how I was raised. I ended up going to Borough
of Manhattan Community College, where I studied broadcast journalism. I
wanted to be a newscaster or a lawyer. Communicating, whatever the form,
was my thing.
Hip-hop showed me another way to communicate, another way to
reach people, another way to state my case.
I was sitting in the kitchen of our apartment in East Orange. I was
flicking between WBLS (107.5 FM) and WRKS-Kiss (98.7 FM). It was the
summer of 1987, and DJ Red Alert on 'BLS and Marley Marl on Kiss had one
of the best over-the-music battles going. We used to tape their shows, they
were so good. So I'm chilling in the kitchen, and I hear the beginning
of "Princess of the Posse."
My record. My song. Me. Playing on the radio. I was so excited. I
just ran to the window and screamed out, "My record is on the radio! My
record is on the radio!" I'm sure I woke up half the neighborhood. But I didn't
care. I hadn't even officially signed with a label. And they were playing my
song on the radio.
Becoming Queen Latifah and being a famous rapper wasn't my
only goal. I also wanted to make enough money so that my family would
never want for anything. By the time I was twenty-two, I was very close to
that goal. I was able to afford a house, cars, clothes—and the kind of lifestyle
we could only dream about as kids.
But even with a career that took me all over the world, making
money, and making music that people were responding to, something was
missing. I would go on tour, be back in town for a couple of days, and never
get a chance to see my mother and brother.
I decided I would buy a house and we would all move back in
together. I missed renting movies with my brother Winki and my mom. I
missed our family dinners that were full of laughter. I missed waking up in the
morning and having breakfast with them before the craziness of the day
started and we all went our separate ways. Although Winki and I were grown
and had independent lives, I wanted us to be under the same roof.
I finally found a house. The frame was there, the stairs were
finished, and the woods enclosed the backyard. But it was just an open
house without amenities. That was perfect for me. I got to create and design
the inside. It was contemporary and had great angles, skylights, and a big
deck. And it was big enough for all of us to have our own space. I couldn't
wait for us to move in. Between Winki's boys and my crew, the house would
be alive all the time. We would have fun—and we would be a family again.
Not more than a month later, Winki was gone.
The last thing in the world I thought I would be doing was picking
out my brother's casket. It was silver, with a white lining so soft it looked like
clouds. Winki looked strong in it, wearing his police uniform. But his hands
were cold. His eyes were closed. This was the most painful moment of my
life. I loved him so much that I didn't want to live.
My brother was twenty-four. Dead? What are you talking about? It
wasn't getting through.
Winki's death tested me. When we were riding our motorcycles
around East Orange, I took our togetherness for granted. I felt immortal. I
knew that what you have one day can be taken from you the next—I knew it
in my head, but I didn't feel it yet in my heart. Why should I? Until the night I
saw Winki's mangled bike in the hospital parking lot, I had never confronted
loss. That night, I found an inner strength that I didn't know I had. I resisted it,
because I just wanted to curl up outside the hospital and disappear.
But that inner strength was stronger than despair. That's what
living means—facing the music—whether it's bad luck and bad attitude,
failure, disappointments—or the death of the young man who was your
brother and best friend. And living means letting go.
You have to let it go, or else you're going to go with it.
It came right back to the music. When Winki died, the song in me
died. But I had obligations to fulfill. You have to handle your business, no
matter what you're going through. In this case, my business was making
music. And it was a blessing. For most of my life, music has been my
pathway to peace.
I rarely mention drugs in my music. I don't want any business
glorifying the fast lifestyle that a lot of rappers promote. Yes, I experimented—
and I came close to losing control. I was lucky—and I saw others who
weren't. That's why I have chosen to make my music about being grounded,
about treating yourself as royalty.
We always have an "it won't happen to me" attitude when we see
other people making mistakes. Don't be fooled. It can happen to you—if you
aren't careful, if you don't know who you are—anything can happen.
Lesbian.
That word seems to follow me lately.
I'm not afraid to do roles like Cleo, the hard-core, from-the-'hood,
down-and-down dyke in Set It Off. I worked that role and I played her to a T. It
was one of my most challenging parts. But it seemed that when that movie
came out, everyone wanted to know, "How much of Cleo is really you?"
There's still all kinds of speculation about my sexuality, and quite
frankly, I'm getting a little tired of it. A woman cannot be strong, outspoken,
competent at running her own business, handle herself physically, play a
very convincing role in a movie, know what she wants—and go for it—without
being gay? Come on.
I want people to see me as someone who is proud and
comfortable with who I am. I'm a liberal-minded woman who couldn't care
less what anybody else does in their bedroom. That's on them.
I don't act the way society dictates that a woman "should." I am
not dainty. I do not hold back my opinions. I don't stay behind a man. I'm not
here to live by somebody else's standards. I'm defining what a woman is for
myself. Simply put, I am not interested in subscribing to what society has
decided for half of humankind. I am an individual, and this is what I know. I
don't like being a victim. I don't like being weak. I've been to those dark
places. And never will I go back to them. It's a fool who doesn't learn from
mistakes. A queen uses her mistakes as a stepladder to climb higher.
And I've had a long way to climb.
Growing up, I was uneasy about my body. It was big. People look
at me now and think, "Wow, there's a full-sized woman who has it together."
Puh-lease! It took me years to get to the point where I love my body. And I do
truly love my body. But I had to go through stages. I hated my breasts. I
hated my butt. I even hated the way I walked. Some girls, with no effort, can
just walk cute and ladylike. Not me. I had this lumbering stride. I used to
practice and practice, but I still couldn't fix my walk. So I said, "Fughetit!" I
had to accept myself, walk and all.
When you define yourself based on what you like, who you are—
and the body and mind that God gave you—people eventually catch up. You
don't have to change to fit anybody's preconceived notions. But it's hard to
do that when the image that assaults us is a lie. More than 80 percent of
people in this country are overweight. That's a reality. But 99.9 percent of
what we see and what we want is that supermodel/movie-star body that gets
the gorgeous clothes, the stylin' jewelry, and that wins the man. So the
majority are trying to fit their square peg into a round hole.
Find that square hole and fit in where you fit in.
I'm about being healthy. I'm about feeling good at whatever size I
am. Watch what you eat and be healthy. But don't try to fit into an image. Do
it because you want to.
I have had so many people slap images and labels on me. People
have expectations of who they think I am or who they think I should be. But I
am not just the outer covering that people see. I don't have to wear a sign
that says I AM QUEEN LATIFAH for people to treat me with respect. I
command it. And I don't need Queen Latifah to be a queen. All I need is to be
myself.

"Rookie" from The Life You Imagine by Derek Jeter and Jack Curry, copyright
© 2000 by Turn 2, Inc. Used by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of
Random House, Inc.
"A New Attitude" excerpted from Ladies First by Queen Latifah and Karen
Hunter, copyright © 1999 by Queen Latifah, Inc. Reprinted by permission of
HarperCollins Publishers Inc. William Morrow.
QUEEN LATIFAH changed her name from Dana Owens when she broke into
hip-hop, adding a strong female voice to the male-dominated mix. She
challenged lyrics and attitudes that insulted women. By bringing her sassy
self-confidence to the fore, Latifah emphasized the importance of self-
knowledge and self-respect. When a tragic event tested her core values, she
fought her way back to strength. She expanded her award-winning singing
career into producing and acting. In television and movies, Queen Latifah has
developed into a proud, full-figured, full-fledged star.
A New Attitude
The music was the lure. Funky beats I had never heard before, brash words
spoken in rhyme. Kids—dressed in fly sweat suits, baggy jeans, and the
latest sneakers—danced in the center of the floor, surrounded by crowds
forty and fifty deep. And onstage at any given night—Grandmaster Flash,
Dougie Fresh, Eric B. and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, the Beastie Boys, Run-
D.M.C., MC Lyte. This was the Latin Quarters, the mecca of hip-hop in the
mid-1980s. And I was right there in the thick of it all, taking it in.
This was my education in the world of rap. For my mother, it was
Excedrin Headache number 9. I was definitely too young to be going to New
York City all alone and hanging out all night. Looking back on it, I say to
myself, "What were you thinking?!" I was blinded.
But in truth, I do know what I was thinking. Immediately, I was one
with this world. My blood beat to its beat. Not only did I want to be there, I
had to be there, and nothing was going to stop me.
Rap was the newest music. Overnight, it seemed, rap had
become the common language of youth. But it wasn't just music.
It was an expression, a culture, an attitude.
When I came onto the scene, rap was entering a new phase, with
KRS-One, Public Enemy, and the Jungle Brothers. The consciousness
movement was emerging. It was not just simple rhymes over the most
popular songs; the music was about saying something.
Hip-hop transcended ethnic and racial lines. Young people were
getting the chance to voice their opinion, and everyone—from the kids around
the way to the mainstream public to the big white men at the record
companies—was paying attention to it. And simply by being there, I was one
of the people making the culture. It was amazing to be a part of such a force.
The Latin Quarters was on the corner of Forty-eighth Street and
Broadway. It doesn't exist anymore. When I was coming up it was vintage
Times Square, with its funky movie theaters, peep shows, Playland, fake-ID
shops, shady characters, and danger. I ate it up.
The Latin Quarters wrote the bible of hip-hop for me. I would bring
the music, the vibe, the dances back to East Orange, New Jersey, and to
Irvington High. Every night, through the Lincoln Tunnel, I was transporting
clothing styles and a new lingo that turned out to be more than a passing fad:
a dialect that still sticks.
In charge of activities at Irvington High School, my mother was
responsible for getting DJs for the class parties. One day she introduced me
to Mark the 45 King. He was from the Bronx, where rap began, and he was a
master on the turntables. Mark and I hit it off right away. I started hanging out
with his boys after school in his basement in Irvington. That was Jersey's
Rap Central, where everybody was writing rhymes and trying out over Mark's
mixes. At first I sucked. But I knew I had it in me. I could hear in my head
the way I wanted to sound. It was just a matter of getting it from my brain to
my voice.
Mark's basement was always buzzing with people from the
neighborhood—and eventually we became a posse. I was the only female MC
in the group and the youngest, so I called myself Princess of the Posse.
Down there the world was far away and time ceased to exist. We were about
the music. Only the music.
The Burger King on High Street in Newark gave me the money to
afford my hip-hop education. We'd all meet at Burger King on Saturdays after
I got off, around 11:00 PM. In the bathroom, I would change out of my ugly
brown, orange, and yellow outfit and into my hip-hop gear—a Swatch sweat
suit, a pair of K-Swiss sneakers, some scrunchy Guess socks, a Benetton
fisherman's hat, and either my Benetton or Swatch backpack.
I was geared down; you couldn't tell me nothing. When the Burger
King clothes came off, I put on a whole new attitude. My brother had saved
up for a nice gold rope chain, and we would alternate wearing that one chain.
But I would never wear it to the city. I saw too many people get their chains
snatched, either on the train or in the club. I basically played it cool and
watched.
It seemed like everyone wanted to be a rapper.
Ironically, though, I wasn't really thinking about a record deal. I
was content to do my thing in Mark's basement. It was a hobby. I had my
sights set on college. That's how I was raised. I ended up going to Borough
of Manhattan Community College, where I studied broadcast journalism. I
wanted to be a newscaster or a lawyer. Communicating, whatever the form,
was my thing.
Hip-hop showed me another way to communicate, another way to
reach people, another way to state my case.
I was sitting in the kitchen of our apartment in East Orange. I was
flicking between WBLS (107.5 FM) and WRKS-Kiss (98.7 FM). It was the
summer of 1987, and DJ Red Alert on 'BLS and Marley Marl on Kiss had one
of the best over-the-music battles going. We used to tape their shows, they
were so good. So I'm chilling in the kitchen, and I hear the beginning
of "Princess of the Posse."
My record. My song. Me. Playing on the radio. I was so excited. I
just ran to the window and screamed out, "My record is on the radio! My
record is on the radio!" I'm sure I woke up half the neighborhood. But I didn't
care. I hadn't even officially signed with a label. And they were playing my
song on the radio.
Becoming Queen Latifah and being a famous rapper wasn't my
only goal. I also wanted to make enough money so that my family would
never want for anything. By the time I was twenty-two, I was very close to
that goal. I was able to afford a house, cars, clothes—and the kind of lifestyle
we could only dream about as kids.
But even with a career that took me all over the world, making
money, and making music that people were responding to, something was
missing. I would go on tour, be back in town for a couple of days, and never
get a chance to see my mother and brother.
I decided I would buy a house and we would all move back in
together. I missed renting movies with my brother Winki and my mom. I
missed our family dinners that were full of laughter. I missed waking up in the
morning and having breakfast with them before the craziness of the day
started and we all went our separate ways. Although Winki and I were grown
and had independent lives, I wanted us to be under the same roof.
I finally found a house. The frame was there, the stairs were
finished, and the woods enclosed the backyard. But it was just an open
house without amenities. That was perfect for me. I got to create and design
the inside. It was contemporary and had great angles, skylights, and a big
deck. And it was big enough for all of us to have our own space. I couldn't
wait for us to move in. Between Winki's boys and my crew, the house would
be alive all the time. We would have fun—and we would be a family again.
Not more than a month later, Winki was gone.
The last thing in the world I thought I would be doing was picking
out my brother's casket. It was silver, with a white lining so soft it looked like
clouds. Winki looked strong in it, wearing his police uniform. But his hands
were cold. His eyes were closed. This was the most painful moment of my
life. I loved him so much that I didn't want to live.
My brother was twenty-four. Dead? What are you talking about? It
wasn't getting through.
Winki's death tested me. When we were riding our motorcycles
around East Orange, I took our togetherness for granted. I felt immortal. I
knew that what you have one day can be taken from you the next—I knew it
in my head, but I didn't feel it yet in my heart. Why should I? Until the night I
saw Winki's mangled bike in the hospital parking lot, I had never confronted
loss. That night, I found an inner strength that I didn't know I had. I resisted it,
because I just wanted to curl up outside the hospital and disappear.
But that inner strength was stronger than despair. That's what
living means—facing the music—whether it's bad luck and bad attitude,
failure, disappointments—or the death of the young man who was your
brother and best friend. And living means letting go.
You have to let it go, or else you're going to go with it.
It came right back to the music. When Winki died, the song in me
died. But I had obligations to fulfill. You have to handle your business, no
matter what you're going through. In this case, my business was making
music. And it was a blessing. For most of my life, music has been my
pathway to peace.
I rarely mention drugs in my music. I don't want any business
glorifying the fast lifestyle that a lot of rappers promote. Yes, I experimented—
and I came close to losing control. I was lucky—and I saw others who
weren't. That's why I have chosen to make my music about being grounded,
about treating yourself as royalty.
We always have an "it won't happen to me" attitude when we see
other people making mistakes. Don't be fooled. It can happen to you—if you
aren't careful, if you don't know who you are—anything can happen.
Lesbian.
That word seems to follow me lately.
I'm not afraid to do roles like Cleo, the hard-core, from-the-'hood,
down-and-down dyke in Set It Off. I worked that role and I played her to a T. It
was one of my most challenging parts. But it seemed that when that movie
came out, everyone wanted to know, "How much of Cleo is really you?"
There's still all kinds of speculation about my sexuality, and quite
frankly, I'm getting a little tired of it. A woman cannot be strong, outspoken,
competent at running her own business, handle herself physically, play a
very convincing role in a movie, know what she wants—and go for it—without
being gay? Come on.
I want people to see me as someone who is proud and
comfortable with who I am. I'm a liberal-minded woman who couldn't care
less what anybody else does in their bedroom. That's on them.
I don't act the way society dictates that a woman "should." I am
not dainty. I do not hold back my opinions. I don't stay behind a man. I'm not
here to live by somebody else's standards. I'm defining what a woman is for
myself. Simply put, I am not interested in subscribing to what society has
decided for half of humankind. I am an individual, and this is what I know. I
don't like being a victim. I don't like being weak. I've been to those dark
places. And never will I go back to them. It's a fool who doesn't learn from
mistakes. A queen uses her mistakes as a stepladder to climb higher.
And I've had a long way to climb.
Growing up, I was uneasy about my body. It was big. People look
at me now and think, "Wow, there's a full-sized woman who has it together."
Puh-lease! It took me years to get to the point where I love my body. And I do
truly love my body. But I had to go through stages. I hated my breasts. I
hated my butt. I even hated the way I walked. Some girls, with no effort, can
just walk cute and ladylike. Not me. I had this lumbering stride. I used to
practice and practice, but I still couldn't fix my walk. So I said, "Fughetit!" I
had to accept myself, walk and all.
When you define yourself based on what you like, who you are—
and the body and mind that God gave you—people eventually catch up. You
don't have to change to fit anybody's preconceived notions. But it's hard to
do that when the image that assaults us is a lie. More than 80 percent of
people in this country are overweight. That's a reality. But 99.9 percent of
what we see and what we want is that supermodel/movie-star body that gets
the gorgeous clothes, the stylin' jewelry, and that wins the man. So the
majority are trying to fit their square peg into a round hole.
Find that square hole and fit in where you fit in.
I'm about being healthy. I'm about feeling good at whatever size I
am. Watch what you eat and be healthy. But don't try to fit into an image. Do
it because you want to.
I have had so many people slap images and labels on me. People
have expectations of who they think I am or who they think I should be. But I
am not just the outer covering that people see. I don't have to wear a sign
that says I AM QUEEN LATIFAH for people to treat me with respect. I
command it. And I don't need Queen Latifah to be a queen. All I need is to be
myself.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Derek Jeter 2
Queen Latifah 14
Susan Fales-Hill 26
Chamique Holdsclaw 38
Colin Powell 52
Dexter Scott King 64
Antwone Fisher 78
Lynne Duke 90
Whoopi Goldberg 104
E. Lynn Harris 116
Sister Souljah 130
Michael Cottman 144
Peter Westbrook 158
Russell Simmons 170
Bell hooks 184
Neil deGrasse Tyson 196
Read More Show Less

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