Walk In My Shoes
Conversations Between A Civil Rights Legend And His Godson On The Journey Ahead
By Andrew Young, Kabir Sehgal
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Andrew Young and Kabir Sehgal
All rights reserved.
SECTION I CIVIL RIGHTS
SLEEP IN, DON'T BRUSH OTHER PEOPLE'S TEETH AND FIND YOUR OWN WAY
Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.
—Steve Jobs, cofounder and CEO of Apple
I was en route to Uncle Andy's house. There was a traffic jam on I-285, the highway that encircles Atlanta. Luckily my mom was driving. She knows the shortcuts you'll never hear from a GPS, the ones that send you zooming through a BP gas station parking lot and puffing for air. Even though I'm perfectly capable of driving, she always insists on taking the wheel. Whenever I visit my folks in Atlanta, I try to swing by Uncle Andy's. "Make sure to ask him about his parents and how he learned to respect them," my mom grinned as she drove. I rolled my eyes. "As if the commandment to honor our father and mother wasn't enough," I thought.
We pulled into Uncle Andy's narrow driveway. The cracked, dark gray pavement was kissed by the weeds in his front lawn which was browning in the middle. Eight Japanese maples surrounded his house. Andy planted them after spending time in Japan to court the International Olympic Committee in the late 1980s. He used to have several bonsai trees which he bought in Korea during the 1988 Olympics. He took the trees to a monastery during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta because he couldn't devote the almost daily care needed to maintain them. The ninety-year-old monk who was looking after them died, and then torrential rain destroyed the trees. The camellia bush he brought from the home of his late wife, Jean, in Marion, Alabama, has grown more than ten feet since it was moved.
He's lived in the same house since December 1966, when he bought it for $32,500 on a plot fifty feet wide and four hundred feet deep. He's installed ramps and rails in his backyard and jokes he is building his own retirement village. It's a small house with a main floor and basement. He had to expand it because his mother moved in after his father passed away, and because of his blossoming collection of African art and odd gifts from his extensive travels. Even his artwork is humble. Well, besides the statues of naked African women. One might easily think that Andy didn't have much money or he had simple tastes. Both are true. "Better to have wealthy friends," he's always advised me.
I waved good-bye to mom and was greeted by booming barks from Andy's two tall and tan Rhodesian Ridgebacks. He named one Nzingha after the seventeenth-century Angolan warrior queen who fought the Portuguese. The other he named Simba after the protagonist in The Lion King and because Rhodesian Ridgebacks were used to chase lions. "If we had smaller dogs, then my wife would want them to sleep in our bed," he once explained to me.
"Whatcha know?" Andy called out. That is Uncle Andy-speak for "How's it going?" The front door swung open. I heard the hiss of the television in the background. "Since when do you watch Fox News?" I asked. "Got to listen to everybody," he smiled.
While speaking about the upcoming Atlanta Falcons season, he ushered me into his living room, poured pink fruit juice over crackling ice for me, muted the forty-two-inch Panasonic television and sat down. The glass table was covered with unorganized newspapers and memos. I counted two glass figures he had recently been awarded. One of them read, "Award Presented to Andrew Young for His Distinguished Career in Public Service." He saw me eyeing it.
"Do you want it?" he asked. He was serious. Andy always gives. The lyrics from one of his favorite hymns are, "You can't beat God giving, no matter how you try.... The more you give, the more he gives to you." At first I joked with him, "Maybe we could sell it on eBay." But I thought better of it. "No thanks, just checking out your latest trophies," I replied.
"What's on your mind?" he asked, while craning his neck to see why Simba was still barking. I sat back in the couch.
"I've been thinking a lot about my next career move. I'm in the same place as many of my friends—recently graduated from college, working a decent job, wanting to make a difference in the world but not sure how to do it. It seems like everyone else has an idea on what I should be doing though."
"How's that?" he asked.
He always asks questions first. Though he's very much a conceptual and thematic thinker and speaker, he likes to get down into the weeds. He likes facts. They help him tell better stories.
A colleague thinks I should apply to business school or take the chartered financial analyst exam. Another thinks I must try my hand at management consulting. You know—Goldman, McKinsey and Harvard Business School, the trinity of overachieving conformity. When you make a little success, people expect you to succeed. I've even started to put pressure on myself, as if my next career move must place me closer to the mountaintop. The problem is that I'm not sure what I want to do or which mountain to climb.
I asked, "How do you escape these great expectations? How did you deal with other people's expectations of you?"
"Your question reminds me of some advice I gave to a bright young man in the tenth grade at the North Atlanta High School," he responded. Uncle Andy advises by anecdotes, like Jesus, who instructed with parables. There always seems to be a fitting story in his museum of a mind. "Everyone was putting pressure on him. He's tall, articulate and good looking. And he's a leader in the school. But there was so much pressure on him that he was breaking out in hives. The doctors couldn't find anything wrong with him," he said.
His classmates were teasing him about not picking a sexy topic like robotics or information technology for his science project. He had chosen biodegradation and composting. Andy urged the kid to stick with the project, especially since much of our future fuel may come from composting.
"I took him aside and said, 'Look, you are letting people put too much pressure on you.' I chose my words very deliberately. I said, 'When people begin to bug you, you can't say it out loud, but you can say deep in the back of your mind—go fuck yourself.' I said it that way because that is a very masculine rejection. 'And you don't need to be wishy-washy about it. If something doesn't seem right to you, don't let it pressure you. Go on about your business.'"
"You told a tenth grader what?" I asked. I can't say I was shocked. I've come to expect jarring honesty from Uncle Andy, but I wanted to make sure I'd heard him right.
"Remember, if you say it aloud, you'll turn people off. You have to say it to yourself. It will actually empower you when you say it in your head," he said.
"I'll practice that at work," I interrupted. Actually, the tough part isn't saying "fuck you" while working on a trading floor, it's saying it in your head.
He ignored me and continued, "I guarantee you those hives went away. It was the emotional pressure and the expectation of his parents and his teachers. Everyone might give you hell. But if this is what you want to do, then believe in yourself. Don't let anyone else tell you what you need to do with your life. I always saw great expectations as conformist pressure." His voice crescendoed as he reached his point, "Find your path."
"How did you find your path? So many of us are directionless and rudderless. How did you determine the path that took you from New Orleans as a boy to New York as US ambassador to the UN?" I asked.
"I stumbled to find my path," he started. "I'm a leaf in a divine wind, just floating from one thing to another." I liked his imagery. If he was a leaf, I was crazy kudzu not knowing which way to grow. A divine wind could explain why Andy never enlisted in the military, for example. He broke his arm when he was a kid and it never set correctly, which made him unable to join. Andy was destined to be a peacemaker from the beginning.
Most importantly, he believes that whatever one does should come from within—there is a spiritual core in every human being. He can recite perfectly a quote that he came across in the 1950s from Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion, which is about the Quaker philosophy: "Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts pressing upon our time-worn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself." I'm impressed with his recall. I can barely recite the Lord's Prayer.
The message that he infers from this passage is that there is something in all of us. We must wake up and listen to this quiet, sometimes brooding voice. He admires other leaders and philosophers who discovered their inner voice and followed it. In the New Testament, Jesus was tempted with power, money and supernatural claims. And he rejected it all. Jesus said the "kingdom of God is within you." German philosopher Paul Tillich, whom Andy read closely, believed that the search for ultimate reality must occur within as well as without.
"You don't find your calling immediately. It's one step at a time, one day at a time," Andy stated slowly. "It takes time to discover your inner voice." I thought about the movie What About Bob? in which Bill Murray's psychiatrist recommends that he take baby steps toward goals. It seemed like Andy was saying the same thing—take baby steps toward your aspirations.
I argued that some might think that his career was premeditated. Becoming a reverend was excellent preparation for getting involved in the civil rights movement. And being involved in the civil rights movement prepared him well for the United Nations, just like working at an investment bank could prepare one well for working at a private equity shop or hedge fund.
"Except I made all the wrong choices for an up-and-coming bourgeois black preacher. I should have gone to a big church, but I went to a little one. I should have gone to Yale, where my pastor went, but I went to Hartford Seminary. I had a small, intimate experience with my professors at Hartford that I couldn't have gotten at Yale because I would have just been another number. But I wouldn't say that my career happened by accident either. I borrow the term from Adam Smith—I felt an invisible hand has guided my life from within," he replied. "I had no idea I would get involved with the civil rights movement and become a trusted advisor and friend to Martin. But the civil rights movement wasn't concentrated in the church. It was fomented in law schools and universities."
In 1955, the year Andy graduated from the seminary, Rosa Parks sat down in the bus and sparked a national debate about civil rights. That's when the church started to get more involved. It wasn't until the early 1960s that Protestants, Catholics and Jews came together and created the National Council on Religion and Race in Chicago, which was the first large, organized, ecumenical attempt to discuss civil rights.
"My interest in civil rights didn't get activated in school. And even my getting interested in theology took some time."
"How did you work out what you wanted to become?" I asked.
"You've got to remember where I started," Andy declared. "My father wanted me to become everything he wanted to be."
Andy's father, Andrew Sr., wanted Andy to become a baseball player. Andrew Sr. was a good baseball player, but blacks couldn't get into the major leagues when he was growing up. His dream was that Andy would become the next Jackie Robinson. But that's what he wanted to do, and Andy understood that at an early age. And then Andrew Sr. wanted Andy to become a dentist like him. Andy knew that his father had rebelled against his father too. Andy's grandfather Frank was a businessman. He owned a pool hall and grocery store. He was the treasurer of several burial societies and Masonic orders. Frank wanted Andrew Sr. to carry on the family businesses, but Andrew Sr. left home and enrolled at dental school.
"Your papa wanted to live vicariously through you, but you rejected his aspirations for you," I said, trying to capture the facts like a photographer trying to snap the perfect sunset.
"Hell yes! I had to break away from my father. I didn't want to brush anyone's teeth," he chuckled. He leaned forward and spread his wrinkled hands.
Andy believes that rejecting your parents' aspirations doesn't mean rejecting them altogether. He understood at a young age that his father was a very thoughtful, pastoral and socially sensitive man. Many of his father's patients came to his office not only to get their teeth cleaned but to speak with someone at a high moral and intellectual level. Andrew Sr. had a powerful commitment to the truth. Once as a boy, Andy bragged about getting more change than he was supposed to from the butcher. Andrew Sr. started to take off his belt and demanded that Andy return the money immediately. Andy hauled ass back to the butcher not wanting to be whipped by his father.
"That's just who he was. I wanted to be those things too, but I didn't have to become a dentist to do so. His motives were sound. My dad wanted me to be secure with a job that paid $10,000 per year," he explained. In the 1930s, when Andy was born, a job that paid $10,000 gave one security and the ability to educate one's children. Andy's younger brother, Walter, however, became a dentist, which was his calling.
"In a way, you were like the kid who was breaking out in hives," I said.
"Yes. It's tough to say 'fuck you' to your parents or anyone else. When you do, you can go the other direction and wander aimlessly."
As a young man, Andy was sent by the United Church of Christ to San Francisco. The Church was one of the sponsors of the famed City Lights bookstore, where beat poets performed. Andy envied Jack Kerouac and the other beat poets and their freedom. The free booze was tempting. The free sex was very, very tempting. But he had to cut his trip short. It was just too wild. It was too free. "You can't say 'fuck you' to everything. I realized that a life dedicated to partying was no life for me," he said.
While in San Francisco he went to a shop in Chinatown to buy a silk dress for Jean. The Chinese clerk disappeared behind a curtain of beads, and Andy started to panic and ran out of the store, not wanting to be shanghaied. He had seen many kung fu movies in which a hand appears from behind a beaded curtain and drags the unwitting patron away against his will. Upon reflection on the incident, Andy realized that he was guilty of stereotyping and could better understand the prejudices some whites had against blacks.
I've lived in San Francisco and thoroughly enjoyed several carefree moments. I explained to him "Bay to Breakers," the city's annual seven-mile footrace in which participants dress up in costumes, tap kegs and just revel. My favorite costumes were the seven fish running in the opposite direction followed by a bear.
I returned to the subject at hand. "Did Dr. King start with the end in mind? What did Dr. King want to become?" I asked.
"When he first started to preach, Martin's ambition was to teach at a topnotch seminary and become the preacher at a place like Riverside Church, the big church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was financed by the Rockefeller brothers," he replied.
Just before Dr. King was killed, the leaders of Riverside offered him a year's sabbatical from the movement to be the interim pastor at Riverside. Andy and other civil rights leaders encouraged him to take the offer, but he declined because he was too involved with the movement.
"Did he want to be the Rick Warren of his day?" I asked.
"Not exactly. Martin thought he wanted to become a pastor of a large church, but he later found ideals to which he could aspire. That is something very important to learn from Martin—to follow an ideal like service, nonviolence, love. And then life becomes an innovative effort to try to achieve these ideals," he said.
"If my ideal is generosity, then I can try to be generous in my vocation, family life or in some other way," I replied. My mom encouraged me to read Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali and The Religion of Man, in which he describes kindness and love as the ultimate religion. I've tried to internalize kindness and love as personal ideals. I'm no paragon, however. Far from it. "So you think I need to worry less about my actual job but try to use whatever I'm doing now to achieve my ideals of love and kindness?" I asked.
Andy grinned. "I couldn't have said it better. You're listening to that voice within." I was actually listening to his voice. After listening to a mentor for years, his voice can merge with yours.
Cool. This was actually helping me. If I tried to pursue my ideals with actions both big and small, I might feel as if I were making a contribution to the greater good. I didn't need to rescue puppies from burning buildings to exhibit my kindness. I could open the door for girls everywhere. I said, "I have to ask you too—what did you want to become?"
"I didn't know. But I needed to get away from those great expectations. I had a strong interest in theology, but my father warned me that he wouldn't pay for seminary. He thought seminary was a waste of money. So I went on my own," he replied. (Continues...)
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