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African-American careers and candor

Review: A race for success

"Take a Lesson: Today's Black Achievers on How They Made It and What They Learned Along the Way"
By Caroline V. Clarke
John Wiley & Sons Inc., 283 pages, January

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February 14, 2001
Web posted at: 12:56 p.m. EST (1756 GMT)


In this story:

'Until the Democrats come back'

'It made me more cynical'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- "There will always be jealousies and envy, people who say they hope you succeed who really hope you fail -- and not all of them are the opposite color. It's your own people sometimes who, for a lot of reasons, don't want to see you outstrip them."

That's Bryant Gumbel talking. About what many see as his checkered career. Sportscasting, then morning news on one network, an exit from "Today," then morning news at another network, CBS' "The Early Show" -- a gig still dogged by critics and undependable ratings. Don't overlook the generosity you're hearing in these words from one of the most successful-unsuccessful TV personalities in the industry.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic How applicable to all Americans' search for success do you think the "lessons" of Clarke's African-American interviewees might be?

Very. The precise circumstances may change from one of us to the next, but all careerists face common, mutually understandable obstacles in the bid for success.
I'm not sure. While we all share many things, each social subset has special conditions that might weigh in a comparison.
Not applicable. These career "lessons" aren't as interchangeable as some like to think. Each sector of the population has its own.
View Results

 

"CBS' morning efforts," Gumbel says, "represent the longest legacy of failure that exists in this business, and you just want to see whether you can break the string, whether you can start from scratch and take it out of last. I'll give it what I've got and hope that's enough."

If you feel a little tingle here, it means you're susceptible to candor, that richest gift of any conversationalist. "Success," Gumbel says, "takes the courage to know who you really are and be comfortable with that."

For how many of us could success have been less comfortable than it's been for Gumbel? And in which of our social debates in the United States do we hear candor less frequently than in racial matters?

"Take a Lesson" could have been a Black History Month rally of cheers from and for the leaders of black business. It might easily have been the compilation of feel-good exhortations these things so easily can become. You know the routine: Get up, get out, believe in yourself, remember God loves you and smile no matter what, amen and pass the next job application, please.

Instead, Caroline V. Clarke, editor-at-large of Black Enterprise magazine, has taken the more courageous tack, allowing and encouraging 27 powerful personalities to speak sometimes with stark, bracing candor about who they are, how they became what we know them to be -- and what it cost them.

'Until the Democrats come back'

"I didn't want to serve in the Reagan administration, anyway -- so, at that point, I thought, 'I need a big firm where I can go hide out until the Democrats come back.' Little did I know that it would be 12 years before they would be back."

That's Debra L. Lee. Today, president and COO of the Black Entertainment Network, BET. Then, a recent graduate who went into corporate law while waiting for the Democrats. She went into the firm of Steptoe & Johnson.

"I went and just popped the first guy in his face. It became a group fight, we threw him out, and then we decided to go get guns. We just decided, we're not going to walk out of here having achieved nothing; we're going to fight."
— Tom Jones, Citigroup

"There were female issues," Lee tells Clarke. "There were black issues. You had to dress a certain way. You had to act a certain way. I never really found a mentor. I never felt I had any insight into the real workings of the firm. But I made good friends there. And, there were 12 of us (African-Americans) so we had a support system."

The fear of "the other," the injuries of bigoted childhood indoctrination, the sheer range of personal taste -- whatever it may be that generates racism or doesn't -- when are we willing to sit down and simply speak of it to each other? Maybe less these days, not more.

  MESSAGE BOARD
graphic We each find advances and barriers, highs and lows in our careers. Some hurdles prove insurmountable. Most can be handled, but not always in ways we think. Talk with us about some of the "lessons" you've been taking in your career.
 

That's why this book, bound in black, is so compelling.

•   Here's Johnny Cochran going on about you-know-which-case, as, one imagines, he always will: "Even when I dealt with Christopher Darden in the Simpson case -- even in that competitive environment, when I found out that Darden was going to (cross examine) Fuhrman himself, I said, 'Don't do that. Don't let them do that to you. Let one of the others do it.' ... Then, when we had the evidence of his statements, saying, 'I hate blacks. I can't wait to retire because I hate them -- they're lazy, they're sloppy ...' it was terrible stuff, and it made Darden look bad to be the one to build him up."

•   Here's Tom Jones, who oversees Citigroup asset management for Saloman Brothers, Smith Barney and Citibank Global, talking about an incident at Cornell University. "When this frat broke into the building -- big, tough football players -- and I heard an argument going on, I went to see what it was. It just flashed in my mind, 'This isn't the way it's going to be. We didn't come this far to have guys like this decide they're going to be the vigilantes.' So I went and just popped the first guy in his face. It became a group fight, we threw him out, and then we decided to go get guns. We just decided, we're not going to walk out of here having achieved nothing; we're going to fight."

"It really hit me in the gut, because I hadn't really done anything affirmative, to sort of grab the president and shake some sense into him. So this had happened on my watch."
— Richard D. Parsons, AOL Time Warner

•   And here's Richard D. Parsons, Co-COO of AOL Time Warner, parent company of CNN.com, talking of his tenure as associate director of the White House domestic counsel, the policy-formulating arm of the Ford administration in 1975. The Civil Rights Act was up for extension, as it was every five years by its original wording.

The "Southern strategy" to co-opt non-Southern states in a bid to take down the act was in place and gaining momentum. "And Ford," Parsons writes, "was sort of taken in by these crazy Southern senators to adopt this strategy.

"Well, I remember David Broder, who was a Washington Post writer at the time, came up to me one day and said, 'Dick, how could you of all people be a part of trying to undermine the extension of the Civil Rights Act?' It really hit me in the gut, because I hadn't really done anything affirmative, to sort of grab the president and shake some sense into him. So this had happened on my watch."

'It made me more cynical'

Clarke's brief backgrounders on her book's subjects are sometimes fatuous. Maybe it's not the case that each of these speakers needs no introduction, but precious few of them requires any hype. What they say, however, makes up for these quick moments of preparatory excess.

Authors name here
Caroline V. Clarke  

Maybe not surprisingly -- when was he ever shy? -- filmmaker Spike Lee comes across as this book's most outspoken interviewee.

"The only thing that's kept me straight so far," he says, "is my upbringing, my relatives, just common sense, hard work, and luck. Luck is a big part of it. A big thing, also, is that I don't get high. I never, ever smoked a joint in my life. The idea that getting high will enhance your creativity, your art, that's bogus. It almost destroyed my father.

"Success changes everybody -- it made me more cynical -- but it's not world altering. You are who you are. You need to be who you are, whatever happens. And you need to stay focused on what you're doing and why you're doing it. That might mean putting off some things that you want. I always wanted a family, but I wanted to be established first. Because I knew that in order to make it in films I had to be totally focused and committed to that."

Lee, 42, who at several points in his career has talked of being dismayed at expectations of him as a de facto black icon, talks of two misconceptions about success.

"The biggest misconception about success is," he says, "mostly in the minds of young people. Young people expect everything now to be instant gratification, like popcorn in the microwave. Just put it in, press the button: Boom! You're a success."

"There will always be jealousies and envy, people who say they hope you succeed who really hope you fail -- and not all of them are the opposite color. It's your own people sometimes who, for a lot of reasons, don't want to see you outstrip them."
— Bryant Gumbel, CBS' "The Early Show"

"The second misconception about success," he says, "is that the work gets easier. It's really just the opposite: It gets harder."

It just got a bit easier, however -- at least to think about and maybe understand in some cases -- because of the open, informative commentary these high-profile people have given Clarke and her readers.

The effect is a forceful read that knows no color. Whatever your minority -- and you do have one somewhere in the wholeness of yourself, each of us does -- some of these truths might just set you free.

[watercooler]



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RELATED SITES:
Black Enterprise
John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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