As a little boy growing up with two African American parents and an older brother, I just felt this profound sense of family. The great thing about the black family is the food, the music, the culture, but it’s also this understanding of the struggle.
In many ways, I luxuriated in all that was the black family experience. And as a result of that mission-oriented, justice-driven culture, it really was a portal for me to a deeper love of all of humanity, a deeper feeling of connection to all people, especially those who are facing struggles, challenges, and oppression — be it gay or lesbian, be it Muslims or women. My black American experience gave me a deeper connection with the universal American experience with all of its diversity and beauty.
It says in the Bible: Be kind to strangers, because we were once strangers in a strange land. When you’re black in America, you are often made to feel, historically, like an outsider, even though the black roots in this country run well into the 1600s, before this country was even a country.
But you’re often made to feel like an outsider; you’re often made to feel ostracized. It develops, at least for me, a sympathy for others that extends beyond race. Black joy was the portal through which I came to have a deeper understanding of love, the universality of love, the urgent need of love.
The earliest childhood memories are of big Christmases, where there are cousins and extended family and people who are not even your blood but you still call them “uncle” and “aunt.” The complicated wondrous mix of family and just having everyone gathering together with Stevie Wonder playing in the background, people playing bid wiz, folks eating collard greens, all of that mixed together — the humor, the fun, the discussion, the adult discussion that you’re listening into as a child.
All of that I came to know later as very American in general, but I came to appreciate the cultural overlay of black culture. It really made it more wondrous when I would sit with my Italian friends and their families and when you see the similarities as well the differences. It really was the joy that I felt in having that kind of family home. No. 1, it gave me self-love. Which is so important to build this sort of self-concept that I am a person of beauty and a person of worth and a person of value. These messages are important for joy. To have those groundings in a firm sense of one's own dignity. Especially in a world that might often try to make you feel like your beauty, or the image of your beauty, is not glorious. It might make you feel like you’re less or not good as. So having a family that celebrated each other and black culture, black art, black music, really did help to connect me to my own dignity and grandeur, but also helped me appreciate that of so many cultures and races and to see the truth of America — the beauty and the fullness of America.
It impacted my decision to pursue service. I was very convinced I was going to run a nonprofit one day, helping young people or kids. My life changed in terms of my jobs but I don’t think it changed in terms of my purpose. My purpose is to serve others, is to empower this to be a country that can give every young person a chance to thrive.
My family modeled for me the ideals of service. It was not an add-on but it was the substance of life. My parents were very wrapped up in this idea of struggle and that you have to be a part of the struggle. It’s not just a black struggle but a struggle for overall justice for everyone.
I grew up in a small town in Bergen County called Harrington Park. My parents literally had to get a white couple to pose as them. Back in 1969 when they moved in, there was a lot of real estate steering. Real estate agents would steer black families from certain neighborhoods. My parents had to get a white couple to go house shopping. So when they were told the house was sold the white couple would come behind them and find out it was still for sale. The house my parents liked, the house I eventually grew up in, they were told it was sold. The white couple put a bid on the house. It was accepted and on the day of closing, my father showed up with a lawyer.
For them, they wanted what was best for their family but they knew they were in the context of fighting a larger battle. That fight in particular was one of those things that not only helped a family of four people but they felt it helped advance this country as a whole. I respect the strength to which they fought to give my brother and I opportunities and it made [us] grow up with this sense of responsibility to pay those blessings forward.