It’s always amazing to me when people discount when someone — especially a big name — supports or endorses a candidate, as if the endorse is worth less than used toilet tissue. Such has been the case in the past 32 hours since General Colin Powell’s endorsement of and support for (however limited) of Obama. Rush Limbaugh showing his true colors by yelling that Powell’s support of Obama was “ALL about RACE!” Republican surrogates expressing skepticism about the impact of Powell’s endorsement on the election or any voters at all. Funny. I know full well that if Powell had endorsed McCain that folks from the Obama campaign or the Democratic Party would’ve minimized it. But they also wouldn’t have been folks yelling that this selection was all about race, as if Blacks are somehow irrational when other Blacks are running for office. If that were the case, then Lynn Swann would be governor of Pennsylvania and Michael Steele a Republican senator from Maryland. The train of thought here is disgusting, plain and simple.
Endorsements and support are always significant, for the person being supported or endorsed if nothing else. It provides a psychological boost, a sense that even in the midst of the work that one is doing that someone was inspired by it or by you. An expression of support can provide the energy necessary to redouble your efforts in fulfilling a goal, in seeing through a cause.
For me, endorsements and other expressions of support have been few and far between in my life. Most of them have come from Whites. Blacks in some position of authority have either seen me as insignificant or as their competition for a crumb of money or power or influence. That’s not to say that Whites have been remarkably supportive either. Given the circles I’ve been in most of my adult life, I have met all too few African Americans in positions of influence who’ve had the opportunity to endorse or support me in some way or another.
As I’ve said in previous blogs, most of what I’ve accomplished in the past thirty-eight years and ten months of life has been in spite of many in my life, not because of them. My guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo was one unsupportive authority figure. She asked the “Are you sure about this?” question about the courses I wanted to take at Mount Vernon High School so many times that it seemed that she thought that I was severely mentally retarded, like I had only been mainstreamed to public school last week. Even when I visited Mount Vernon High School in the middle of my junior year at Pitt in December ’89, she pulled me aside to warn me against going to law school, because “lawyers work lots of long hours, and I’m not sure you can do that.” Thanks a lot. I only graduated fourteenth in my class in high school and finished Pitt with a 3.4 QPA.
My dissertation committee was almost equally unsupportive, especially my former advisor Joe Trotter. I learned about six months into my Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship from a selection committee panelist that his letter of recommendation “didn’t exactly help me” as far as the selection process was concerned. They somehow had put aside my advisor’s weak letter and awarded me a fellowship in April ’95 anyway. In addition to Professor “Running Interference” (one of his favorite catch phrases), I had Dan Resnick, a man who once subtly accused me of plagiarism because of the quality of my writing. He also called my doctoral thesis “average” and suggested that I “should think about a career as a journalist” as his signed off on my manuscript. I guess that it was supposed to be an insult. My unofficial advisor, Bruce Anthony Jones, left Pittsburgh for Missouri and Florida right at the end of my graduate school days in ’96, cutting off all ties with me in the process. With senior professors like these on my committee, I would’ve been better off picking professors who didn’t like me.
In the world of work, I’ve worked with superiors whose competence has varied from solid but somewhat scattered to just plain lost in the cobwebs. Most of them fall in the incompetent category. In working with folks from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, I’ve learned that general incompetence and mediocrity is universal, especially in my dealings with senior staff. Most of all, I’ve learned that Black senior staff in predominantly White organizations are so afraid of any appearance of favoritism or that a younger or less experienced Black staff person might steal their thunder. Over the past decade or so, I’ve met only a handful — maybe three or four — African Americans from the nonprofit and academic worlds who’ve been willing to share experiences or expertise in helping me in my career in some way or another. It’s hard to know who to trust in these situations when it’s obvious that most workplace colleagues possess some level of distrust toward one another.
The silver lining here is that over the years, I’ve had some support from folks across various backgrounds. Most of the support has been unexpected and without any special work on my part. I wasn’t networking or looking for a mentor or in obvious need of an endorsement in these cases. I was just being my sarcastic, deep-thinking, weird and funny self with these people. From my late AP American History teacher in Harold Meltzer to the late Barbara Lazarus of Carnegie Mellon University and from my Western Civilization II TA in Paul Riggs to the now retired Catherine Lacey of the Spencer Foundation, I’ve come across a number of folks who gave me their stamp of approval. Often without me having accomplished anything to earn it. But that’s the key understanding of an endorsement. This support isn’t necessarily because of something you’ve actually done. It’s an endorsement based on faith, on the possibility or probability that you will do something great in the immediate or intermediate future.
Meltzer believed in me, not only for high school and college, but as a writer, and long before I realized I was a writer. Paul saw my intellectual curiosity as a historian years before I saw myself as a historian. Barbara Lazarus thought of me as someone whose work on multiculturalism needed to be recognized even as it was in the early stages of development, and serves as my academic protector at Carnegie Mellon even when folks like my advisor were proposing to delay my graduation by at least a year. Catherine Lacey saw promise in my work, and ambivalence about my career choices years before I fully understood why I was ambivalent.
The important thing was that they were all there for me when I needed them, even if the way others saw me didn’t change as a result of their official endorsement. Their support is why I’m the writer, teacher, historian, researcher, and worker that I am today.