Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, on changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis.
When I was 12 or 13 years old, my father gave me some advice that became the compass for my journey through this American life. He said, “Michael, if you’re going to gamble, the first thing you have to do is learn to cheat. Not so you can cheat people, but so you’ll know when people are cheating you. Because there are no straight games; in every game, somebody’s cheating.” He would also say your objective is not to make the game straight (fair), but to beat the cheat.
I didn’t have the skill or the heart to be a professional gambler, but I would come to realize he knew that when he gave the advice. He was giving me a simple metaphor to explain what I would need to understand if I was going to make my way in America as a black man.
I’m a member of arguably the most successful generation of black men in the history of the United States. Some would argue this success is a function of access to education and the expanding economic opportunities afforded us by a more liberal, culturally inclusive American society. But this gives white America too much undeserved credit for that success.
No, our success as black men is because we are the last generation of black boys raised by black men who had to know how to live by their wits. You had to know how to make a living and take care of yourself by being smart enough to figure out how to take advantage of the system while the system thought it was taking advantage of you. There is a story that will explain what I’m talking about.
Way back in the day, at the beginning of the 20th century when you could really buy something with a nickel or a dime, an elderly black gentleman was retiring from his long-held position as locker room attendant at an exclusive club for very rich white men. The club hired a young brother to take his place, and the older brother’s last duty was to train his replacement.
The younger brother observed that as the rich white men were leaving, they would tip the older brother. The exchange between the white men and the older brother annoyed and angered the younger brother, because the white men would invariably show the older brother a nickel and a dime and ask him which one was worth more and say he could have the one he chose. After some hesitation, the older brother would always say the nickel was larger and heavier so it must be worth more. They would all laugh and give him the nickel.
Fed up and enraged, the young brother confronted the old brother, saying, “You know better, so why do you allow those rich white men to believe you don’t?” The old brother smiled and said, “Son, of course I know a dime is worth more than a nickel, but if I take the dime the game is over.” He went on to explain the reason he was retiring was his house was paid for and his youngest child had just graduated from college.
My generation’s success is really a result of knowing how to hustle. That’s the moral of that story. Yeah, we went to college, but that was so you didn’t end up with a hard hustle. We learned how to hustle because we were taught by the preceding generations of black men how you had to function in order to survive in America.
Here’s the truth about America that all black boys got taught back then that we no longer teach: America was not created or designed for you. In America, if you’re black, the cards are marked, the dice are loaded and the deck is always stacked. To the extent America thinks about you, it will always be trying to limit your possibilities. But anybody can be played, once you understand how they cheat.
We were the last generation raised in a totally segregated America. In segregated America, black boys had the benefit of being nurtured and protected by the entire black community until they could protect themselves. Because we regularly heard “this ain’t for you” or “time for y’all to go” is why we all got over.
We also are the first generation to live as adults in a desegregated America. “Lest our feet stray from the places, our God where we met Thee. Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.” These verses from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” poetically capture the reason for the physical and spiritual malaise of the black community in post-Civil Rights America. You could say we have spent the last 40 years wandering the desert.
What has happened to today’s young black males is we – my generation – never passed on the lessons. We didn’t teach what we had been taught. We let the chain that connects the past to future by way of the present break. Too many of today’s young black males don’t know who they are or where they are because they don’t know from whence they came.
If our forefathers had done for us what we have done for the generations that have come after us, none of us would be here. Some of us have been extraordinarily materially successful, but there will come an hour when we’ll hear, “Fool tonight thy soul is required of thee.” We – my generation – have collectively violated a scared trust and will be judged harshly.
But the story of young black males is still unfolding, and the lesson my father taught me still holds true and still can be learned. The cheat may have changed, but it's still on. And you might need to beat it in new ways, but it still can be beat. You can continue to protest and demand equality and fairness – we all deserve those things – but you still need to learn to beat the cheat.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.