by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
People love a good rags-to-riches story. But it's only appreciated in that order. Few want to hear the "riches" part from the well-to-do. And it's a "sob story" if someone only talks about the "rags" portion of their tale. Me, I had a great rags-to-riches story:
was a black kid, born and raised in St. Louis' ghetto neighborhoods; a high
school dropout who became a
was the "riches" part of my story that seemed to resonate with people. Gaining
employment with the city's only major daily newspaper had that much-anticipated
Horatio Alger ending. It was an
assurance that hard work,
determination and sacrifice really can lift anyone from humble beginnings to
middle-class comfort. In
the minds of many (and in mine, too) I had arrived. A steady paycheck,
benefits, thousands of readers, prestige, respect and recognition -I lavishly
lapped it up. Not rich by any means but my wife, daughters and I lived the
quasi-middle class dream; a nice 4-bedroom home in a quiet, tony part of the
city; two cars; a wallet full of
traditional tale took an unconventional turn. I was fired from the Post in
2009. My marriage crumbled in 2010. In 2011, I joined the ranks of the 150
million post-recession Americans considered "poor" or "near poor." This year, 2012, I lost the house in the quiet,
middle class, South St. Louis neighborhood and moved to North St. Louis in an
area stigmatized by drive-by shootings and disproportionate rates of crime,
Suddenly, at age 56, unwanted chapters have been inserted into my life chronicle. Yet, in the midst of economic vulnerability and a steep fall from grace, I have found new riches and new purpose. I have come full circle to a familiar and oddly comforting place.
the unsavory motives that led to my departure from the newspaper, I really welcomed
the exit. I had become the go-to guy for all things black; the defender of the
dismissed and downtrodden-those grappling with the extremities of my impoverished
youth. Instead of ostracizing and incarcerating these people, I preached about
In reality, I was a drive-by, literary proselytizer ; a black man from a white neighborhood, championing change in the black community from his cozy cubicle inside a white-owned newspaper building.
Increasingly, I felt like a "talker" but I desperately wanted to be a "doer."
The Bible says "Pride goeth before a fall." It was pride whispering in my ear when I refused the union's offer to fight for the job. It was ego that urged me to diregard advice to sue the trousers off the newspaper. "Screw "em," I retorted, the idea of wasting years and years and spending thousands and thousands to win back a job where I wasn't wanted seemed stupid. Besides, I had received a lucrative offer from Tom Burrell, the black advertising pioneer, to work with him on his upcoming book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.
The manuscript was published by SmileyBooks, owned by public TV and radio commentator, Tavis Smiley. That assignment led to several opportunities to serve as a consultant or contributor on other books the company published. But I became frustrated with the lack of take-charge black leaders who weren't articulating or delivering strategies or solutions that addressed the disproportionately-high rates of unemployment, poverty and incarceration impacting communities of color. And, I was burdened by the fact that I still wasn't a doer.
As blessed as I was to be in the company of some of black America's top-thinkers, the creative jobs were too far apart and far too few. Pride fed the illusion that I could sustain the debt-heavy lifestyle of my Post-Dispatch years. I staunchly resisted my ex's pleas to dramatically downsize. To do so, ego argued, would mean the bastards had won.
Recently, while doing research for a client, I listened to the sermons of T.D. Jakes, the popular pastor of the non-denominational mega-church, Potter's House.
"Sometimes God has to break you down to build you up," Jakes lectured. He added that oftentimes, we have to be "humbled" in order to receive our intended grace.