As a young ad agency Copywriter – which made me a member of the “Mad Men” fraternity depicted in the long-running hit TV show which just ended, I worked for a US-based advertising agency with international branches and subsidiaries. It was near the end of a 3-day corporate meeting being held in Omaha, Nebraska when the “Big Deal” was dropped in my lap. I was part of the team that put together the total presentation program: full multi-screen visuals, all the printed documents – every detail produced to showcase for the attendees the prior year’s successes. The kudos were hot and heavy (meaning it was well-received by the Corporate Suits.) It was at the close of the conference when the “offer” was extended to me. Totally unsolicited and unexpected.
Although the event was primarily for our US offices; many of our world-wide affiliates made the trek to cold, blustery Omaha. It made good sense from many points of view. One of those overseas offices was in Hong Kong. And it was this office that tendered the invitation to me to join their creative staff. Before I get in to details, I must tell you about another opportunity that come my way before the Hong Kong debacle. It dovetailed with the China offer in spectacular fashion..
My primary mentor, a “giant” in opening up job opportunities in the advertising agency business for African-Americans in Chicago, was part of the famous (or infamous) class of “Mad Men” from the Windy City who became close advisors to the Nixon Administration. He became head of a major section of the Department of Education; and as such extended an offer to me to join his management team. I went so far as to fly to Washington to discuss the particulars. I loved (and still do) Washington, D.C. I have visited numerous times over the years. In the end, I turned down the offer. Over time, I have surmised that my decision was taken as an affront by my mentor. It shouldn’t have been. But from his perspective, considering all he had done to get me established in the ad business, I understand his reaction. In actuality, other things ultimately played a decisive role and trumped my personal success goals at the time – as I will explain later. Be that as it may, my relationship with my friend was never the same. From my vantage point, however, I never stopped admiring and singing his praise to any and all who would listen when it came to giving credit to how I got into the ad agency business.
Back to Hong Kong. In fact, I have to go back even further to my freshman year in college to provide more background for my decision regarding that China job offer.
I attended a small Midwestern religious-based Liberal Arts college where the student body was basically 100% White (it has since attained University status and is more integrated; though the enrollment is still overwhelmingly White.) This is important because during my time in attendance, there were only about a dozen Black students on campus; but only five were African-Americans. The other minority students were recruited from the Caribbean and Africa through the church affiliation’s missionary work. In fact, in previous years there were no African-American students enrolled at all. White students were not accustomed to Black Americans from any perspective; and especially one from Chicago (me), who shattered all types of comfort zones, myths, anecdotal homilies and other stereotypes.
It was during new student orientation week, when an English professor encouraged us to share a secret educational “dream.” Being who I am, I boldly proclaimed my desire to learn Chinese and visit that country. What ensured was dead silence. Then there slowly arose snickers, muffled non-syllable words and snorts. The professor uttered some comment like, “admirable” or “interesting” or some such bland inanity; but the way in which it was done served the purpose of dismissing my statement completely. Within days, it was all over the campus that the Black guy from Chicago was deemed to be certifiable nuts for wanting to learn the Chinese language. Where did he get that idea? I would bet my worse enemy’s reputation that what was unspoken was: what nerve! And that’s putting it nicely. No, I never learned to speak Chinese, and when the chance to work in China was offered; well – I passed on the opportunity.
That made it two in a row. Two chances to gain wisdom and knowledge. Insofar as China was concerned, to explore the wonders of a 5,000 year old society that few African-Americans have ever seen up close and personal was the stuff of dreams. And I muffed it. Badly. Even worse than terribly; possibly it could be labeled as unforgivable. I would not dispute any of those descriptions.
How had I reached my China decision? What in the world could have held me back from leaping at the opportunity to change my life and that of my family? To make a career move that would have opened up future job possibilities that I could not even have imagined. What indeed? Quite simply, it was good old-fashioned fear; not having the self-confidence to believe in myself – even when others obviously saw talents worthy of their investment in me. I also believe, subconsciously of course, that the reception to my “China statement” back during my freshman orientation, stuck with me; resurfacing and adding fuel to the fire leading to my ultimate decision. Taken together, these things formed the bedrock of my saying “no” to accepting that job in China. I rationalized it by telling myself that I was not ready – whatever that meant; and in the case of Washington, D.C., family issues were piled on top of those shortcomings, and they trumped the Nixon Administration and my mentor.
The other reason I rejected the China offer, and this was quite legitimate: was the geo-politics of race. It was well-known at the time that the prevailing view among the Chinese toward Africans, as well as Black Americans was one of utter disdain; total disrespect. They looked upon folk like me as inferior – period. I just couldn’t see taking my family into another racially hostile system; which in all probability was an even worse discriminatory environment than the one we lived in at home. Rightly or not, the prospect of facing the pain of hate living in China, overruled the incredible learning experience of living in a country full of natural and man-made wonders; while gaining wisdoms that would surely have influenced me and my family forever; be they good or bad.
Despite those real and perceived obstacles, I should have found the strength, the will – yes, the backbone to welcome China with an open heart and mind. In the words of Author, Stephen Kaggwa, “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.” Thus, the idea of “Weekends, Wisdoms & Wonders” was born. But there’s still more to the story of its conception.
My wife and I made every effort to expose our three sons to the many fine museums, cultural locations; all the sites, sights and sounds that a vibrant city like Chicago had to offer. We spent many summer days along the shores and beaches of Lake Michigan, visiting zoos, marveling at the water show of the famous Buckingham Fountain – anywhere we thought our boys would like, appreciate and hold fond memories for them in years to come. When we could afford a vacation – off we went: road trip, road trip. One year I suggested we go spelunking (Mammoth Cave in Kentucky was the destination); you should have heard the groans and moans. But your know what? It turned out to be one of our most incredible, memorable and unforgettable experiences ever. Ever!
After many years of adventures, one day our sons told us that some of their friends had never seen or experienced any of the things they had; never seen Lake Michigan or been in the world-famous Chicago Loop; let alone visited a museum. We were stunned! In disbelief. Because all the things I have mentioned about our Chicago trips were, in many instances, less than an hour or so from our neighborhood. Later, out of earshot of the kids, as we discussed their bombshell of a comment, it humbled us. Because none of the reasons those kids had missed out on these so-called “normal” activities – were good: lack of funds, no transportation, a sick or disabled parent or guardian; and yes, even the lack of parental involvement. We would find out nearly twenty years later(we had relocated out of Chicago by then); many of those children succumbed to life’s challenges. Some of the boys ended up dead or in prison.. A few of the girls were stuck in hard lives with a bleak future. But most emerged as solid, hardworking, morally responsible citizens; but a doctor, several teachers, a few top-tier business persons, as well as two military officers also sprang from that so-called deprived bunch of kids. So all was not lost. Yes, our sons turned out just fine.
Now you have the full and complete backstories behind “Weekends, Wisdoms & Wonders.”
For the record, no posts were or are intended to lecture, poke a finger in someone’s eye, berate or criticize a lifestyle – or otherwise cause negative feelings for anyone. Quite the contrary. I remembered those children of that long ago neighborhood; and of my unforgiving, unforgettable failings of courage to step through two doors of incredible opportunities presented to me. So I thought why not occasionally blog about all the wonderful people, places and things one can see and do in a weekend – and the wisdoms to be gained from those experiences. I then decided to add some “words of wisdoms” to sweeten the pot – to prod my blog visitors to take a step toward getting out of the ordinary habitual things we humans are comfortable doing week end and week out. And to attempt to do it in a light, fun and non-critical manner.
By the way, what’s on your agenda this weekend? Drat! I couldn’t resist.
“He is able who thinks he is able” —-Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, Founder of Buddhism, 563-483 BC
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