Want resilience? (Black) American culture has you covered (July 15, 2020 issue)

Hi Friends,

I hope you enjoy this week’s actionable insights. Hit Reply and let me know what you think.

Black lives matter. Black heroes matter, too.

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of this week’s email. I bring together in an unexpected and hopefully refreshing way two big conversations:

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  1. How do you build resilience in yourself, your team, and your family amidst Covid, organizational changes, and economic uncertainty?
  2. How are you responding to the killing of George Floyd and all it represents?

I think it’s time to breathe complexity into the second conversation in a way that offers us practical wisdom for dealing with the first.

Simply put, if you want to build resilience in the people around you and do something noble for the larger world—particularly if you don’t identify your cultural roots as primarily black American—these resources may be valuable. In fact, as I said about Stevie Wonder last week during my 50th birthday party when two partygoers sang to me his version of Happy Birthday, they’re likely already part of you, whether you know it or not.

Want resilience? Use these two resources from (black) American culture

I include the word “black” because women and men of darker complexion contributed disproportionately to these resources for overcoming adversity. Credit where credit is due. I put “black” in parentheses because these are fundamentally American cultural resources that are valuable right now to all Americans (and readers from other countries).

1. Jazz. Many call it America’s original art form. This music invites many things, but stagnation and resignation are not among them. When I’m looking to move through difficult emotions, I listen to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (and Earth, Wind & Fire—more on that another time!) There’s a reason these rhythms are the perfect antidote to aching hearts and weary souls. They were born in adversity and grew through courageous improvisation, led by Americans of dark complexion. I recently came across these words from Ralph Ellison, which seem well suited to our moment:

During the Depression whenever [Duke Ellington’s] theme song ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’ came on the air, our morale was lifted by something inescapably hopeful in the sound. Its style was so triumphant and the moody melody so successful in capturing the times, yet so expressive of the faith which would see us through them.

2. Heroic tales of overcoming. Last time I wrote that Harriet Tubman is the quintessential American hero. This is what I remember learning in elementary school, and it made sense. In the mind of an 11-year-old, I don’t really understand slavery, and this is a lot to take in, but what she accomplished was really really hard! Yet somehow in today’s public conversation this part of history gets left out. Apparently, my job as a light-skinned man is to learn how black Americans have been screwed. OK. That sure is better than ignorance, and it’s a beat I’ve been on since college. But why stop there? Isn’t there more to the story than a people’s suffering? And if talking about this topic made me “fragile” (which it doesn’t, and even the “white” half of “white fragility” is a dubious proposition), wouldn’t I want to approach it in a way that made me strong or at least able to manage my own difficult emotions? Here’s an idea: what if every time you or I heard a story of suffering or oppression, we took it upon ourselves to search for the concurrent story of heroism and overcoming? Here are three reasons for doing this: 

First, it happened. The history is there. In the words of American writer, Albert Murray:

As for the tactics of the fugitive slaves, the Underground Railroad was not only an innovation, it was also an extension of the American quest for democracy brought to its highest level of epic heroism. Nobody tried to sabotage the Mayflower.

Second, human beings of every hue are so damn complex that a single narrative about anyone, however noble in intent, doesn’t cut it.

Finally, and here’s the kicker. You, I, and everyone we know needs these stories. Times are hard and uncertain, and we draw strength from our common history. And by “our” I mean all of us. If you don’t think that black American history isn’t part of who you are, think again. The culture we inherit is hybrid. Our cultural ancestors include everyone from Harriet Tubman and Daniel Boone to so-called WASPs and my Jewish great grandparents from Ukraine and Hungary.

Black Heroes Matter.

Cheerfully real,

Amiel Handelsman

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