Stop Complaining and Start Planning Write down the revelations and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.
ON AUGUST 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered a speech that will go down in history as one of the most powerful, poignant, and inspired speeches of our time. It is known as the“I Have a Dream” speech and it begins:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
As you will see with Nannie Helen Burroughs’s powerfully instructive message, not much has changed for black folks in America in a hundred years. Sure, much of the struggle of the 1960s led to changes in the laws that allowed blacks to drink from whatever water fountain they chose or to ride in the front of the buses. These laws even gave blacks the right to vote. But what changed economically for blacks?
Black family income is at an all-time high, but is still only 58 percent of that of the average family in America.
According to the Federal Reserve, the wealth gap between whites and African-Americans is widening. According to the Fed, for every dollar of wealth held by a typical white family in 2007, a black family had only ten cents— that’s two cents less than the family had in 2004.
And with layoffs in 2009 affecting blacks disproportionately, that gap is expected to increase even more.
Black-owned businesses have increased in number and have penetrated a wide range of industries over the past thirty years. But the sales of the one hundred largest black-owned businesses combined are less than the sales of any one of the companies on the Fortune 500 list of major industrial corporations. Outside of Black Enterprise, TV One (which is limping), and Ebony and Jet (which are on life support as I’m writing this), blacks own no major media outlets.
Equal pay? While blacks have made progress over the last thirty years, African-Americans still earn about seventy-four cents for every dollar a white person earns. And in 2004, black family income was 58 percent of that of white families—a drop from 63 percent in 1974.
In that“I Have a Dream” speech, King also said:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
That’s not true. The framers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence at no time considered blacks—who were then slaves—to be a part of the America they were building. Blacks were chattel, property, three-fifths of a man. There was certainly no consideration of their rights or needs, nor were they considered“heirs” to all the wealth that was to become America’s.
Here’s where King’s dream has continued to be just that. Having a dream, instead of having a plan, has relegated us to living in a world of fantasy instead of reality. Now, I’m not criticizing King or his speech because he was able to get Americans—both black and white—to really start to see black people as equal and deserving participants in this democracy, and that was important. His agenda was not about economic empowerment or even black pride, as was the push by Marcus Garvey and later Malcolm X. We need to dream. Dreams are the building blocks to the manifestation of real accomplishments.
But after we finish dreaming, we need to wake up and do something!
If King had lived, perhaps his work would have evolved. Instead of hoping for white acceptance and unity, he would have rallied blacks to create their own industries and develop their own base of wealth. He would have talked about economic empowerment—not what the government“owes” blacks but what we blacks owe ourselves.
Instead of talking about integrating schools, King might have seen that perhaps talking about making all-black schools better—making them schools that could rival those of whites—would have been more productive. Instead of calling for integrated neighborhoods, he might have talked about making black neighborhoods places where even white people would fight to get in.
Instead of blacks complaining about having to drink from the broken-down COLOREDS ONLY fountains, King could have urged blacks to create their own elaborate fountains in their own neighborhoods.
Yes, Rosa Parks was tired and didn’t want to give up her seat or stand in the back of the bus. But why didn’t blacks create their own bus system? Start it off with some vans. If everyone had chipped in to buy that first bus, the people would have been able to buy a fleet of buses from the monies made.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a dream, and it was a nice speech, a great speech, an inspiring speech. But I believe his speech and his dream was supposed to manifest into something greater, and we’ve let King down.
We had to have the dream. But what would have pushed the black cause further would have been a plan—an economic plan to go along with the dream.
I am a dreamer by nature. I sit around from time to time imagining my next conquest, my next journey, and I play it out in my mind. I fantasize about the wealth I will have and the schools I will build and the children I will take care of.
But I live by a plan. I learned that words are powerful. In the beginning of the Bible it says that God said
let there be light and there was. He didn’t think about light and it happened. He said
something and it happened. Words then must be the key to accomplishment, followed by action.
I learned that by writing down the things that I dreamed about and envisioned, they often came to fruition. I guess you can equate it to going on a trip and having an idea of where you are going but not having a map. If you’re on a trip without a map and you get lost, you can certainly pull over and ask someone for directions, but you run the risk of someone sending you even farther out of your way with bad advice. The best thing you can do is to make sure you have a map—a clear map—that shows you exactly where you are and where you need to be before you even set out on your journey.
WRITING DOWN THE DREAM
In 1996, I’d got off track, even with some of the positive examples I had from my youth. I was in a bad place financially, spiritually, and physically. My weight had got out of control. I was pushing 240 pounds, eating things I don’t even look at today. My gallbladder eventually had to be removed. I was making bad choices in my personal and financial life.
I turned to a friend who had been studying the Bible and started talking about the things that were going on in my life. My friend asked me a simple question:“What do you want to happen in your life?”
I said,“I want everything to be on the right track. I want peace.”
“Well, first you
have to be on the right track,” my friend told me.“You have to take a good hard look at yourself and see where you are. Then you have to look inside yourself and determine where you want to be, and then you have to write it down and look at it every day. And I guarantee you, you will get there.”
So I soul-searched and came up with seven goals:
Get closer to God/peace, wisdom through Him
Find love (learn to give and receive)/passion
Write a book
Buy a house (Arlington Avenue)
Get an SUV(Land Rover Defender 90 or Discovery)/Saab (I want back what I had lost)
Have fun/enjoy life/make new friends
These goals I typed on my computer January 1, 1996, printed them out, and placed them in my daily planner, which I started using for all of my personal and business efforts since 1991. I taped a copy of my goals on the inside cover so that every day, when I opened my planner to write a number or record a meeting or some other important date, I would be forced to look at it.
By the end of the year, I was definitely getting closer to God. I started studying the Bible. I had read it before but it had just seemed like a bunch of stories in the past. This time as I was reading, I didn’t start at the beginning and read it as I would a book. I started in the back with the words in red (in my NIV edition) and studied the things Jesus said and got a deeper understanding of the nature of God and what He expected of me. I learned how to hear from God through reading His word.
Physically, I hadn’t lost much weight and I hadn’t found love, but I did write a book. I didn’t get that dream house on Arlington Avenue in East Orange, New Jersey, but I did get a new car, a Toyota 4Runner, and I made a few new friends. I was able to cross off four things on my list of seven and I was encouraged.
The following year, I got bold. My goals:
Have a really deep relationship with God
Get out of debt
Write another book or two
Buy a house or a condo
Make more than $100,000 annually
Start a business
Write a column at a major newspaper
And at the bottom of my list of goals, I mapped out all of my creditors, the people I owed money to, with the account numbers and the amount owed—everyone from American Express at $13,891 to the IRS at $1,458 to the $3,000 that I owed in parking tickets.
As I started to pay these off, I would put a line through the bills—crossing off my debt and at the same time freeing my spirit.
I finally got paid for my work on I Make My Own Rules
with LL Cool J, and it did so well that I even got two bonus checks. With that money, I crossed off No. 3 on my list of goals and all of the line items that I had on the bottom of the page that were left. I also had enough for a down payment on a condominium. I crossed off No. 5 and with my salary, I was able to cross off No. 6, too. Goal No. 4 took a little work, and I didn’t see that come to fruition until the following year. No. 1 and No. 2, I decided, would be lifelong processes that I would never cross off.
Sometimes you will find that your goals from one year don’t happen until years later. Going back into my daily planners from 1996 until today, I see that every single one of the things that I wrote down has happened—from starting a business (which I did in 1999 with a million dollars from a group of Wall Street investors and again in 2007 with a publishing house), to having a column (which was officially awarded to me by the New York Daily News
in 2001), to having a banging body (it took me until 2007 to get to a decent weight; I’m still working on the banging part). It is a process, and that process began with having a daily plan to do something, even if just one thing, such as not to eat that bagel for breakfast, that would help me accomplish one of my larger goals.
The process began with a plan, then making that plan plain in writing for me to look at every day.
While having a dream is a wonderful thing—a vision is important—having a plan is the only certain way to realize that dream.
TAKING ON THE PUBLISHERS
In 2006, I decided to start my third business.
After writing books as a collaborator for a number of years, I had circulated a couple of proposals to several large publishing houses for books that I believed in. The projects kept getting rejected. It was funny because if I wrote a proposal for a celebrity book or some tell-all, I would easily get a six-figure deal, but if I wanted to write a book that I believed would inspire young black kids across the country, I was told by at least one publisher,“Black kids don’t read!”
I knew my response was valid:“Black kids don’t read because publishers don’t produce the kinds of books that interest them.”
They still didn’t budge. Instead of complaining about how publishers were shortsighted and cry about how they didn’t produce the kinds of books for“our” kids that could reach them, I decided to start my own house.
I had a vision that my house would rival Simon & Schuster, Random House, and Penguin.
I know. Who in the world did I think I was? I was just a black woman whose only publishing experience had been in collaborating on a few bestselling books as a writer. I had zero publishing experience. But I had a vision, just like Richard Simon and Max Schuster, two guys who started publishing crossword puzzles and expanded from there, and just like Bennett Cerf, Christopher Coombes, and Donald Klopfer, who started Random House in 1927. As Cerf would say,“We just said we were going to publish a few books on the side at random.”
I was going to start a publishing house that would produce books that motivated and inspired and entertained people.
Again, I wrote on paper my mission:
Publish books that I don’t see in the market.
Find and create new, hot authors who had stories to tell that would inspire, motivate, and entertain.
Be true to who I am.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t have any family or friends who had been in this industry whom I could rely on to guide me. I knew I would make plenty of mistakes, but I also knew that with a vision and a plan I was more than halfway there. The next thing I did was to approach some of those huge publishing houses. I called St. Martin’s Press, Random House/Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster. I received a call back from Carolyn Reidy, the president of Simon & Schuster. She was interested in hearing what I had to say. She gave me a couple of options of imprints that I could work with. I chose Pocket Books. The publisher of Pocket, Louise Burke, was a straight shooter with so much experience that I wanted to soak up everything she had to offer.
I knew what I didn’t know, and if I planned on having a house big enough to one day compete with the big guys, I needed to be armed with knowledge that I could only get from the source.
I hear people in my neighborhood complain about the businesses they see. Just about every other corner has a Korean hair-care place, a Korean nail establishment, a Chinese take-out joint, or a convenience store run by a person from the Middle East. I have heard complaints about how people come into our neighborhood and start businesses and blah, blah, blah.
While I can easily jump on that interloper bandwagon, instead I ask this question:“What are you
doing about it?”
Are you dreaming and planning and doing? Or are you just complaining? The Negro Must Learn to Put First Things First. The First Things Are: Education; Development of Character Traits; a Trade and Home Ownership
The Negro puts too much of his earning in clothes, in food, in show, and in having what he calls“a good time.”
Dr. Kelly Miller said,“The Negro buys what he wants
and begs for what he needs.”… Too true!
This first Burroughs missive almost needs no commentary. She incorporates so much in one sentence. Putting first things first. Some could say put God first (well, that goes without saying and we will definitely get to that). But what I think Burroughs was really getting at is to lay your foundation. You don’t build a home without pouring the foundation. The deeper the foundation is poured, the more sturdy the house will be.
I believe the foundation in this case is education. But not just reading, writing, and arithmetic. Too many things are learned in school that you never need or use. So many things that are never taught in school you must absolutely learn. Two of the things are how to manage your money and how to manage yourself.
Building your wealth and building your character will ensure that your life is sturdy. MLK said,“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
It used to be a running joke about the number of Lexus and Mercedes cars, flat-screen TVs, and other luxury items in the projects. But it really isn’t funny. It’s sad that instead of putting money into home ownership, savings, and education, people with limited funds buy and spend beyond their means.
In 2008, when the bottom fell out of the economy, this hit the African-American community particularly hard. When unemployment soared at the beginning of 2009, who lost their jobs first? When foreclosures went up over 80 percent over the previous two years, who was losing their homes?
A popular money scribe used to say,“If it’s on your ass, it’s not an asset.”
I had a conversation once with a man who had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He was one of the first black men to have such a position. I asked him why there weren’t more blacks with aspirations to own a home or to own a seat on the stock exchange. He told me,“Perhaps it’s our history with being owned that turns us off to the notion of ownership.”
I’m not buying that. I believe that ignorance is what keeps us from the golden prizes and being at the center of the money game.
I was fortunate. My father owned a corner store in Newark, New Jersey, for eighteen years. Every night after he came home from closing the store, he would count his money and reconcile his books. He would put some money away for me, and every week when he did, he would show me my savings book (this was before electronic banking). I would often go to the bank with him to make the deposits. He would even have me rolling the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies he received at his store. I enjoyed that, and it introduced me to the value of money. It taught me to respect money and have a healthy understanding of its power.
How many parents do that for their children? So if you’re in a household where your parents are constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul, and living paycheck to paycheck, and following their instant-gratification jones by buying whatever they want even if they can’t afford it, what do you think will be your experience?
My father’s father owned that same corner store, which my father took over after my grandfather died. My grandfather didn’t have a formal education in running a business, and my father became the first in his family to graduate from college, with a degree in accounting and business. He took the foundation his father started and built upon it.
With the knowledge I grew up with, I launched several businesses and even took it one step further—with investors and major contracts with Fortune 500 companies.
One of the best things about America (and there are quite a few great things about our nation) is that it is a capitalist society. That means if you know how to make money, save money, and utilize money, you can do absolutely anything you want. While in many arenas people may want to hold you back because of your race, or your gender or whatever, the color green always speaks louder than any of that.
Ask Oprah Winfrey. And Earl Graves. Ask Robert Johnson. Ask Barack Obama. Obama overcame the race thing because he raised more money than any other candidate in history. Money talks and it can walk you anywhere—even into the White House.
So when Burroughs talks about putting first things first, she is saying so much more. You don’t successfully get anywhere in this world without knowing, without educating yourself. There are no excuses.
Famed playwright August Wilson dropped out of school at an early age. But he took himself to the library every single day, soaking up as much knowledge as he could. He read everything he could get his hands on and got his GED after studying in the library. He went on to be one of the most successful playwrights from our community.
He understood the value of a good education and developing character. His hard work and uncompromising drive led him to great success and wealth.
August Wilson proved that it is never too late to put first things first.
He is just one example. Thousands and thousands more are out there.
© 2010 Karen Hunter