Models Monday: Expanding the Meaning of Success

James Lawson (left) with Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 28, 1968 at a press conference supporting the sanitation workers’ strike. JACK E. CANTRELL / COURTESY OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, THE UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES. See The Commercial Appeal as my original source.

I finished reading David Halberstam’s wonderful book, The Children, late Saturday night. As I read, I recorded recurring terms used in discussing the principle subjects involved in the Nashville sit-ins when they first entered the Movement in the 1960s. My list includes the following terms: commitment, conscious, inner, worthy, serious, intellectual, serious intellectual, mutual, respect, mutual respect, noble, purpose, noble purpose. These terms appeared in discussions about a person’s motivations for joining the Movement or the reasons they found participation in the Movement fulfilling. Most of the early activists were deeply religious and the philosophy and principles of nonviolence as Jim Lawson taught them in his training workshops were rooted in religion and spiritual practices reflecting their own faith commitments. What I find striking about the terms, as they once marked the activists’  ambitions, has to do with the life of the terms once Halberstam begins writing about the activists after they helped to create revolutionary social changes.

Success and employment appear inextricably linked in terms of how adult lives appear intelligible. On one hand, this makes sense because of the time that adults spend working and thus the relationship to the kind of private life that work might allow one to create for themselves and their loved ones. On the other hand, wedding success and employment in this way limits insight into the meaningful inner or interior lives that people create for themselves despite their employment. In the environment that I grew-up in, people didn’t ask other folk where they worked or what they did to earn money. Of course, if the person brought up where they worked or how they earned money it was discussed but I NEVER knew anyone who would directly ask someone what they did for a living or where they worked. I was raised to believe that this was a rude question because it might put someone who was unemployed in an awkward position and you did not want to make a person feel uncomfortable so you didn’t ask. As I matured, I learned that work could have little to do with a person’s choice or level of ambition. As a matter of history, people could be conscripted into labor and service beyond their desire for other kinds of employment. In my community, it was also the case that a lot of people hustled for a living, thus making money any way they could above ground or below. The illegitimacy of such labor could have been embarrassing to discuss before people who took home an “honest day’s pay” from the Water Department, at Ford, at the Telephone company, or through Domestic service. Peoples’ feelings and their ability to participate in the life of our community was stressed over the terms of their labor. Though I recognize that there are multiple reasons for asking someone where they work, I am still startled when I am asked what I do for a living in social situations–especially because the question and the response don’t typically add anything meaningful to the conversation; perhaps it adds to how someone chooses to imagine your life and what it’s like but then it seems as though discovering the answer would actually be what limits the imagination. Knowing where someone works does not mean that you have insight into that person’s relationship to those substantial, though nonmaterial, terms that those young activists used to mark meaningfulness in their lives in the 1960s. Thus, in using those terms, one can be serious, conscious, and noble while employed in any number of jobs or professions. I certainly thought that my grandfather was a serious intellectual despite never having attended college. In fact, he read more, focused his intellectual energy more, and disciplined his mind more than many college students I know who don’t always understand these habits as fundamental to their work as students.

The story that Halberstam tells about Hank Thomas highlights some of the limitations that occur when considerations of money and employment inform the meaning of success. Thomas participated in the Nashville sit-ins while officially enrolled as a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Thomas later served in Vietnam before becoming a millionaire through his ownership of McDonald’s restaurants. Thomas’s story underscores some of the tensions surrounding his as a conventionally understood “success” story. To this point, Halberstam writes:

One of the things which bothered Hank Thomas was the way many of his old colleagues in the Movement treated entrepreneurial capitalism, putting it down, as if to be successful financially in this country was to betray the goals of the Movement. Financial success–living well with dignity and having many of the good things that so many white people had–was, as far as he was concerned, just as much a part of the Movement as ending voter discrimination. But, he believed, it was hard to make blacks see that, as if they felt that somehow their own personal success might seem to be a betrayal of other, less successful blacks. That was crazy, he thought: For too long in this country, blacks had supplied the labor but had not gotten the benefit of their labor. Now that the opportunities to benefit from their own labor were opening up, it was a mistake to hold up a kind of reverse prejudice against those who worked hard and were successful. (697)

Such sentiments were conveyed to me almost verbatim in response to a post I wrote about being “broke and still blessed” when an anonymous commenter accused me of criticizing black financial success but not black poverty. According to my critic, no criticism is leveled “against the outhouse we lived in,” though it is leveled against “the penthouse God has blessed us with.” In response to this aspect of the commenters ideas, I wrote: “I believe that God blesses us when we live in the “outhouse,” the small house, the dirty house, and the poor house. Faith in God, to me, means that you believe in God’s glory and can see it (though you might need help) in the most trying of circumstances. According to my faith, then, it can’t be that to be poor is to be in a godless position. Conditions of poverty have more to do with capitalism, race, and power than with God’s will. What do you think? Why is it the case that being able to prosper in material terms makes someone more of a symbol of being blessed than someone who has grown kinder, more circumspect, more patient? I would suggest that those people are just as valuable in symbolizing God’s glory as the ones that American culture turns into symbols of proof. My father did not die a wealthy man but because he was so much better as a man, I thought he ended his life well. I thought the arc of his entire life made his a story worth telling to crowds of people wanting to improve the quality of their experiences.”

Perhaps even qualifying “success” as “financial success” fails in avoiding critiques of having attenuated the possibilities of the meaning of success for it is certainly the case that one can imagine how one might live well and with dignity despite having a great deal of money. Race, particularly as Thomas understands it given the historical context in relationship to “the goods that so many white people had” directly informed the Movement with respect to black people “living well and with dignity.” Segregation and the codes of Jim Crow staged roles and performances of black subservience. These roles ostensibly placed black people outside of dignity and thus the possibility of living well. Poverty, oftentimes extreme poverty, was assumed to have guaranteed black exclusion from this same possibility. The goals of the Movement certainly sought to improve the economic conditions of those living in extreme poverty because it does inform the extent to which one can live well and influence their experience of dignity. At the same time, what many of these activists understood is that in the face of lack, oftentimes extreme lack, those same poor people had managed to create an alternative system of value and meaning wherein they did live well and with dignity. That is to say, for those black people living under the harsh terms of segregation, living well and with dignity was not exclusively defined as having “the goods that so many white people had.” Those terms would have made it impossible for those people to ever have experienced lives of value. Instead, one example of living well and with dignity meant having a home with at least one adult at home to provide meals for the family. Such was the case with Jim Lawson’s mother Philane who I wrote about in a previous post. Living well for the Lawson family was not based on being able to hire someone to perform domestic chores within one’s household, but on being able to do that work for the sake of one’s own family. Too, Mrs. Lawson also taught her son the meaning of dignity. She had explained to him upon learning that he slapped a child who called him “nigger,” that his actions had done him no good:

We all love you, Jimmy, and God loves you, and we all believe in you and how good and intelligent you are. We have a good life and you are going to have a good life. I know this, Jimmy. With all that love, what harm does that stupid insult do? It’s nothing, Jimmy, it’s empty. Just ignorant words from an ignorant child who is gone from your life the moment it was said. That child is gone. You will never see him again. You do not even know his name. (31)

Having something, being wealthy, if you will, meant being the recipient of love. It also meant being intelligent. Violence in that moment estranged young Lawson from dignity because he had ignored another’s obvious impoverishment in an effort to dominate that person though there was a glaringly apparent power imbalance: Jim Lawson was loved and intelligent, therefore rich; the child who called out “nigger” was loud and stupid, thus the signs of his rearing and being loved were absent, therefore, he was poor.

The Lawson case illustrates the ways that financial terms might be reworked to highlight the expanded ways that words might be redeployed to reflect alternative values. Hank Thomas’s effort to discuss “financial success” and thus distinguish it from other meanings of success becomes conflated with those same definitions. He introduces nothing new.

As much as I loved reading The Children, I wondered how different the book would have read if the aftermath of the activists’ lives would have been read through the key terms that defined their work as activists instead of through ones that define the world of work. Thus, I wondered how the final portion of the book would have read if it were told through the story of their interior lives. If a success story were written through a narration of the  interior lives of The Children of the Movement, it might have considered questions like these: What did they think about when it is quiet? What did they find noble as they matured? How would they define the core of their inner lives? Did it change as they matured? What is the relationship between their faith and their inner life? What qualities did they notice themselves admiring in their friends? What about themselves did they want to change? What did they like about themselves that they wanted to enhance? What makes life worthwhile?

Responding to questions like these not only expands how we understand the terms of success, it also gives more of us a crack at it.

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