I was watching a remake of the 1960’s classic movie, ‘The Time Machine’ the other night, and couldn’t help but think about how I could alter history if I had the ability to go back in time.
I could show up at Ford’s Theater and stop the assassination of President Abe Lincoln; jacking up John Wilkes Booth before he entered the rear entrance. That would really be doubly significant because Booth was a well-known bigot who was trying to spark a renewal of the conflict to continue slavery in America. To have a Black man kicking his ass would have put an exclamation point on his self-righteous piety.
If I could go back in history I would warn my ancestors not to believe those missionaries who were giving away cruise vouchers to Disneyworld. I would also warn John Brown not to purchase a ticket on the Harper Ferry either.
Or maybe I would show up before the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, warning them to ‘duck’ at the appointed moment. Where would we be today had those leaders not succumbed to early deaths?
Of course my vision didn’t focus entirely on century old historical events. From a personal perspective, there’s so much I would change if I knew then, what I know now.
I would have purchased stock in Apple when it was $22 a share. One thousand dollars and I would be rich today. I was actually set to buy some (maybe not that full amount), but let a broker talk me out of it. I guess I should have followed my heart instead of a speculator’s opinion.
Or, I would have bought that last lot on 5th and Garfield. Didn’t understand real estate at the time, so I bought a duplex on the Northside instead. It wasn’t a bad investment, but I could have done a lot better.
I definitely would have finished high school, and maybe would have gone directly to college (preferably an historically Black university). I received an excellent education at UWM, and instructors there made a permanent impact on my life’s journey, particularly Dr. Lee Barrows, chair of the Mass Communications Department, who saw my potential and recommended me an internship with the Black Press, and Dr. Virginia Stamper, who refined my wild Africentric vibrations with a drum beat and a hunger to know more about my ancestry.
In retrospect, my decision to return to Milwaukee and follow a path that has led me to this place and time was the correct one.
I’m of the belief that we’re all put here for a reason, and our destinies are foretold, even though we have the capacity to venture down a different path. Every trail we walk down intersects with a fork in the road. Sometimes we make choices based on instinct, that inner voice some say is a nudging from God or an angel directing our paths. Other times it’s just a flip of the coin. Far too often, we allow emotionalism, ego or cardinal lust to sway our decision.
Fortunately, even when we venture down the dark street of life, there’s usually an alley to lead us back to the main thoroughfare. You might waste some time, or burn unnecessary shoe leather, but if you can recognize your mistake you eventually correct your mistake. Your detour may be a path paved with thorns, or sharp stones, but that’s usually the penalty for making the original mistake, and allows you an opportunity to learn a lesson or two in the process.
Who knows, you may reach a level of maturity where you see the larger map.
Some call it fate, others faith, and still others the handiwork of God, but by whatever explanation, I strongly believe we are put here for some mysterious reason; one that most of us may not recognize until we’re at the end of our life journey.
I’ve long believed I was put here to be an activist, journalist, a tree shaker and a griot.
My African name is Kwaku Osei, which was given me after completing the cultural rites of passage. Kwaku means ‘born on Wednesday.’ It is also the name given a child before he or she earns a name rooted in the communal consensus of what your role in life is to be. Osei means ‘bearer of the news, maker of the great.’
Coincidence? I think not. But it does explain how and why I traveled the road I did. Even my detours led me to this one place and time. The life experiences along the way allowed me to see the world through tinted prisms. Everything happened for a reason.
Let’s scan back 40 plus years ago.
I was the white sheep of my family (pun intended for obvious reasons). I was a good in school, but rarely got the grades I could have earned because I was intoxicated with having ‘fun’ (skipping school) and doing what felt good, versus what was good for me. I also ran with the wrong crowd, and got caught up in life altering mischief, despite my religious indoctrination and strong nuclear family foundation.
To make a long story short, I was arrested (fortunately my aunt turned me in, for my own good) and I was given the option of continuing down path ‘A’ or detouring to path ‘B,’ which meant I would join the military two weeks after my 18th birthday.
Fortunately, I had a strong educational foundation and had worked for two years as a copyboy for the Milwaukee Sentinel when I found myself at the crossroad. Those facts were taken into consideration, providing me with the option (opportunity) to join the military or become another Black statistic.
I scored high on the military aptitude tests, and after boot camp was given a choice assignment to an electronics communications school at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. I was actually at the top of my class when six weeks into the program, it was discovered that I didn’t have a high school diploma, which I was later to learn was a requirement for the program. My progress notwithstanding, I was thrown out of the school and reassigned to duty as a deck hand on a ship docked in Jacksonville, Florida.
Jacksonville was not only a cultural shock (in Norfolk some residents had signs on their lawns saying ‘Niggers and sailors keep off the grass.’ Jacksonville, was actually worse; segregated facilities and Black people who ‘knew’ their place.
What was even worst was that I was stuck, career wise. I was being punished for my earlier mistakes; for following the wrong path. And the dichotomy of my situation hit me like a brick. I couldn’t blame anybody but myself. The only good news was that it was still early in the game of life, and it was within my power to find a way back to the original path.
I dedicated myself to getting back. I pulled a Malcolm X and started reading everything I could find. I even contacted the principal at North Division and asked if I could take courses for those I missed. I took correspondence courses in photography and journalism.
After an eye opening tour in Vietnam, I extended my enlistment to take advantage of a special program and was assigned to Great Lakes Naval Station where I took additional courses in photography.
When I got out of the Navy, I applied and scored high enough on the admission test to be accepted into UW-Milwaukee.
Within months, I was included in a request for ‘senior’ journalism students (I was a freshman) to serve internships at the Milwaukee Star Times newspaper. The rest is history.
My point in relating that story is that we can use the past as a lesson to forge a ‘new’ future. We can correct mistakes. We can take seriously the adage I modified from a statement a Muslim brother once told me, “To stumble is not to trip, but instead to fall, forward, faster.”
The postscript from my story is that I’ve never applied for a job in my life. One opportunity has always led to another, in the field of photography and journalism. And those vocations, particularly working for the Black Press, has allowed me to educate and inform, to champion causes and to, as the founding fathers of the first Black newspaper declared, ‘to plead our own cause.’
The second reason for my story is to convince you that we collectively have a responsibility to direct our youth today; to explain to them every little action they take in life has consequences. Everything we’ve done in the past affects our present. What we do, or don’t do, today, will influence our future.
The choices, or lack thereof, our children make today, no matter how trivial, can determine whether they will someday own a McDonald’s, or will spend their lives asking the question, ‘do you want fries with that sir?’
As a community, we must stress the essentiality of moral foundations; the importance of education as a pathway; of utilizing talents to pay honor to God, to benefit self and family, and to empower and preserve our community.
Why? The alternatives cry out and explain why most of us are still in slavery:
Fifty percent of Black males do not graduate from high school. That means they traveled down the wrong road, made the wrong decision and the path they are currently on is paved with unnecessary hardship.
Nearly 70% of all babies born in Milwaukee are born to Black girls/women out of wedlock. That means our young, impressionable sisters bypassed Main Street (or Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) and instead ended up on a dead end street.
A majority of girls who have babies before 17 will not finish high school. Nearly 70% will end up impoverished. Less than 30% will ever be married. Half of their children will drop out of high school, end up in prison or live their lives in poverty.
It may sound as an afterthought, but in each of those cases, there is an escape route; a tunnel leading to the road originally mapped by a high power. With determination, drive and a little help, they can turn their lives around, as I did.
But what is more important is that we use these real life stories to impact the decisions made by our youth, to hopefully get them to understand the importance’s of life’s choices.
Children are myopic. They are naïve. They don’t listen. But we are smarter, wiser and empowered by God to show them the way; the correct path.
We must convince them that every step they plant in the sand has the power to change the course of the mighty ocean. Or more simply put, their lives.
Small decision can have life altering consequences.
Skipping school. Smoking a joint. Having sex. Each can lead them down a trial to never never land.
The choice is theirs, but it also ours. As parents, communal leaders and tribesmen, we are mandated by God to show them the light and the path. Only they can ultimately direct their paths, but we can be their guides.
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