Two Degrees of Separation, James Baldwin and the power of Role Models

As I spoke to a successful businessman, I asked about someone who spends summers in Martha’s Vineyard, as he does. He was surprised I knew a particular friend of his.

I then said to him, “There are just six degrees of separation,” as in the title of the award winning play.

The gentleman replied, “With black people, there are just two degrees of separation.”

I stood silent for a moment to digest his statement. How prophetic  –  as a black man, there’s a minimal amount of separation between myself, a homeless person, or a senior corporate executive who is African American. In some respects, there is no separation at all. After all, even the most successful black men have difficulty catching a taxi in New York City.

So what separates us? Education, experience, access to opportunity, confidence, perseverance? There are many factors, but access to role models can help blacks understand our history, learn different points of view, see opportunities, avoid or overcome pitfalls, and thrive as individuals, families, and communities.

I’ve been fortunate to have many role models. I never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, but I had the fortune to meet author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, who knew Dr. King and Malcolm X. At the time I was 14 years old, too naïve to understand the magnitude of meeting James Baldwin, or the degree of separation between myself , Mr. Baldwin, and his elite circle of friends and acquaintances. Meeting Mr. Baldwin and his mother, Emma Berdis Jones Baldwin, was an empowering moment in my life. The circumstances of our meeting is a thesis in and of itself, so I’ll digress – the confidence, eloquence and majesty of James Baldwin were apparent the moment I met him.

James Baldwin and a statue of William Shakespeare

Upon reflection, meeting James Baldwin reinforced the fact that if I work hard, I can achieve whatever I desire, and if someone impedes my ability to achieve, I must have the fire next time to overcome the obstacles in my path. As a tribute to Dr. King, Malcolm X., James Baldwin and the other African Americans who built a foundation that allows me to achieve, I must preserve their legacy by celebrating black history month, being a mentor, role model, and helping others achieve prosperity.

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