To a particular portion of black college students, the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henly probably means a lot. Walk into a room full of black greeks and say “out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole,” and every one else will probably chime in like it was the Pledge of Allegiance, or Biggie lyrics. But there was always another, to my knowledge less popular, poem that stuck with me more. “If” by Rudyard Kipling, is a longer and less dramatic poem than the former. I guess the appeal of “Invictus” is that it’s shorter, easier to learn, and it has parts like “my head bloody but unbowed,” that add a certain gravitas. On top of that the back story that I received was that Henly wrote this on his death bed. (I looked it up, he wasn’t on his death bed but just had major surgery as a result of tuberculosis, lost one leg and came close to losing the other.) Knowing me, that’s probably the reason why I preferred “If”, it was more relatable and applicable to everyday life.
“If” is a meal that sticks to your ribs more, packed with all sorts of nutrients that get you through your day. Which makes sense since Kipling wrote it for his son as sort of guidance on his path to manhood. As a result, there are several parts of this poem that hit home for me, for instance the opening lines “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Which is a reminder to always keep your cool even in light of a crazy situation. The whole poem is chocked full of this sort of fatherly advice of things to keep in mind, but one line in particular has been repeating over and over again in my head. “…walk with kings-nor lose the common touch.” What Kipling was saying with this line was basically don’t become a snob. Just because you may find yourself among royalty or those considered the highest of society, don’t lose touch with the rest of the world. This line has become a grounder for me and a reminder to never get too big for my britches. (I realize that may be a old southern phrase that some may have never heard, just use context to figure it out.)
The past couple of years have seen me in a different environment than I’ve been used to and that is working with more privileged white folk. I’m used to being around mostly my own people but grad school and now my current work environment has shaken that up, and it’s been interesting. There have definitely been some cultural differences but one of the ones I noticed has been this overwhelming sense of entitlement. Which is weird for me because I was always taught that you won’t always get what you want or even deserve and that’s just the way life works. You’re not entitled to anything in this world and it owes you nothing. And these are not just life lessons learned from experience or something I gathered from media or history classes, but these were things explicitly taught to me by family and teachers. One of the things I remember hearing in elementary school was “just because you do something good, doesn’t mean you get a treat for it.” I was humbled at a very young age so it’s crazy to me that for some people, that doesn’t apply. I’m sure everyone is aware of the lesson, I just don’t think some believe it applies to them.
Another thing I noticed, which is probably a result of the entitlement, is that there seems to be quite a bit of talking down to and about other people. It seems like everyone is either incompetent or children that need their hands held through everything. Some of my compatriots tend to downplay the intelligence of people in other departments/organizations on fairly regular basis. Even when it comes to basic tasks they have a complete lack in faith of other people’s abilities, all the while hyping up how complex and important their own workload is in comparison. When, in my opinion, none of this stuff is really all that important in the grand scheme of things. I just hear too many conversations that resemble “everything I do is crucial and complicated, everyone else is just really bad at their meager jobs.”
Now I’m not saying these are inherently bad people that mean harm, and of course there are people of all colors who are legit jerks. I’m just saying, based off my limited world view and a combination of several others, it’s a difference between us (black and white people) and in part because one has been in a higher social standing historically. And the thing that disturbed me was that I found myself starting to mimic it. I caught myself adopting a “high and mighty” mindset and even having a discussion in which I was doubting the competency of someone for no real reason. I had to check myself and remain true to my ideals and remember the things that matter to me most. One of which is not being an A-hole to other people and to treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve, even behind their backs. And like a fail safe, I found Rudyard’s words crawling up from the recesses of my mind to help me remember.
Even though I’m around a more privilege culture than I’m used to, I can’t lose the common touch. Not saying I view any of these people as kings and queens, but when society as a whole has treated you as such for hundreds of years, it’s kind of hard not to have certain things ingrained within you. Even some of the coolest, down (I use that phrase loosely), community service oriented white people I’ve met have had nuances of superiority about them. I don’t necessarily hold it against them, I just want to make sure I don’t adopt that same smugness. Like some of my people who believe they are above the black experience and have this idea that they are the exception from the rest of us. But that’s a discussion for another day. Bottom line, I just hope that no matter what heights I achieve I’m still able to connect with my people and help bring them up with me. And which is more, I’ll be a man my son.