The day was August 20, 1990. I had just purchased a one-way train ticket out of the place I was born and raised, and in the process grown to despise. Seventeen years filled with poverty, crime, racial discrimination, police brutality, death, and all of the other social ills facing a young black male growing up in the inner city of Boston had taken their toll on me and germinated a feeling of hatred for the very place I called home. As I boarded the Amtrak train, I promised never to return.
Since leaving Boston as an adolescent, my life took a much-noted turn for the better. I graduated at the top of my class from Howard University, had a successful and promising career as a banker in New York City, and except for occasional visits home during the holidays, Boston was a distant memory that had become buried in the sands of time.
But time does not heal all wounds; it simply buries them.
Fast forward to August 3, 2001. Almost eleven years later, as fate would have it, I found myself buying a one-way ticket back to the city I was born in and abhorred. The very place I left as a scared teenager with a cloudy future, I returned to as a confident and mature leader bound for Harvard Business School. However, as I returned home, I asked myself If I was prepared to make peace with my childhood demons and reconcile my dark past with my promising future.
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-September, I stood on the perilous corner block of Washington and Blue Hill Avenue for the first time since my mother fled to the outskirts of the city several years ago, escaping the area’s escalating violence. As I looked around, I noticed that the neighborhood physically looked much better with dozens of new and renovated buildings, but as I continued to walk through its streets, it became clear that nothing had really changed.
The same feeling of despair and tension remained deeply embedded in the atmosphere. Frustrated black males paced up and down urban blocks with the same attitude of anger and desperation as my friends and I once did many years before.
As memories began to resurface, I felt even more disdain for this place. My one pleasing thought was that I was only a 30-minute train ride back to the cozy confines of the HBS campus. But before I could catch the next bus back to Cambridge, I bumped into an old childhood friend of mine and nothing could prepare me for the encounter that was to follow.
“Des, is that you?” He shouted. “Damn, I can’t believe it, I ain’t seen you since ’88 or something like that. Where’ve you been? What’ve you been up to? Whatcha doing back here?”
I hesitated. Should I tell him I’m a Wall Street banker now at Harvard Business School? What would he think? Would he call me a sell-out and accuse me of not “keeping it real”. I actually felt somewhat ashamed of my success.
I quickly answered: “Nothing, just hanging, checking out the old block. So what’s up with you?”
His shoulders sunk and his eyes fell to the ground as he responded, “I can’t front, times are real hard, I have another six months on probation, and right now its tough trying to get a job. I’m staying with Mom’s and trying to get some cash so I can get my two kids up out of here. But it’s crazy out here and I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
He looked up at me and said, “How about you? Weren’t you down in DC in school or something like that? Are you working up here now?”
I wanted to feel remorse for my friend, but I could not. Any sympathy was destroyed along with the dreams and aspirations of millions of young gifted and black children – crushed under the weight of poverty and racism in the urban ghettos across America, and replaced with anger and fury.
Contrary to many urban stereotypes, my unfortunate friend was not a criminal, drug dealer or gangster growing up. He was actually pretty smart as a kid. It perplexed me as to why I was able to achieve so much success and not him. We were both once young and talented but we were living in a social infrastructure that can destroy black males physically and mentally.
I realized that we could have easily traded places. As uncomfortable as this made me, I decided to fess up, as if I had committed a sin; “Well, I’m actually in school up here…at…Harvard Business School.”
My old friend froze in his tracks and raised his eyes in shock. I thought to myself, why did I say that? This is not the type of place where you want to casually drop the H-Bomb.
Instead of writing me off as another snobby black man who forgot where he came from, my friend’s reaction surprised me.
“That’s incredible! You were right down here with me fifteen years ago. I still remember all of the tough times you went through. We were both trapped in this hopeless life, but somehow you strived and found a way to make it.”
Almost immediately, all of the poverty, crime, and violence I had grown up with as a youth seemed to fit with my success in the present. I felt at ease in my surroundings and a bond between my old friend and me. We continued to converse there on the street for several hours. As we caught up on old times and shared new experiences, I realized that I still had not lost touch with who I was and where I came from.
Inside, my friend and I were not too different. Although we now live in two separate worlds, we still face the same internal and external struggles. It is through this common experience that we are able to relate to one another. My friend and I are both products of the environment we grew up in. Just as much as it held him down, it has enabled me to excel; but we are still as one. This is who I am. This is where I’m from. And this is the place I call home.