In a troubled age, voices rise. Or sometimes, they escape.
Both are true in the case of Casey Gerald, an author, one-time nonprofit entrepreneur, and a man who in 2014 electrified his classmates at Harvard Business School with a graduation address delivered with the certain cadence of a Southern preacher.
“In your hands as well as mine, lies the hope for a new generation of business leaders, in which each of us becomes a pioneer, in which each of us decides to travel unknown roads, in search of unsolved challenges, in which each of us commits our time and talent not just to the treasures of the day, but to the frontier of tomorrow… we take up the work, not just of making a living, but of making a life.”
Further, that life should be measured, he said, not by what you gained, but what you gave. For the happy few in his audience, it meant building businesses that uplifted communities that supplemented “the four P’s, five forces, and six sigma,” with a single animating principle: purpose.
Gerald caught the world’s attention after that, becoming a magazine cover subject for his co-founding of MBAs Across America, a road-trip turned nonprofit which helped bring HBS expertise to business students who took up his call to purpose, and the local entrepreneurs who needed
Soon, he began to have doubts.
In a TED talk that would deservedly earn more than two million views, Gerald expanded on the stories he learned to tell on himself, like the one growing up poor, black, and Baptist into a surprised and wounded 12-year-old when Lord Jesus did not arrive on the dot of midnight on January 1, 2000, as his pastors had assured. It was the first in a series of promises not kept—as an intern at Lehman Brothers in 2008, as a D.C. staffer in a time of gridlock, and finally as a person who had tried to help entrepreneurs who needed more than what he could offer. He had shuttered his organization, he told the crowd, and had embraced the gospel of doubt, one in which we come to know that all the standard questions and answers are wrong.
“No, I was disturbed because I had finally realized that I was the dialysis for a country that needed a kidney transplant. I realized that my story stood in for all those who were expected to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they didn’t have any boots; that my organization stood in for all the structural, systemic help that never went to Harlem or Appalachia or the Lower 9th Ward; that my voice stood in for all those voices that seemed too unlearned, too unwashed, too unaccommodated.”
Blessed are they who evolve out loud.
So, I was particularly delighted to find that Gerald has written again, sharing what he is thinking now, the next epochal step in his evolutionary journey. His launching point is the 400th anniversary of the first official arrival of kidnapped Africans, who were ultimately “enslaved, upwards of 4 million, for generations. We know that they were worked like mules and tortured and sold, up to and after emancipation.”
Gerald has once again grasped the essence. This time, it’s of his life and your work, a convenient frame for some inconvenient questions that describe his struggle to make the difference he so desperately believed in: How can we live in a land that’s made to kill us? Where do we go from here?
“A long time ago, the story went,
befo’ yestidywas bo’n, an’ befo’ bygones was uster– bes, the Africans knew how to fly. Trapped in slave ships, taken across water wetter than tears, many forgot their flying powers. But there were those who remembered. One day, in the field, having had more than enough, one who remembered would speak in a strange tongue—Kum Baba Yali or Kum… Yali, kum buba tambe—or they’d gather in a circle and run and run, rounday go fastuhnfastuh, and black men and black women and black children would rise up off the ground. They’d stand solid in the air. They’d fly back to Africa for good, or off somewhere for a little while. Some would simply disappear, jisgo right out uh sight. The mad white overseer, who could not understand their chant, would chase the flying slaves. Goodie bye, goodie bye, they waved.
We—if you are who I hope you are—still find ourselves, 400 years later, in a bind, or a country. Our country. We have learned and taught so many tactics to survive in it. To assimilate, best we can. To fight for our rights, even to
the death. Yet here we are, shit in fan, wondering (at least, I wonder) what may be our next best move. I have come back to offer a way—one that saved me, just as it once saved our flying forebears: the black art of escape.”
What follows next is a call to freedom, this time, of your spirit.