When I graduated high school, bound for Yale University, I was told again and again that I – a young, Black, urban male – was the perfect example of “beating the odds.” I had successfully navigated the Oakland public school system and was set to attend an Ivy League university. I recognize that my journey thus far has many of the elements that make up a good drama, including that it "ends" in triumph. I have a brother and father who have been shot and siblings who are incarcerated. I only narrowly escaped a similar fate by sticking close to school, sports, and music. I appeared on ABC, MSNBC, and even The Ellen DeGeneres Show to represent a city where the number of young, Black men murdered in the past ten years nearly matches the number of Black men who graduated from its public high schools college-ready.
I’m thrilled that my story can bring joy and instill hope for the future of young, Black men who dare to be academics. But I'm also afraid that in the process of sharing my path, it often gets manipulated to portray the exact opposite of what I want; For every young person who expressed a desire to follow in my footsteps, I've heard someone who didn’t identify with me or my community’s struggles say something like, “Why can’t you all just be like Tunde?” And that's problematic.
It’s definitely not that I don’t want others to experience the same, if not more, triumphs than I have. My issue is when someone frames my unique experience as an example and concludes, “if people really want to succeed, they can, no matter their circumstances” or “if only Black men weren’t so lazy, unmotivated, and in love with the streets, maybe they could also make something out of their lives.” Clearly these people don’t understand that in this country that advertises equality and freedom, racial equality and equal access to opportunity flat-out do not exist in many contexts. The circumstances that many young people of color from Oakland face, for example, can never be diminished to a “just make it happen” attitude. There are no generalizations to be made based on my successes. I have no desire to be made out to be an anomaly who stands for what others could be or do if they only "tried a little harder."
One headline quoted me as I called myself "a regular street dude with a 5.0 GPA" – a provocative, as well as a somewhat oxymoronic, take. So often, we equate being from the ‘hood' with being uneducated, as if intelligence and an urban upbringing are mutually exclusive. I actually feel the two go hand-in-hand, but systemic issues often don't allow for the brilliance of people with my background to shine through in our education system. I know many people from my neighborhood and my early years of school who started out with perfect grades. As we got older, though, the pressures of the real world — namely to earn money to make ends meet for ourselves and our families – began to weigh down the poorest people first. The lure of jobs in high school, street fame, young love (or lust), and youth violence began chipping away at those around me. School seemed less and less attractive. Why struggle for four years to go to college, then struggle for four more years while in college when everything you've ever wanted – a nice car, a pretty girlfriend, and respect – could be so easily achieved right now? Or, instead of seeing your parents struggle for any additional years, you get a job now to assist them with bills and expenses. Either way, that job/work/hustle becomes a priority and school goes on the back burner. If it weren’t for my mother being a teacher and instilling the value of education as a pathway to success, I imagine this would have happened for me. And, if I hadn’t applied to and ultimately won a number of scholarships, I still would have gone the junior college route, at least at first, to save money.
In addition, there is a huge lack of relatable, visible role models who represent the path to educational fruition. I, for one, didn't meet a Black man who was currently attending or had graduated from an Ivy League school until I had already gotten accepted into one. How can we be expected to put massive effort toward something we have no evidence is achievable? If it hadn’t been for my counselors encouraging me to apply to Ivy League schools and my agreeing to do so on a whim, these places would never have been on my radar.
I can’t have people suggesting others simply “be more like me” without accounting for others’ daily circumstances, including the things that you may not outright see. Many of those who have framed my academic story in this manner come from positions of privilege. They have never had to face the desperate scramble for money, the absence of an academically inclined role model, or a lack of understanding from teachers and administrators. These factors play major roles in the success of young people of color in urban areas. I encourage these people to try to become friends with, or at least spark respectful conversation with, those outside of their social circles. I know how easy it can be to pass judgement when there’s no face or story to put to a name.
Somehow, I've been blessed enough to make good decisions, get just the right amount of exposure, and have just enough luck. But I’m no one’s counterpoint to a so-called lack of ambition. Life is not that simple, and the more understanding and compassionate we become, the greater our impact will be in creating meaningful change.
Images by Vivian Dang