- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

Whenever a puff piece praises me for overcoming disadvantages and rising from poverty to a professional career, it makes me feel uneasy — not out of modesty, but because it is not completely true. Being a black orphan born in the Jim Crow South during the Great Depression may not seem like a promising start in life. But that is also not the whole story.

While the family in which I was raised had very little money or education, they had some things that money can't buy and which expensive government programs cannot create. As the only child in a family with four adults, I was the center of attention.

Many years later, when I had children of my own, I asked my sister how old I was when I first started to walk. Her reply was: “Oh, Tommy, nobody knows when you could walk. Somebody was always carrying you.” You can't buy that.

Even when my sister was courting and sitting out on the front porch in a swing with her boyfriend, yours truly was sitting right there with them. It was so romantic — just the three of us.

After she and her boyfriend got married, he took a great interest in me and was my biggest booster and defender. It so happened that he too had been adopted — and he had not always been treated right. So he took it as his job to see that I got all the benefits, including the benefit of the doubt — which I often needed. You can't buy that either.

Some of my happiest times were when we were in the deepest poverty down South. As a child, I had no idea that we were in poverty. There was always food and clothing, though we didn't always have frills like electricity or hot running water.

I was nearly 9 years old before we had both of those things, and by now we had moved to New York, where we lived in Harlem. Although no one in our family was really educated, they understood that now I would have a chance for education and for other opportunities that they had never had.

Before I arrived in New York, family members who were there had already picked out a boy that they wanted me to meet, because he came from a more educated background. He took me to a public library for the first time that I had ever set foot in such a place and explained patiently to me what it was and how it worked. His name was Eddie Mapp and, without either of us knowing it, he opened a whole new world for me that day.

In later years, the family's excited reaction when I was promoted to the seventh grade caught me completely by surprise. “Now you have gone further than any of us,” I was told.

My teenage years were turbulent, and I left home when I was 17. That was when I learned the hard way that there was no great demand for a black teenage dropout with no skills or experience. Those were tough times, but they taught me things that would benefit me the rest of my life. There was also no time for me to get hung up on adolescent navel-gazing about “identity” or “finding myself.” It was all I could do to find the room rent.

Once, I had to pawn my only suit to get money to eat. My first meal with the money — a knish and an orange soda — was like a banquet. Since then, I have eaten at the Waldorf and in the White House, but no meal anywhere has ever topped that one.

Again, good fortune came my way, though I did not fully recognize its importance at the time. The foreman in the machine shop where I worked was a man named Ed Gally, who took a father's interest in me and gave me some much-needed advice from his store of experience. I learned how good his advice was, not only by following it, but also by not following it and suffering the consequences.

Yet again, this was something you can't buy.

Many years later, I returned to New York from California to give a talk at Columbia University. After the talk, various people from the audience came up to me for more discussion. One of them was a distinguished-looking black man who was carrying a book of mine that he wanted autographed. Only when he got closer did I suddenly recognize him: It was Eddie Mapp!

Looking back on it all, how “disadvantaged” was I? Like most people, I had windfall losses and windfall gains. Much of what I didn't have turned out not to be really necessary, and much of what I did get was indispensable. Moreover, there was no one to give me a victim mentality.

This personal odyssey is detailed in a book titled: “A Personal Odyssey.”

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