I GREW UP in an era where there was no shortage of role models and heroes. As a baby boomer born in 1953 and hitting my teens in the 60s, I only had to turn on the black and white TV and see Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Trinidadian-born Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). From these civil rights leaders, I developed my own social conscience.
Apartheid in South Africa was on my radar. I followed Nelson Mandela's journey from freedom fighter to president of South Africa. In my early 20s and 30s I immersed myself in South African literature by Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, Andre Brink and Peter Abrahams and decided writing must always have a purpose.
Since I had turned ten, I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were my role models along with Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees. From each of these civil rights leaders, authors and anthropologists I fashioned my own identity, but if I had to choose one famous person who influenced me the most I would not hesitate to name the late, great American NFL football player Jim Brown, who died on May 18.
For me, he was a model of courage, strength and social commitment. Many sportswriters consider him to be the all-time greatest NFL player. Brown shocked everyone by quitting at the height of his career. His decision to take up acting planted an idea in my mind at an early age that I could experiment and follow different career paths without feeling frightened or guilty.
Brown was no saint. He made headlines for his anger issues and abusive relationships with women. I didn’t excuse this, but I also knew it was important to look at well-known people like him as humans with character flaws and problems to overcome. I prefer believing in the power of change and redemption.
Brown could have lived off of his reputation in sports, but he took his fame and channelled it into community projects that helped poor inner-city children to avoid crime. He spoke out against prejudice, and he had suffered from much prejudice himself going back to his days at Syracuse University when he should have won the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in American university football. He got overlooked because he was black.
He tackled prejudice with self-confidence, pride and logic rather than bitterness, resentment and anger. He made people respect and accept him as a person and an athlete. There is one comment Brown made in an interview that has guided my life the most. When asked why decade after decade he was sought out for his opinions, Brown said, “It is because I stay relevant.”
I consider that to be the most important quality any of us can have. Staying relevant allows us to adapt personally, socially and politically. It ensures that we stay on top of our game so we can grow in our jobs and in our personal lives. When you strive to be relevant, you have to learn from everyone around you. Your skills don’t become obsolete. You adapt to technology and change with eagerness.
We live in an age where cynicism and negativity trump positive qualities. We search for the worst in people rather than the best so we can write people off without considering what they can teach us.
It is difficult to identify role models or people willing to take chances to achieve goals. Finding individuals willing to dedicate their lives to a cause like civil rights activists of the 60s once did is nearly unheard of. It seems no individual can survive the scrutiny social media puts us under. No one person can stand alone as a role model as we saw decades ago.
Maybe we need to take the best qualities of several people and put them together in a package that helps to define who we are or maybe we should work harder to create a society that produces individuals who stand out as role models. We need role models to inspire our own sense of purpose and teach us that character is a choice. They help us develop resilience and remind us of our responsibility to a greater cause.
Jim Brown was 87 years old when he died. No one who ever saw him play football or ever heard him speak will be able to forget his presence, his strength and his wisdom. Great athletes come and go. They challenge records and break them. But none will ever measure up to the great Jim Brown.