Lessons from Sonia and Barack

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Partisan politics aside, Judge Sonia Sotomayor and President Barack Obama present themselves to the world as middle-aged poster children for everything that can be right in Black and Latino America.

I’m not talking about their political achievements – politics can be a tacky and phony popularity contest, where unqualified people get opportunities that they didn’t really earn (take a hint GW). I’m talking about their commitment to excellence and how it has led them to have lives that they never expected. We can learn lessons from their choices, but not lessons that focus simply on the elitism of attending Ivy League institutions; rather, we can observe messages about persistence, focus, and setting high standards for ourselves and for our children.

We know that Sonia and Barack were both at the top of their classes at Yale and Harvard, respectively. They were both editors of their school’s law reviews. This is all fine and good, but that isn’t what impresses me the most. Once you graduate from “The Ivys” (my God daughter attends Columbia, a school I turned down for my PhD), the truth is that opportunities are sometimes given to you simply because you have pedigree in your academic background. Pedigree breeds more pedigree, as one great opportunity turns into another. It’s all part of being in “the club,” and there are many graduates of lesser institutions who would be well-qualified for the Supreme Court.

What impresses me the most about Sonia and Barack is not where they are, but the places from which they began. Sonia started her life in a housing project in the Bronx, and both Sonia and Barack came from single parent households. Furthermore, they didn’t just attend Ivy League universities, they dominated the Ivy Leagues.

Such displays of academic might are how truly great people reveal themselves. But this greatness does not merely show itself through intellect. A large percentage of college students have high IQs; greatness is a day-to-day commitment to going above and beyond the call of duty in every single thing you do. Greatness is not an attribute, it’s a lifestyle.

What’s more important for all parents to remember is that the outstanding lives of Sonia and Barack are not simply the result of their own commitment to excellence. They are products of parental diligence as well. Had Sonia’s mother not gone out of the way to buy volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica for her daughter, Sonia would not have focused on reading at an early age. You don’t normally see parents in housing projects – or anywhere else for that matter- rushing to buy Encyclopedias for their children.

Sonia’s mother also endured the stress of ensuring that her daughter went to the best schools the family could afford, and she made sure Sonia studied every single day. Her approach can be compared to the effort put forth by Denzel Washington’s character in the movie, “He Got Game,” as he had his son working out on the court until all hours of the night, pushing his internal psychological elevator to heights that his competition could never dream of reaching.

Black people are strong and we are committed that which matters to us. It is my greatest dream that one day, we will take the effort put into rapping, singing, and playing basketball and translate that effort into setting the highest of academic standards for our children. Non-academic activities are fun, but they are fool’s gold. Every kid who thinks he or she’s going to be the next T.I., Michael Jordan or Beyonce works toward that dream as if it were a full-time job. School should also be treated as a full-time job, not something that we tolerate for a few hours a day until we are allowed to slush around doing nothing all summer. Not only is it easier to become a doctor than an NFL player, the financial rewards last a lifetime and you don’t have to sacrifice your body. The truest of all hustles starts with the mind, not the muscle.

My point is that we can use Obama and Sotomayor as reminders of our personal power. I am not “pulling a Bill Cosby”, so I don’t believe that a simple recipe of good behavior and finger wagging is going to solve our problems. I also believe in diligently challenging structural inequalities which deprive us of opportunity and facilitate a culture of underachievement.

However, I also believe that every parent should remember that your actions have a multiplicative effect on your children. My grandmother never went to college, but it was her value for education that led to my becoming a professor, my sister becoming a doctor and my brother becoming an engineer. For better or worse, the vision of the parent becomes the reality of the child, as Sotomayor and Obama’s cases show. Nurture your kids with your vision.