Kemba Walker And the Get Over Syndrome
By NICK CHILES
I can remember the moment so clearly.
I was watching the NCAA tournament, witnessing the amazing Kemba Walker strut, stutter-step and cross-over his way through the field on the march to the national championship. At some point I heard the announcer say that Kemba had accumulated enough credits to graduate early from UConn. I was so proud, I even nudged my rather disinterested wife and pointed to Kemba on the screen, happily telling her that the boy apparently had done his thing on the court and in the classroom. He seemed to be a glorious case of a stereotype being smashed this was no barely-literate college superstar skating his way through school.
Imagine my dismay and disappointment when I came upon the news that Kemba had unabashedly told Sports Illustrated that he had never finished a book until a few months ago. How ironic that the book he finished was Bill Rhoden's wonderful and blistering history of the exploitation of the black athlete in America, Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
Kemba didn't seem too embarrassed by the admission, but I was. Because I've seen this story over and over again, up close. I was embarrassed not so much for what Kemba said; I was embarrassed for what Kemba doesn't know, what nobody has yet to teach him. What likely has plagued Kemba for years and what continues to plague millions of other black boys across America is what I call the do-enough-to-get-over syndrome. I saw it when I taught writing for 10 years in Harlem. I saw it when I covered education for newspapers in New York and New Jersey. I even saw it while raising my son, who is now an engineering major and a Division I college football player himself.
The syndrome is a consequence of our dangerously low expectations for our boys indeed, their disappointingly low expectations for themselves. Too many black boys look around and realize that as long as they give a minimal effort, as long as they show up most days, stay out of trouble, stay out of jail, stay relatively engaged, the world will have many rewards in store for them. Every once in awhile they might even push themselves and bring home a 93, just so everyone knows they are capable, just so we can keep tagging them with that wonderful word potential.
All kids look for shortcuts, the fastest path to the golden nuggets. That's what kids do. As parents, as adults, our job is to let them know that this is not good enough. But we can talk ourselves into some tight corners. We do it to our boys with the short-sighted insistence that they go to school and get an education so that they can get a good job. This does them a huge disservice. Using their clever powers of deductive reasoning, they create a simple formula: schools and books equals job. So if they can get the job without the schools and books, they are cutting out an unnecessary step. They are being more efficient. They are doing enough to get over. If Kemba Walker can make tens of millions of dollars a year without having to finish a book, why read?
I've seen this reasoning assert itself on a smaller scale over and over during the past three decades. When I taught writing to high school students in New York, it was the black boys who too often were content with the B-minus or C-plus. Somewhere, someone had given them the idea that we shouldn't expect more from black boys, that if they do average work it's the best we're going to get from them so we should all applaud them for the average effort after all, they're ahead of the game if they're still going to class because there are many others who dropped out of school or are in prison.
Don't think I'm just talking here about the children of the poor. Often it was the middle-class boys who were the worst, because they knew enough to realize how much easier it likely was going to be for them to get into a good school or to get the pat on the back, even with average work, than for that white kid or Asian kid or maybe even that black female. In my son's case, the thinking went, If I can use my natural brainpower to get a 92 and still have a thriving social life and do my thing on the field, why should I kill myself for the 97 and be a nerd? Once he even made the mistake of saying this out loud, in so many words.
Replace his 92 with an 85 in that apartment down the street, or a 78 in that house across town, and you find the same story repeated all over America. I certainly saw it repeated with many of his friends on the football team. It was a struggle getting him to see the value in giving 100 percent at all times in the classroom, just like on the football field, to realize the joy of conquering new material and absorbing fascinating facts and ideas about how the world works, finding revelations and answers and awe on the printed page. But it was a struggle I took on every day, no matter his reaction or resistance, because I knew how important it was and I knew he would one day thank me.
Kemba's arrogance is troubling, disarming and familiar. We were all there once, when we thought we had this all figured out. Ha, he laughs. I gamed the system; I made it through this bitch without finishing a book. I'm untouchable.
But I want to have a conversation with Kemba as his 45-year-old self, the one that will be looking back and pondering chances missed, mistakes made, arrogance unearned. Once the agents are gone, the managers have moved on, Kemba will be facing a contract negotiation for some sports-related job with nobody by his side, he'll walk into a cocktail party where somebody else is the new life of the party, he'll travel to some part of the world where there won't be an eager guide waiting he'll face his own child asking college-graduate dad questions about the fifth-grade or eighth grade or tenth grade homework. Kemba will invariably be left to wonder if there was some book that might have made that contract easier to understand, that will have given him something to talk about at the party, that will have provided him insight into some foreign land on his travels. And when his child excitedly asks him what was his favorite book when he was in 7th grade, he will want to run to the Internet and purge every one of those stories where he bragged about never finishing a book. That day will come for Kemba Walker.
For the rest of us, the next time a child asks us why they have to try harder on their homeworkget better gradesread another book, maybe we can reach beyond the pat so you can get a good job answer. We might try telling them so you can live a rich, full, joyful life without regret.
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestselling tome “The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life's Storms,” co-written with gospel legend Kirk Franklin. Nick also writes for several publications including Essence, where he frequently pens stories about fatherhood and manhood.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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Great article, Nick. Kemba came down a little in my mind after I read that Sports Illustrated story too. I’m a book lover and it pains me every time I heard someone brag that they’ve never read a book…oh, the worlds they’re missing out on. I hope that someday when I have kids, I can instill my love of reading (and learning) in them.
Thats my bro’s team!!! (#34) yea most of the team can graduate in 3 years. I’m so proud of him and the rest of the team!!! whoooo! lol
Wonderful post! One of the values that I continue to instill in my son is that he must do his best. To break it down further, being smart isn’t good enough. He’s got to study everyday. He’s also got to learn and try new things; some of them he won’t like or be good at. It’s about the experience and the exposure.
Kemba is the reason why I’m not a fan of college sports. This cat was able to get through college with minimal effort. This is a big pay-off that encourages a “get over” mentality.
Loved this article, Nick! Great insights that I had never thought about. In our household and in many of my Asian American friends’, we hit a point where we have to tell our kids — “You are going to have to work harder and be better than your white counterparts just to be seen as ‘equal’ to them.” I think all of our kids realize at some point that other kids seem to have it easier, and it seems unfair. And, as parents, we have to tell them that there is a real reason for their frustration, and basically — get over it. Nobody is consciously making it harder for you, they just automatically expect more from you. You just have to work harder to prove yourself. Even if it’s not fair. Given their reality, I don’t think my message will change much, but I think I will modify it to include â€œso you can live a rich, full, joyful lifeâ€”without regret.â€
Say it ain’t so. I loved me some Kemba during MM. My heart swelled just like yours when I heard that he was finishing school a year early. Wow…
Nick, this is a great commentary. No words. Lots of sadness.
Goose pimples. Thank you!
Calm down people. Not reading an entire book in college is quite typical. Many professors do not require entire book readings. This is not a black/white issue or a sports issue.
Students from all across America have graduated and have become very successful without the reading of an entire book. Please give him a break.
Those that read are you fluent in another languare? Probably not, Why not? Many poor African Children can read and write english better than our collge graduates of any ethnicity.
Those that are advid readers are you professional in Engineering or Computer Technology? Probably Not!
Not reading as much as we should is not a Black problem it’s an American Problem.
I’m a teacher, I know!
Great piece Nick! Unfortunately, it speaks to the massive anti-intellectualism is our community. To be quite honest, I’m not really mad at Kemba at all. His behavior is predicatable given that his parents/family decided to push his athletic talent. So if you take that route, intellect is not needed at all. As African-Americans, way too many of us pay lip-service to developing a life of mind. But we don’t really do the work to show that a life of the mind is of utmost importance! I like to counsel young Brothers that they can be Michael Jordan on the court AND in the CLASSROOM.
In the case of Kemba Walker (and many other young athletes like him…) is it a matter of him applying the “‘do-enough-to-get-over” syndrome specifically to academic pursuits, or is it to his overall take on “living life”? From what I’ve observed of him as a casual fan, there is absolutely nothing “get-over”-like about his “highlight-reel-on-loop” basketball skills.
Unless we accept the racist/sexist notion that Black boys begin to develop their cross-over dribbling capabilities sometime within their mother’s second trimester, we generally understand that an athlete of Kemba’s unique talent, has put forth supreme dedication over many years, to honing those skills. He is a very clear example of Gladwell’s “outlier” premise for exemplary achievement.
I ask, are we largely emphasizing and encouraging too many of our boys to become the next possible Langston, or the next possible LeBron? That critical choice of and nurturing and direction for them should be on us, not them.
I think you adults are a little hard on this young man. Let’s give him some credit, since it is never too late to find the joy in reading. Also we live in a society that gives cool points for carrying an ipad, cool points are not given for having a book in hand.
People learn in all sorts of ways, he is looked at negatively because he didn’t “finish” a book. I think the writer has and many posters are being a little over the top with the negativity. We bash a guy that made it through college and who’s to say how well he will do after his playing days are over. I value learning whether you read or do something in its place in order to learn