When I founded my nonprofit organization, the Counter Narrative Project (CNP), nearly eight years ago, I searched for information about leadership; I’ve always been a voracious reader, and when faced with a challenge I try to learn as much as possible. At the time, I was rereading the words of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But I pivoted to books focused on leadership and management for perspective, if not inspiration. I read books like Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. I also revisited biographies of prominent US political leaders in government: Robert Caro’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson, and a few books on the Kennedy brothers.
As I searched the pages of these books for inspiration and guidance—if not affirmation—I found myself desiring stories that would incite my imagination. I longed to return to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, to connect me to my faith in myself and ground me in a greater sense of purpose. Reading Baldwin and Morrison felt like visiting two old friends, or teachers, and whenever I read their works over the years, I always felt joy. I decided it was time to return to their work. But this time, while reading their essays and books, I also began to wonder what they could teach me about leadership. The focus of my organization—centering Black gay, bisexual, and queer men and shifting narratives—required, I felt, an appreciation for how stories and narratives are constructed. Shifting narratives is not only the work of great writers, but also the work of great leaders. Who could better teach me about constructing and deconstructing narratives, and shattering myths, than two of the greatest literary figures of all time?
I started by reading Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, his book-length essay about the Atlanta child murders. I wanted to understand how to confront the horrific and the cruel as a Black leader, but I also wanted to understand what it means to bear witness. Bearing witness is a continual and direct confrontation with trauma: the trauma of experiencing anti-Black racism, both interpersonal and institutional; the trauma of experiencing or witnessing racial violence in its many forms, from dehumanizing language to the carceral state. Trauma, if we are not careful, may cause us to engage in coping behaviors that neither affirm nor empower us. Or, perhaps unwittingly, we may perpetuate white supremacy by harming other Black people. I had to learn what it means to stand up to the litany of historical and political forces seeking to crush Black life. I also had to learn what it means to stand up to the institutions built to protect these forces. I found such learning in Baldwin’s words, and especially in Evidence of Things Not Seen. Then, I reread three of Morrison’s novels: The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and my favorite, Song of Solomon. Together, Baldwin’s and Morrison’s words provided me with a language to describe the weight I felt on my shoulders, the weight of history and reckoning with it, and the extraordinary task of creating and advancing a vision while nursing lingering doubts planted by an anti-Black culture.
Vision and Imagination
Visionary leaders are often the most misunderstood leaders. This truism is why I could appreciate how, in Morrison’s epic novel, Song of Solomon, and many of her other novels, the heroes are eccentrics and outlaws. Song of Solomon is partly a story about family and folklore set in a Black world where collective remembrance is embodied through individual lives and community lore. This book appealed not only to my yearning for a good story, but also to my obsession with finding ways to lead outside of established conventions. Leadership for me was not about assimilation. I did not want to speak in statistics and metrics. I wanted to speak in poetry. Soaring, elegant, urgent language that was as much about a love of Black people as an indictment against white supremacy.
As I searched for that language, Baldwin’s stirring passages also came to mind, particularly his non-fiction essays in The Fire Next Time and its opening chapter, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” as well as An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, where he writes, “The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make black people despise themselves.” Baldwin’s words reminded me of Morrison’s much quoted, “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” Both authors remind us that to survive, resist, and heal from the violent, white supremacist narratives that assault Black bodies and Black psyches every day, we must see those troubling and hateful narratives for what they are, and we must challenge them. The dominant culture will always insist that we assimilate and surrender. We must instead imagine ourselves outside of the white gaze, rather than conform to it. Visionary leaders don’t just counter narratives. They imagine new ones. And this is how Black leaders inspire joy, which is the ultimate act of resistance.
One of my favorite fictional characters of all time is Julia, in Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, because she embodies how survival, resilience, and, ultimately, prophecy carry a terrible cost. As Black leaders, we must often weigh the costs of speaking truth to power. Our moral judgment and political instincts may be in conflict, and it is only through self-awareness that we can achieve clarity.
As I read Morrison’s Song of Solomon, I was most drawn to the theme of flying and its connotations of freedom. Starting the Counter Narrative Project felt like flying. It also felt like freedom. Leadership is often a series of leaps of faith; it is a willingness to trust oneself and one’s own voice. I decided that it was time to take my professional destiny into my own hands. Flying, then, shifted out of the realm of fantasy—and it became a symbol for my radical commitment to lead. Above all, it was my imagination, set on fire by Toni Morrison, that gave me the power to do this.
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This Is How We Decolonize
Literature not only inspired my ability to imagine the organization and political home I wanted to create; it also inspired the programs I wanted to develop. By-laws and governance may be the raw bones of an organization, but an organization’s programs are its architecture.
Since CNP’s founding, I’ve been intrigued with the notion of decolonizing organizations —which, to me, involves extracting white supremacy from an organization’s core. Whether a nonprofit pursues more diversity trainings or an organizational exorcism, it also seemed to me that this intervention should be embodied as much personally as it is institutionally. I wanted to start at the level of our individual bodies—that is, I wanted to start at the level of our flesh. Of our Black flesh.
In one of our early programs, we opened our session at a conference with a passage from Morrison’s Beloved. The passage describes the scene in which Baby Suggs gives her sermon. A group of the session’s participants sat around the room absorbing the words, trying to unpack what they meant and how we could channel this energy into our work. “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.” Reading these words was not just a recitation for us, or a tribute—it was our battle cry, and our act of defiance. We knew that as we sat there that we had been taught by mainstream culture and the indoctrination we received from white supremacy—first as Black boys, and later, as Black men—to despise our own flesh. And that meant that, for us, resilience could not just be about survival or about being twice as good. Resilience also required a willingness to love ourselves and each other.
Leading Outside the White Gaze
I wanted to build my organization to be a political home for Black gay, bisexual, and queer men, so I turned again to Toni Morrison’s words. In the essay, “Home,” Morrison writes about her struggles to navigate racism through language and narrative: “How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling.” In Morrison’s struggles with language as a writer, I found a way to think about my voice as a leader. The home that she wanted to create was the organization that I wanted to build. And I would discover that the challenge of creating a home—be it a literary or political one—that has racial specificity without reproducing racial hierarchy was not unique to the written word.
Early on in my time as a nonprofit leader, I attended a conference in Seattle focused on health and advocacy and sat in on a people of color caucus with hopes of networking. As we began to brainstorm how we would use the time we had together, many caucus participants kept returning to what they saw the white people doing. Though I was somewhat sympathetic to their concerns, I finally raised my hand and said, “Why can’t we focus on what’s happening here? Why do we have to, in this space, center white people so much?” They looked at me, but my comment did not resonate, and they went back to discussing what the white people were doing outside our doors. It was this that reminded me just how much I wanted a home—and how I wanted to build one. The home that I wanted to build was not about being naive or pretending that racism did not exist. This home would center Blackness in a joyous way.
Several years ago, I came across a clip of a James Baldwin interview on YouTube. While the context of the conversation is not entirely clear, Baldwin was asked by the British interviewer, “Now, when you were starting out as a writer, you were a Black, impoverished, homosexual. You must have said to yourself ‘Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?’” To this Baldwin responded, “Oh, no. I thought I hit the jackpot.” He then went on to say that he “had to find a way to use it.”
That was the moment. I had to use it—all of it. Use it—the racism, the homophobia, the economic injustice—to build, and use it to lead.