Counting The Cost
Hugh Price’s African American Life: Lessons and blessings
Julianne Malveaux | 7/27/2017, midnight
Hugh Price was the seventh leader (from 1994 through 2002) of the National Urban League, the civil rights organization founded in 1910 to help African American migrants assimilate into urban life, to provide opportunities for urban migrants, and to eliminate segregation in our nation. Price, an attorney, activist, writer, and foundation executive was well-suited for that work, for which he may be best known, but Urban League work is only part of his legacy. Price is scheduled to share his reflective autobiography “This African American Life” (Blair, 2017) during the National Urban League convention that began yesterday, July 26, in St. Louis. I’m sure that many of his colleagues will enjoy his reflections, much as I did, when I read his book.
In his inspirational book, Price weaves his thoughts about public policy with an accounting of his amazing life. His is a life that he might not have imagined—he came of age at a time when African Americans had access to new possibilities after rigid educational and occupational segregation. So what young man, a product of segregation, would have imagined himself navigating influential and integrated waters, and making a profound difference? Throughout this book, you get a sense that Price, though well grounded, is also amazed at the many ways our world has changed. “This African American Life” reads just like Price sounds, chock full of self-deprecating humor and tongue-in-cheek reflections. And while Price takes African American life quite seriously, he manages to take himself somewhat less so. Thus, even in his laid-back way, he is able to convey the excitement he feels at certain high points in his life, such as when he visits South Africa, or when he first, as President of the Urban League, gets a multi-car police escort. I am struck both by Price’s humility and by his ability to put himself, and important issues, in context.
Price is the product of “good stock”, middle-class Black Washington, D.C. Reading the first few chapters of his book is like taking a romp through African American history. Price is the descendent of escaped enslaved people, and it is clear that he inherited enough of their hunger for freedom to make that hunger his own. The inventor, Lewis Latimer, is one of his ancestors, and his pride in his legacy shines throughout in his book. Price is not reticent about probing race and skin color conflicts when he references a White relative of Lewis Latimer, or when he talks about tensions in his own family when his darker skinned father, a physician, pursued his lighter-skinner mother. Skin color discrimination is still, unfortunately, alive and well; few are as forthright in dealing with it as Price. He deals with it, as he does with just about everything else, with a sage equanimity. It is clear that he is annoyed by the ignorance of skin color discrimination, but he is not so annoyed as to produce a tirade about it. Instead, it is simply a factor to reflect on in “This African American Life.”
Price’s book is extremely thoughtful and transparent. While he expresses extreme joy in the high points of his life, for example joining the Urban League as CEO, his tone is not much different as when he experiences disappointment at missed opportunities. The African American community has gained when Price felt he “lost”, and agrees with his daughter, Traer, when she notes that missed opportunities opened doors to new possibilities.
Thus, it is engaging to read through his path as youth mentor, New Haven community leader, mayoral appointee, New York Times editorial writer, public television leader, foundation executive, then president and CEO of the National Urban League. In his “back nine” he has been a professor and thought leader, connected with prestigious organizations like Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. He is candid about the ways he lobbied for and secured some of the positions he attained, as well as the ways that some opportunities “fell in his lap”; his transparent revelations should be “must” reading for young people with aspirations. Without lecturing, Price makes powerful statements about the importance of relationships.
Price has been passionate throughout his career about improving possibilities for young people. As a young law student and paid mentor to New Haven youth, he learned the importance of consistency. There is no place, he learned, for “drive-by” mentoring that takes place only at a mentor’s convenience. This is a lesson for the present; so many well-intentioned helpers feel that they can alter the course of a life with well-meaning, but tenuous engagement. Price used his early lessons to develop programs to combat Black youth unemployment, both through the Rockefeller Foundation and through the military. His commitment to youth continued in his Urban League years with his work on quality education and the achievement gap. He describes his work as “Spreading the Gospel of Achievement” in a chapter of his book; it is a gospel he continues to spread.
While I enjoy Price’s policy conversations, I equally enjoy the way he recounts his love of family, and the early struggles that he and wife, Marilyn, faced as they reared their family while he completed law school. Equally enjoyable is his conversation about baseball, a sport he is passionate about. Reading this book made me want to engage with Price in a rambling interview that dug even deeper into his work than the book does. It makes me want to further explore his love for baseball and the ways baseball metaphors reflect contemporary life. For sure, Price hit a “home run” with this book, but it makes me want to engage him in another inning, another game, and more reflections from this phenomenal man!
Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and founder of Economic Education. Her podcast, “It’s Personal with Dr. J” is available on iTunes. Her latest book “Are We Better Off: Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available via amazon.com.
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