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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.”