As Jordan prepared for the interview, I sat in the lobby of my apartment at the baby grand piano. He asked incredulously, “You play the piano too?!” I knowingly flipped through the sheet music, looking for the piece I had to perform at church the next day and without looking up I responded, “I grew up in the church. Everybody played or did something.”
I’m Donovan Hicks, and this is my Crystal Stair.
Growing up in Boiling Springs, South Carolina, my home was filled with expectation, love, and scripture, as many southern households are. My father was 1 of 8 kids and never attended college. He never defined success for me and never expected me to be the best, but to always be my best. My beautiful mother also didn’t go to college. She worked 12-13-hour days on a manufacturing plant that made CDs. She still managed to cook for our family and show unconditional love. She truly was the ride-or-die mom. Like many others, both were displaced by the rise of technology; yet, neither ever lost their zeal.
My parents made sure faith was a priority. They’d always ask me of my vision, “What’s your vision, Donovan? Have you written it down”? Little did I know this small-town boy would go on to achieve things beyond his wildest dreams.
Coming the South, you’re often given not-so-subtle reminders that you’re black. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to code-switch in certain spaces. If there’s been one invaluable skill my parents have taught me, it’s that. After being the “only one” in many of these spaces, I realized code switching was not the only key to communicating in those spaces, but also to thriving while not sacrificing my identity. Honestly, I’d be lost without it, as I’ve navigated the trek from a small town to the nation’s ivory towers.
In 2015, I was awarded the Truman Scholarship, a national selective scholarship that provided young people with a passion for policy, graduate school funding. Two years later, I became 1 of 12 to win the Mitchell Scholarship to complete a Master’s program in Dublin, Ireland. And this fall, I’m proud to say I’ll be attending Stanford Law School, becoming the first in my college’s history to do so. Grateful doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel.
On Black Men
When asked how I would change society’s perception of black men, I started with black men themselves and changing how we see one another.
There’s a status quo on black achievement. It’s this idea of a rags to riches story: a young man who found work ethic and his determination to make something of himself; a sort of bootstraps story. It’s prevalent and powerful.
Inadvertently, we (black men) dismiss other degrees of struggle if they’re not synonymous with that type of story. We say to that kid who grew up in middle class, educated household, who may have experienced his own microaggressions, that his struggle isn’t as valid. We play this sort of Oppression Olympics where only the poorest, and most disadvantaged can claim struggle. In actuality, just being consciously black means that we’ve experienced a type of covert or over struggle. Those oppressive experiences bond all of us – and make being black universally accessible no matter one’s degree of economic or societal struggle. We all have something to contribute towards for march for equality.
Young Black Men, my advice: take care of yourself and your soul, and success will easily follow.