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Dear Raziel,In 2020, I found out I was pregnant. I was thinking about the small life inside me while I was considering the bigness of life all around...
“A map says to you, 'Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.' It says, 'I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.” ~Beryl Markham, West With the Night
After a lifetime of attending churches that are predominately white, my wife and I now attend a church that is predominately Black. A few months back, our church installed new deacons. Of the 14 deacons recognized that day, 13 were Black, and one was white.
I turned to my wife and said, “So that’s what I have looked like all these years.”
I was not fully aware of my difference and its impact on me until I was well into my adult life. In college, a friend observed that the store owner was following me around the entire time we were in a store. My girlfriend, who is now my wife, pointed out that my friends were calling me nicknames and speaking about me in terms that were obviously racist. At my first job, when my supervisor had used the “n” word too many times, a white colleague pulled me aside to ask why I allowed it.
These remembrances, these snapshots, are coordinates on the map of my heart. They have served as keys to my own understanding of my history as both an orphan and as a Black man.
“What a child does not know and does not want to know of race and color and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove like a penny in a banker's rack.”
~ Beryl Markham
I was given up by my parents not once, but twice. First by my biological parents in Morocco to my adoptive parents, and second by my adoptive father after my mother passed away. In 1969, when I was 7 years old, my father gave up custody of me, and I went to live at Fair Haven Children’s Home in rural Missouri.
I was the only Black child in the school. Teachers took good care of me and paddled kids who called me names. I was protected, but I did not like myself. I had an afro and no girl would date me.
The only other Black people I got exposure to was through the church. As part of “benevolence work,” a group of teenagers took food to the homes of Black people, who lived in abject poverty. We sang them hymns and presented to them our generous gifts.
I now keep a picture on my desk of seven-year-old Charles Dupre, taken on the day he went to live at Fair Haven. That little boy desperately wanted to belong and to be treasured — and that desire motivated many choices in his future — some that he will be proud of, and some that he will regret.
“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness . . . The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all.” ~ Beryl Markham
At Harding University, I was once again the “only.” Most students were from affluent families; I was on full scholarship and from a children’s home. Most students were white; while there were other Black students there, many of them were athletes, not book nerds like me.
Once again, no girl would date me. “I’m going to be out of town,” girls would say when I asked them out, but I’d see them at events with someone else. How could I accept — much less appreciate — who I was? I felt profoundly isolated for the first two years of my college career.
Then a beautiful Black woman from Memphis, TN, arrived on campus. She asked around and was told I was going places, I had plans, brains, and a Christian faith. She told me within a week of knowing me that she was going to marry me.
She loved me, but she could not break the spell I was under . . . I was relentlessly but unconsciously trying to overcome my difference by striving to fit in, seeking affirmation that was never offered to me. I turned away from true intimacy with her — and true intimacy with myself.
“An experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.”
Go places I did. I studied accounting and became a CPA so never again would I be without. After a decade, I took a job as a CPA in a school system. From there, I became a budget officer, a CFO, Deputy Superintendent, and Superintendent. The school board eventually decided I should have my doctorate. I knew I was an effective leader already and initially balked at the idea. But the tuition would be paid for, so I went.
The doctoral program at Texas A&M was an incredible gift to me — a gift I didn’t know I needed. 30 credit hours focused on research and social justice. I left that program seeing myself fully as the Black man that I am.
I was proud to tell people that I had been born in Morocco, but I never knew where I fit in race-wise. For my entire life, my race had been another factor that alienated me, another contributing factor to my self-estrangement.
Thanks to a program I felt I didn’t need, I was finally able to own my Blackness.
“How is it possible to bring order out of memory?” ~Beryl Markham
In celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary, my wife and I went on a cruise down the Mediterranean, to Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, and Morocco. I hired a tour guide in Morocco, and he gave us a 12-hour experience walking, eating, and meeting local people.
When my wife and I returned to the boat at the end of that glorious day, I said, “I have found my people.”
“Were all the maps in this world destroyed and vanished under the direction of some malevolent hand, each man would be blind again, each city be made a stranger to the next, each landmark become a meaningless signpost pointing to nothing . . . . Here is your map. Unfold it, follow it, then throw it away, if you will.” ~Beryl Markham
I’ve come to believe, thanks in part to the work of Jerry Colonna, that radical self-inquiry is a precursor to exceptional leadership. Colonna believes that “better humans make better leaders.” Leaders are called to a journey of self-discovery; we need to understand who we are and why we are. Don’t we all?
In his book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, he talks about the voice of the crow. The crow sits on our shoulder and tells us we are not good enough and that we will never be good enough. We respond to the voice of the crow with adaptive behaviors — in my case, the voice of the crow inspired me to be helpful, kind, and gracious. Those ways of being served me well, but they also kept me from intimacy with those I love — and from intimacy with myself.
Now when the crow speaks to me, I say, thank you. Thank you for what you’ve given me, but you can fly away now. I don’t need you anymore.
I offer who I am and what I have learned to others — Black and white — freely and with great vulnerability. Sharing my story is an invitation to others. Are you willing to be vulnerable in order to send the crow away from your shoulder? I have a crow tattooed on my arm. May I never forget him. May I continue to thank him and send him on his way when he speaks to me.
And with the space he leaves in his wake, I invite 7-year-old Charles to come sit and talk with me. I’ll keep you safe, I tell him. I’ve got you.
Reunion: Leadership and the Longing to Belong by Jerry Colonna
Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry
Learn more about Dr. Dupre’s work
Beryl Markham quotes are from her memoir, West with the Night.
Dr. Charles Dupre is dedicated to supporting and developing leaders who are committed to leading with authenticity, integrity and vulnerability. A recognized and award-winning leader in the education sector, he served as superintendent/CEO of two large public school districts in Texas and is known for building and leading high-performing teams. Dupre is a proven culture builder, communicator and champion for helping others achieve their full potential, as he believes authentic investment in others enables us to be our best for ourselves and for others.
6 min read
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