I stood in the middle of the floor and I cried. I still cry when I think about it today because I came from an era where this was impossible, totally and completely impossible. It was surreal. I thought I’d eventually wake up and none of it would have happened. I couldn’t believe it because it wasn’t believable.
That was Election Day, 2008. Clifton Taulbert’s an author, a storyteller. He believes in the illuminating power of a story told well. This one introduces the eerie, cultural postraumatic stress disorder at the heart of his twelfth book, The Invitation.
When commentators called the presidential election for Obama, Taulbert celebrated. But he didn’t celebrate 100 percent. He was of two minds. The kid in him, the child raised in the segregated Mississippi Delta of the 1950s and 1960s, waited for the other shoe to drop. Surely there was a miscount. Or perhaps this was a practical joke unleashed on an impossibly large, national scale.
I’m 50 years removed from that place but it’s a lesson of race and place that lingers. It still shows up today because we’re still seeing a lot of African-American firsts.
So it was that Taulbert, standing in a generic, ordinary hotel room, on an otherwise average Tuesday evening in suburban Anytown, U.S.A., wrestled with the extraordinary. America had a black president. It was a done deal. But initially, he couldn’t enjoy the finality of victory, the end of an era, the soulfully satisfying conclusion to one of the most important public conversations in the country’s history.
It would be another year before the story of The Invitation crystalized. It would be another six before it saw bookstore shelves. Taulbert’s search for meaning behind the second guessing, the hypersensitivity to the improbable, emerges in the pages of The Invitation as a sort of cultural post traumatic stress disorder.
The Invitation, the story of an improbable friendship of a black baby boomer and the southern descendant of generations of slaveholders is a well-told story that invites readers to remember the lessons of segregation without reliving it. And, it turns out, there is a sort of therapy for Taulbert’s brand of PTSD: hope.
If the past shows up, hope is the most important bulwark. Reality isn’t the world of our childhoods. The future is not written. Be hopeful,” he says.
The frustration of PTSD emerges not just narratively, but stylistically. Every time the story starts rolling, Taulbert stops to check the surroundings and the audience. The discomfort of being watched and the low-level anxiety of always watching constantly remind the reader what The Invitation is about, even when Taulbert’s not explicitly calling that frustration out.
It’s unlikely that Taulbert’s first book, 1989’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, would have made it to the big screen without that hopeful message. Starring Phylicia Rashad, the film was a milestone for Taulbert. His life story, he saw, resonated powerfully with those of a much larger audience than the book gathered. It was also an important sign that his beliefs about community could find a larger audience, as well. And it would find that audience in some unlikely arenas.
Taulbert credits his escape from poverty to the small community of his Mississippi home town, Glen Allan, and to the even smaller community of the extended family—his “Porch People”—that raised him. His elders’ shared vision of his future, he says, shaped him before he was old enough to understand that he was being shaped.
Community is about unselfish action, and ordinary people rising to the heights of leadership. In my community, people did anything and everything necessary to protect kids in the world of legal segregation. In order to do this, the community came together and wove a safety net of sorts capable of catching us when needed.
In 1997, two years after the release of the film, Taulbert boldly codified the lessons of his youth in Eight Habits of the Heart. It was written proof that memories of danger aren’t the only thing that have stayed with him. Eight Habits is a cookbook of sorts, with recipes for community carried forward from his younger years in the Delta. His forward-thinking elders, it turns out, were entrepreneurial thinkers, as well.
With his consulting company, the Freemount Corporation, he carried the gospel of community to organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to public school districts.
The message in Eight Habits resonates in a lot of places. I recently saw it resonate really well with Idaho’s public schools and the Human Rights Education Center. If communities can be built in the face of segregation, they can be built under any conditions. Businesses with holistic communities where every voice is respected can succeed, regardless of time and agendas.
With Taulbert’s help, cutting-edge business strategies emerge from the time-honored customs and traditions of the Mississippi Delta. They target, of course, the most significant investment of every business: people. Developing human capital, says Talbert, is where businesses need to succeed first. His ideas have reshaped a wide range of organizations, from the FBI and the NSA to Ford and Harvard.
Other forays into the business world include Roots Java Coffee, an African-American owned coffee brand that imports and retails coffee from war-torn Rwanda. The direct link it provides between the American retail market and some of the world’s moist sought-after coffee beans is, slowly but surely, pulling a group of hard-working Rwandans out of poverty.
Cultural post traumatic stress disorder may just be one of the costs of doing business in a democracy. But doing business with the lingering lessons of Eight Habits in mind defangs the past’s trauma, softening the harsh memories by creating real communities with real people—at home and around the globe. There’s no need to continue reliving the past. Just use those lessons to craft a better future.