Have you ever felt unseen, unheard, misjudged, or misunderstood? In his new book, What About Me: Walking the Tightrope as a Black Man in America, D. John Jackson shares a simple, powerful message. Your life matters, your dreams matter, and you can achieve them no matter who you are or where you’re starting out.
Through stories and lessons of his own personal journey, Jackson proves time and again that what you say and do can change the trajectory of your life. Written specifically for young black men and boys in America today, What About Me speaks to and for all marginalized or underrepresented voices with a call of courage and perseverance.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with D. John Jackson, author of What About Me: Walking the Tightrope as a Black Man in America. John, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
D. John Jackson: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a little bit of a rundown on your background?
D. John Jackson: Yes, I’ve been a corporate executive for over 30 years with a strong background in engineering, strategy and innovation, and those types of things. I have done a lot with history and just been a history buff. Also, I have been excited about technologies and the changing economy, the global marketplace.
If you think about a renaissance man, a lot of different things excite me, and it’s been a wonderful life looking at things come to fruition in this day and age of smart technologies. But at the same time, really understanding the human efforts, the human cause, the human initiatives, and when it all boils down, there are a lot of computers and technology being centered around the human experience, it’s still very important. It’s extremely important.
Focus on Life’s Lessons
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to write this book?
D. John Jackson: For several reasons. The book has been on my mind for, gosh, probably 10, 15 years. My father passed away about 12 years ago and I really wanted to get focused on life’s lessons. My parents were very instrumental in my life and my upbringing and much of the book is about that framework, how they taught me to respect individuals, people of all races, colors and creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds, and respecting people and giving them dignity. I think that’s one of my core upbringings.
With that fundamental basis, I wanted to talk about the experiences that are in my life and those things that I have had to deal with and provide some path forward, some inspiration, and some motivation. As those things started to come together, it was just pivotal for me to do that, you know? I do a lot of speaking on different subjects, motivational speaking and what have you, and about two years ago, I wrote a speech, and I was in a hurry, I had a very tight schedule, I made the speech, and I asked the stage crew, could I go out the back door, down the elevator to get to my car?
They said sure and as I did that, there was this lady waiting for me at the back elevator, and she had tears in her eyes. Her response was, “You’ve got to write these things down, I started not to come today and I’m so glad I did, you changed my life,” and that just cemented it.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, while you were writing the book, it’s very introspective, it’s about you, it’s about your life, and if you ask somebody, they’d say, “I could tell you my story.” But sometimes, in the writing process, you come to some breakthroughs or some deep learnings about yourself and maybe some “why’s” and when you think about your past.
Did you have any of these learnings or major breakthroughs while you were writing?
D. John Jackson: I really did. The perseverance piece is so important. As you write a book and as you frame the different elements, and as you’re trying to pull them together, self-doubt obviously creeps in. Self-doubt begs the question, “Is anybody interested in this book, does it really matter? Am I making a difference?”
My sole purpose was to tell my story, to make a difference, to help at least one person, to provide inspiration, to provide motivation, and I think what I learned about myself is that physical, mental, and most importantly, that spiritual tenacity, and not to let self-doubt creep in and start to suppress your creative juices, and to press forward.
It was a very long journey, and it was one of those things where I had to be dedicated and committed. I think I learned a lot about myself. That was key and I think that’s going to help me even beyond this point.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, who is this book for? Can people of all races have takeaways from the book?
D. John Jackson: Yes, they can. When you read the book, it specifically targets young African American men and boys but really, it’s for anyone who’s ever felt misunderstood, marginalized, underrepresented, whether you’re male, female, Latino, LGBTQ, anyone who has gone through experiences where they feel, “Wow, I just feel like I may be an outsider.”
What I try to show here is to be strong, be resilient, you can overcome, maintain your faith, continue with that stick to it-iveness attitude, the can-do-ism and you can overcome it. Again, when you read the book, it talks about African American men and boys because that’s one of the focus areas I want to target, but as I started to write the book and flesh it out, it was very apparent to me that women and all other races or anybody who has had these experiences and challenges in life, where they’ve had to walk the tightrope and figure out how to maintain their balance, it would definitely resonate with them, of any age, of any demographic.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you mentioned it before, and I’d love to bring it back up and to just dive into the book. Early on, you talk about the life lessons you learned really early in life. Could you talk about what was ingrained in you from a young age and maybe who you looked up to back then?
D. John Jackson: Sure, I’d have to say, my mother and my father. My father passed away about 12 years ago, but my mom is still here, still feisty, still providing wisdom and guidance. One of the things that I learned early and they actually started very early with me is to really explain the importance and the value of recognizing the self-worth of individuals and yourself.
It was one of those things where you typically have a lot of focus on yourself and having that self-worth, but then also understanding that there are other individuals in the world, and they’re different people. I would say at the age of five, six, seven years old, they started to instill in me understanding and exposed me to people of different races, colors, and creeds, and backgrounds. It was very intentional to always give them respect–mister or missus and to understand who they were, where they came from, whether they spoke differently, whether they look differently, whether they had different customs or cultures.
I see that as just one of the most valuable things that those two people provided to me and my brother and sisters, was that ability to understand that there’s a bigger world out there. There’s a huge world with all kinds of people and if you open yourself up to understanding and learning, it definitely gives you a broader perspective and makes your life much more effective and much more enjoyable.
An Early Beginning in Public Speaking
Drew Appelbaum: Now besides your family, were there others that helped you along the way? Maybe later on in life?
D. John Jackson: Yeah, there were. I was very much involved in church and at a young age, probably seven, eight, and nine, there were a couple of ladies who I write about in the book who saw my potential.
It’s one thing when your mother and father are very supportive and that’s really good, but there were a couple of ladies–Mrs. Lucy Ambrose and Mrs. Amy Brightman who are both departed–they saw in this little kid at six, seven years old, the oratorical skills.
At that early age, they started providing opportunities for me to make speeches on different things associated with my interests. I had this huge interest in history, the Roman Empire, and how things worked, and as my mother said, I was always the kid who was like, “Why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why?”
One of the things I always did, would pursue answers. And at that young age, they said “Hey, let’s put him up in front of people to talk about what he’s actually learned,” and what have you. That was kindling for my desire and my passion to feel comfortable in front of groups of people. Fifty people, a hundred people, at that age, and start to be able to converse in a very understandable and plain manner conveying a message.
I do owe those two ladies because again like I said, they saw something in me early on that maybe no one else did. Even myself, I would sometimes hesitate. I’d say, “Why do you guys want me to make this speech on this? I don’t know if I want to do this, mom.” That type of thing and they would always come and say, “Come on John, you can do it, you can do it,” and sure enough, my mother would say, “Go and give it a try.”
I would go ahead, and I would do those things and I’d make those speeches on different subject matters. Today, you know, that benefits me because of the comfort level I have in front of audiences, and the ability to have a conversation, whether it’s with one person or 5,000 people. I think that’s so true when in a day like today, there’s got to be listening, there’s got to be communication. There’s got to be that ability to convey messages and connect with people.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, in the book, you also say, “As a black man in America who has been blessed with opportunities and allowed to take advantage of those opportunities, I feel I have a duty to pay it forward.” Do you feel like your parents instilled this in you?
D. John Jackson: Yes, they did. They always reminded us, and we weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but they were very committed to education, hard work, very firm work ethic, and they always talked about the less fortunate. For wherever you are and whatever you may accomplish in life, don’t forget who you are, where you came from, and always make it a part of your duty to reach back and help someone, regardless of who they are or what they look like or where they come from.
I think that is just a part of my fiber, it’s a part of my DNA. As my mother would say, today everybody needs a little help along the way. It’s incumbent upon you to reach back and help people, especially since you’ve been blessed. We have this saying, I actually talk about this in the book, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and I firmly believe in that.
Drew Appelbaum: You also describe an early conversation with your parents in the book and you called it “The Talk.” It’s not the talk that people think about, which would be the birds and the bees. The talk was your father talking to you about what to do when you’re pulled over by the police. Can you talk about that conversation that you had with your parents?
D. John Jackson: Right, it’s one of those rights of passage. At the time I had just received my driver’s license and the first thing on my mind as a 16-year-old kid is, “I want to drive.” Just to hear the exuberance in my voice when the ranger at the station or the deputy at the station said, “You passed.”
I was so excited and all I could think about was driving home. “Hey, I got to drive home and show my mom,” but, in that process, my father told me to take a pause and slow down. So, I didn’t get a chance to drive home.
When I did get home, they went through the basic dos and don’ts. Don’t do this, don’t have too many people in the car, don’t drive fast, pay attention. Then the conversation took an even more somber, more serious tone, where my father says, “Now, you need to understand how you will be viewed when you start operating this motor vehicle. It’s not a toy,” and my mother chimed in, “No, it’s not a toy, you could kill someone or kill yourself. But we want to tell you about something that you have to uniquely look out for.” He says, “If you’re stopped by the police, there have been quite a few instances where young black men have had encounters with white police officers and things don’t turn out well. So, it is incumbent upon us to tell you how you need to act and what you need to do.”
I remember vividly, I said, “Hey, I’m just a teenager, it’s no problem.” My dad snapped immediately. He said, “The world sees you as a man.” I remember just kind of sitting back in my chair and they proceeded to give me rules and regulations and things that I should do, shouldn’t do, and not to go deep into it, but I think a lot of people have seen, place your hands on the steering wheel, with your fingers open, let the window down slowly. Everything was couched in, moving very slowly, very methodically, speaking very clearly with grammar very proper and with regard to how you’re articulating and conversing with the officer. No sudden moves and those types of things–don’t even reach for your hairbrush or wallet because typically, those things were dark in color and could be misconstrued as a weapon.
Yeah, I go into quite a bit of detail about that because that was a part of probably the first pass of learning how to walk the tightrope. Because there are differences, as my mother and father stated, there are certain things different that you have to be aware of. I know I said, “Well, what about everybody else? I’m just a teenager.” That’s not the way the world works, and I thank them for teaching me that.
How Did We Get to This Point?
Drew Appelbaum: Fast-forward many, many years and you’re giving these professional talks in front of audiences and you’re asked a bunch of times how to address systemic racism and discrimination. You’ve been asked this question so many times that you created a personal framework that outlines an approach to use when addressing the subject. Can you talk about that framework?
D. John Jackson: Yeah, the framework is very basic, and given the current situation, especially after the George Floyd murder and the Breonna Taylor murder and those things took place, I think there was a huge outpouring in America. I was personally asked, “How do you feel?” I said, “I’m shocked. I’m shocked at what I’ve seen.” I was also astonished at the outpouring, of people asking and saying things like “John, we didn’t know, have you ever experienced these kinds of things?”
I would get calls from my friends across this country of every race, color, and creed and say, “Tell me what’s going on, what’s the background, how did this all become a part?” I had been working on some things, looking at the framework. I said, “It starts with education.”
I think it’s just so important to be educated on the reality of what has transpired, how we got to this point? Once you establish that education, then you can start to look at how you find common ground, how you start to bring together the education and the informing of what has transpired, and what’s the experience.
Because I’ll be honest with you Drew, I’ve had friends who said, “Hey John, I know you, you are this and you are that and you don’t experience those kinds of things, do you?” I said, “Yes I have.”
A couple of years ago, just to be honest, in my own neighborhood, I was pulled over. There was a report that there was an African American breaking into cars. In my neighborhood, a block away, and the police officer says, “Hey, I need to pull you over. I need to talk to you,” and you know, I explained everything. It is one of those things that’s not foreign, it is not 50 years old, but it is one of those things that you have to reckon with.
In my framework, I try to talk about educating, informing, how to find common ground, how to work together to ensure that there is a way to truly recognize the fact. Once you recognize the fact, you can establish this conversation, and this ability to have empathy, and then form allies and have action planning, and then go for planning and take action. I think it is a very simplistic framework, but it is fundamental when you are trying to bring people together.
I think it is one of my purposes to try to bring people together. You know, my father and mother always talk about how our family is so broad and diverse that it is impossible for you to be in a position to harbor any ill feelings toward any race or creed or color or any social-economic status.
Therefore, I saw that as a part of my purpose–what can I do to bring people together, to find a common ground, to make life a better place for all?
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dig into the title, What About Me, and if you want to tell us why you asked that question and then, what you expect the reaction to be if people read the book and they sit down and they look in the mirror and they think, “What about me?”
D. John Jackson: It’s really a question that started off for me as somewhat rhetorical, you know, “What about me?” But then it took on a more global, expansive viewpoint. What About Me really looks at African-American men and boys who are saying to the world, “What about me?” Obviously, there are things that we aspire to do, we have desires, goals, and dreams, and one of the things that I look at is that typically the media creates several different categories for African American men and boys.
They’re either entertainers, they’re professional athletes, or they’re on the wrong end of the law on some evening news program. Once those particular images are embedded into the psyche, that typically sticks. Having talked to different young men, whether engineers or attorneys or doctors or family men, fathers, all of these positives somehow don’t ever make it into the mass ethos or ether where everybody can understand.
So, I wanted to say, “What about me? Here we are, there is more to us. We’re not monolithic.” And then I transitioned that to, “What about me? My story and what I’ve experienced.” The two things fuse together. I would hope that the readers would look at it and say, “Wow, this is an introspective look into one man’s life, but also it’s a broader conceptual view into what many, many, many other young African-American men and boys experience.”
It’s still not monolithic because they’re all different and they all have different aspirations, different circumstances, and you have to think about all of those pieces as opposed to lumping them into one bucket. That’s what I hope people get with, “What about me?” Dig deeper into it. Listen and find out what is actually there.
You know Drew, I actually am in the process of having a documentary entitled, What About Me? Which is a documentary film that also comes out in February.
It really gets into understanding the stories and misunderstood perceptions of African American men. If you can see where our two pieces come together, the “What about me” in the book speaks to me and also touches a broader concept, but really hones in on me.
Then for my purpose, I wanted to reach a broader audience about African American men and young boys and what they say and how they feel about things from economics to their experiences with the police, modern pop culture, or the history of what they’ve had to endure.
So those two things are really my purpose or my guiding light in terms of meeting my purpose to inform, to educate, to inspire, to motivate, and to create a conversation about how we can be better in this country. Again, it’s not limited. I use it as the premise, African American men and boys but it’s broader–in my mind, it is a broader context when you get into women, women’s rights, gay, lesbian, Latino, all the folks who feel that at some point in time they’ve been misunderstood.
An Intense Type of Listening
Drew Appelbaum: Now you mentioned this earlier and it is a pretty simple question, and you see, it seems like a pretty simple concept, but it isn’t. Why is it so hard but so important to stop what you’re doing and to listen to others and to the people around you?
D. John Jackson: To me, it’s one of the key components Drew. I think for too long it’s a very easy path to listen for a few moments, very superficially, and jump to action, “Hey, I got a solution, I got a plan.” Especially when you got type-A folks. You know, I’m an electrical engineer and we like to solve problems and get the answer and feel good, but I tell people that in this particular case, listening is absolutely important.
It is an intense type of listening where you can hear the condition of individuals if you can hear their pain, their traumas or their experiences, or their fears or things that you were totally oblivious to. In many cases, people are totally oblivious to what a person has to endure in their journey and the types of things that transpire in their lives, that if it is not spoken about, it’s never heard about and if it’s suppressed, then no one ever knows.
I think it gives individuals the ability to have somewhat of a liberation to tell you their experience, what they feel and once that’s done, that is a reckoning with, “Wow, let me pause and think about that, not jump to a conclusion. Let me just listen intently and have this active listening ability.” I think then Drew, you can have a conversation. Then once you have the conservation, you know, a person, as they converse and they dialogue, there’s more empathy and more of an understanding that opens up the pathway to, “Let’s get to common ground, let’s understand.” The more I know, we can come together and be allies, I know more about you. I don’t have to be in this assumptive posture and I think in a lot of cases, people will say, “Hey, I read this. I know this. I got you covered. You know, whatever fits one fits all,” and that’s not the case.
Drew Appelbaum: You spend a lot of time in the book, towards the latter half of the book, focusing on the keys to living honorably. Can you talk about what your definition of living honorably is and what those keys are?
D. John Jackson: Well, for me Drew, as I look at life and I look at what I have to offer, what my purposes are, like I said earlier, a phrase that we use and have used at my house is, “to whom much is given, much is required.” I get into living honorably by expanding that to at your work location, your home, wherever you are, what are the things that you can do to make the world better? It may be for one person, it may be for two people. It may be, how do you give back?
I have a chapter in the book called, “Making the most of your dash.” Again, we don’t know, we don’t have anything to do with the day that we’re born, we do not have anything to do with the day we depart this earth, but what we do have control of is that period of time in between, no matter how long or short, what we can do and what we can contribute to.
I think when I talk about living honorably and doing those things that give back and make this world a better place, I always factor in, there are things you can do individually but there are individuals who may be in leadership roles. You may be in formal leadership roles or informal leadership roles. I talk about leadership as a privilege, an honor. Anytime you have the position to lead young men, women, or whomever, it is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly and for me, these things just all come together Drew.
There is no separation, whether I’m coaching a basketball team or a little league soccer team or whether I am leading a Fortune 50 high-powered team of executives, the way you treat people, the environment that you create, the empathy, the passion, the inspiration that you bring and the example that you set by your ethics, and by the things that you do, that is so important because people watch you. People watch you, they leverage what you do, and they look at you as an example.
I think that’s just so important that if you’re in this world, for the people who watch you and you know about it, but more importantly, for the people who you don’t know about. I think about kids who watch us and those individuals who aspire to make it to a higher level, what they’re looking for, and people don’t want to hear the term role model, but they’re looking for images or how they build their brand or their character or how they improve their status and how they give back in life.
I think when you set examples, real-life, genuine examples that is so important. That’s what I talk about living honorably, and one of the terms I talk about is genuine. There is nothing worse in the world than disingenuousness because people understand when you’re disingenuous. When you only do it for the lights and the cameras and when the crowd is around, people understand it. But when you’re genuine regardless of the circumstances, whether there is one person or a hundred people or if it is just one-on-one, people understand that you’re committed, and they believe in you. I think that is a much, much more effective posture than the glitz of disingenuousness that only comes out when it’s suitable and it seems to be beneficial for the individual.
Drew Appelbaum: You end the book talking about guiding principles to take with you for a reader. Can you run through some of them, if you have any that are top of mind or some of the ones that are most important to you?
D. John Jackson: You know, one of the things I’ve always tried to do Drew, is frame up in my mind and actually pass onto my kids, what are the things that will help you get through life? First and foremost, stay motivated. Be inspired. I mean that’s just so important. The perseverance of those items and being in a position to never let anyone deter you or stop you from what you want to accomplish. Dream, be creative, use whatever you have to do to inspire you because I think that’s important when you look at where you are in life, where you want to go in life, and how those things materialize.
It’s very important to remember who you are. Maintain your sense of dignity, your self-respect. It’s very important to be fully aware of who you are and what you want to do. Don’t ever sell yourself short, don’t ever sell your soul.
I think the other part of it is to reach back. Always be willing to reach back and help someone to gain a little better foothold in life. There is nothing wrong with helping anyone because I’ll be honest with you Drew, I’ve had help. I tell people all the time, there is nothing wrong with asking for help.
The old adage of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, honestly, that is just what it is, an adage. I understand about being uniquely driven and motivated and being able to work really hard, that’s important, but the truth be told, everybody needs a little help.
The other thing that I’ll add here, there’s a lot more that folks can see but living life and enjoying life. Enjoying it for the moment. A lot of times, people will say, “I’ll enjoy life ten years from now.” Enjoy life in the present, enjoy the people that you love, enjoy the experiences, enjoy the journey. There is nothing like constantly putting off enjoyment and experiencing the day to day and you look up, 10 years have passed, and you just rush your life away.
I do talk about that and I think it’s just very important, but the biggest thing is, dream those dreams. Set those goals, write down the things that you want to accomplish. Use a checklist, I talk about writing notes and having a pad in every part of the house, in your car. In the day of modern pop culture, the modern technology, you can have your phone. Record your ideas, record your thoughts. If there is something you want to follow-up on, do those things.
For me, I still advise people to write things down, and as you write them down, there are certain things that are triggered in the synapses in your brain where you write something down and then you check it off, it’s a physical experience. I like to do that because it gives me a sense of accomplishment and it also helps me to think about other things and it spurs creativity.
Those are some of the things that I put in there and I share because they have served me well. They have served many that I’ve taught and obviously, I feel pretty passionate about it if I have given these to my children for them on their own specific journeys in life.
Respect All People
Drew Appelbaum: John, we just scratched the surface today of the book, but I want to say, writing a book like this, which is going to help so many people, is no small feat. Congratulations on writing and publishing your book.
D. John Jackson: Thank you so much, Drew. There are a lot of people behind me. I stand on the shoulders of many, many folks who’ve gone before me. My parents, I know everybody has great parents but these two folks are the ones that I got. They did a number on me, a very good number. Also, thanking my family–they have been very supportive, and I appreciate them as well.
Drew Appelbaum: If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
D. John Jackson: Respect all people.
Drew Appelbaum: That is a pretty powerful lesson right there.
D. John Jackson: That is ingrained in me like I said Drew, I talk of my mother and how it was poured into me and my maternal grandmother, I can’t forget her. Their examples and their very, very poignant discussions with me that I used to ask the question Drew, like wow, I’m six or seven, these are pretty deep discussions, especially with my father, but I began to realize the outpouring of information, knowledge, and wisdom.
At the core of it was that you treat every person with respect, give them the dignity that they deserve, and if you get that part right, then we can use our Lego building blocks to add on more, but if you fundamentally miss that foundational piece, your house is destined to fall.
Drew Appelbaum: Well John, this has been a pleasure and I’m really excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called What About Me and you can find it on Amazon. John, besides checking out the book, where can people connect with you?
D. John Jackson: On Instagram, I’m @d.john_jackson. Facebook, D. John Jackson, and I’m actually on LinkedIn as well, it’s D. John Jackson.
Drew Appelbaum: John, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck.
D. John Jackson: Thank you so much and have a great day.