James Baldwin gave me the gift of possibility.
James Baldwin’s birthday is today, and so many things are going through my head. To most, he is a prolific poet and writer. His books changed the American conversation on race. He deserves all the praise for his beautiful and insightful prose and poetry. He is in the truest sense, a writer.
For me, James Baldwin is all of these things and the person who gave me the gift of possibility and showed me the power of looking beyond your circumstances to see what else was possible in your life.
He allowed me to do just that:Change the narrative and change my destiny.
If you can change the narrative, you can change your destiny.
This idea that we must change the narrative of our lives in order to change our destinies sprung out of a conversation on race with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead (link to article here). During that talk, he shares how he started imagining other possibilities for his life from childhood.
The assumed narrative for my life scared the hell out of me: I was supposed to go to stay in a small town, study medicine, become a doctor and be married to a man from my village all before I was 30 years old.
There were many nights when I lay in bed reading Baldwin. My mother kept rooms full of books and guarded them like her most precious jewels. In these piles I found Baldwin, and I found a new, another, narrative. Another possibility. Another outcome for my life. And once I found it, I started telling that narrative to other people.
I started telling a story where I studied in the university and hid in the corners of libraries, dreaming of writing like Baldwin. I told my parents that I would not have an arranged marriage. I was changing the story.
He would remind his mother that he was going to be a great writer someday and would buy her nice things. She replied with a voice that said: “This is not what happens for people like you, but I’ll let you keep dreaming.”
Today, I’m married to a man I deeply love and life worked out even though I didn’t go to med school or back to my village to get married. I’m no longer trying to change my destiny from a child’s perspective, but I am doing something that historically has not included me in its narrative: I am a tech entrepreneur and startup founder.
The tech diversity conversation needs a new narrative.
That narrative is being written now. For too long, that narrative has said that not enough minorities and women major in CS, which leads to a lack of diversity in tech. That old narrative says you’re more likely to make it in technology if you don’t look or sound anything like me. That old narrative makes us all afraid of turning the page over, starting with a blank page and redefining what tech entrepreneurs can and should be.
I get why it’s scary. Changing the narrative of possibility in ones life involves the willingness and hunger for another possibility that’s usually very different from what’s assumed or imagined. Starting with a blank page is not easy and can be difficult, but it can also be an opportunity.
I’d like to change the diversity + tech narrative by asking anyone interested in tech to start learning and asking questions. Sign up for classes, connect with organizations focused on teaching coding skills, join conversations on twitter about tech and diversity and when you feel that you’re not smart enough or good enough, remember something that Baldwin shared from his conversation with Margaret Mead:
“Once people know what they know, they make the unconscious assumption that they were born knowing what they know, and forget that they had to learn everything they know.”
Remember that tech changes every day, and we’re all just winging it and often unsure and uncertain. This new narrative is about what you want for your tech career and how you plan to get there. This new narrative says we’re all capable of working at a Google or creating one, and sets a path to help us get there. This new narrative says that despite feelings of Imposter Syndrome (link), we go for what we want anyway.
Happy Birthday James Baldwin. It’s because of people like you that I’ve decided to write a new narrative for my life.