Jonathan Jackson, co-founder of Blavity, Inc., visited St. Mark's at the end of January. He met with students, visited classes, and spoke in chapel.
Blavity Inc. is the largest media company for black millennials. Blavity maintains five unique sites covering travel, lifestyle, beauty, technology and culture. As head of corporate brand during his time at Blavity, Jackson oversaw community engagement, strategic partnerships, and brand initiatives to help media clients and agencies better serve their audiences and engage more authentically in culture. Currently, as a 2019 Nieman-Berkman Klein Fellow in Journalism Innovation, he is studying the emergence of black media in the digital age and examining new ways to measure black cultural influence in the U.S. and abroad, including its effects on media and advertising.
Jonathan Jackson knows the private boarding school world. He was student at St. Paul's. While there, he had the Rev. Barbara Talcott, the current St. Mark's head chaplain, as a teacher. Rev. Talcott and Mr. Jackson are pictured here.
On Wednesday evening, January 30, Jackson spent time with members of St. Mark's Black Lions Union, one of the affinity groups under the Pathways umbrella of the School's Community sand Equity program. It was an enjoyable and productive gathering, and Jackson was impressed by the St. Markers he met.
On Thursday, January 31, Jackson attended classes, including Social Justice with Ms. Worrell and Writing Workshop with Ms. Matthews. He also had an opportunity to meet with Men Are Not Born – They Are Made, the St. Mark's men's affinity group, during lunch. That night, Jackson was the speaker at evening chapel, a service also highlighted by contributions from the School's acapella singers.
Jonathan Jackson's visit was well-received by the St. Mark's community, his personal insights inspiring and enriching thoughtful conversations around important topics regarding culture, identity, and the media.
BELOW IS THE TEXT OF JONATHAN JACKSON'S CHAPEL TALK:
Words I Never Said
Belmont Chapel at St. Mark's School
January 31, 2019
A Reading from If the War Goes on, by Herman Hesse:
Action and suffering, which together make up our lives, are a whole; they are one. A child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death.
But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life.
Birth is suffering, growth is suffering, the seed suffers the earth, the root suffers the rain, the bud suffers its flowering.
A reading from the The Condemnation of Blackness by Professor Khalil Muhammed:
In 1884 Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a Harvard scientist and a prolific writer on late-nineteenth-century race relations, wrote his first article on what he and many others called the "Negro Problem." Like many contemporaries in the years following Reconstruction, Shaler believed that no other nation of the "civilized" world had a difficulty as great as America's Negro Problem. All evils old and new--militarism, monarchism, and the racial threat to Anglo-Saxon purity posed by the new global mobility of the Irish, Italians, and other so-called inferior races of Europe in the industrial age--paled in comparison, he warned, to the problem of the presence of black people in America.
"There can be no sort of doubt that, judged by the light of all experience, these people are a danger to America greater and more insuperable than any of those that menace the other great civilized states of the world." Shaler believed that white men of the late nineteenth century--white men of science, white men of the industrial age, white men of the modern world--had inherited this predicament from their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fathers, who had been "too stupid to see or too careless to consider anything but immediate gains when they enslaved Africans in America.
"It was their presence here that was the evil, and for this none of the men of our century are responsible," he wrote, assuaging the guilt of his Atlantic Monthly readers, who would now have to continue the heavy lifting of rebuilding and reconciling a war-torn nation racked by uncertainty and anxiety about its future.
I should begin briefly, by explaining that my only experience with St. Mark's is through my knowledge of Reverend Talcott. She was in a word, tough. Not an abrasive force that causes pain, but you know, the tough where you know if you didn't do the reading, you won't make it through the first ten minutes, let alone the semester. I have never seen a red pen wielded more deftly. The precision of her feedback cut so deep, that coming to class without your readings in order and your essays completed was not even a consideration. Admittedly, there were classes I may think twice about skimming. Hers was not one.
She is one of many educators that has shaped me with her rigor, counseled me.
She never let me get away with the tyranny of expectations. Instead she demanded I rise to what she knew I had. That is what anchors a community like yours; those who demand of themselves what they also ask of you.
This year is my 10-year reunion at Saint Paul's, which makes me realize how old I'm getting, and how much older I will continue to get. The prospect of continuing to be an adult isn't that exciting. There are bills, appointments, and groceries. But I get to take more naps, so there's that. They also ask me for more donations, so that means I'm really an alumni. But a 10-year reunion presents some interesting questions about where I am, where I've been, and what I'm doing. I thought it would be worth sharing a few with you that I have been wrestling with. I'll work to string them together, so they connect.
What helped you survive, won't necessarily be the things that help you thrive.
I didn't think I would survive boarding school. When I got it in, my parents were thrilled, but didn't really know what to expect. No one did. No one had ever gone before. It was so new, that the first few weeks, I thought it wasn't real. The classes were hard, the people unfamiliar, and I could not understand why I really had to have a formal dinner two times a week. These weren't my traditions, and they certainly weren't my friends. Then a freak concussion happened during a football game that changed me, and how I learned.
The lies you tell yourself, quickly become the reality you experience.
After my concussion, a guidance counselor suggested to my mother that perhaps " I was better suited at a school that was less challenging, because I didn't seem like the kind of student who could make it through." My mother didn't accept that, but I did. I believed it. I applied to repeat my sophomore year to prove that person wrong. I joined student council. I knew my brain injury meant it might take me longer to process numbers and learn equations, but I knew I could still make words do things. So I wrote. Then I kept writing. I joined Student Council. I broke some track and field records. I made myself into a model student and community member, at least by the standards I saw looked like success. I even won one of those awards they give to people who do memorable things during their high school tenure. And I graduated.
But I keep the chip. I kept it so long it grew into a boulder, and I would swing it at anyone or anything that I felt opposed my indomitable will. Teachers, colleagues, siblings, ex-girfriends, anyone and anything was subject to an outburst when I so chose. I kept the lie of my own inferiority so close to my chest that it became welded into my being. I brought it to college, gave it space in my dorm. I brought it across the country when I moved for my first professional job. I spent time with it when I felt no one would understand me. Every new promotion I got, I made space for it.
I have spent longer unbundling my identity from that singular moment than I care to admit. I kept joy from myself because I wanted to keep a definition that was never true, from an event that had faded, but that I kept giving life to because somewhere I wondered if it might be true, even though everything I did showed me it wasn't.
Friendships are like water. They are what constitute you. Drink from them deeply.
I have a close group of 4 friends from high school. One went to Harvard, one went to Yale, the other went to Tufts, and one went to Columbia. That's fairly standard for an ISL school, but what isn't is how distinctive our backgrounds are, and some of the unique situations that brought us together.
To have a few deep ones, is the privilege of a lifetime. The older I get, the more I cling to them. Some of my closest ones began in a place like this, in a space just like this. But I lost some. Some from neglect, other from immaturity, and some others I'm still trying to understand why. All of them hurt me, but none more than the realization that you don't get that many chances to have deep connections to people that traverse time and space. They carry you in ways you do not expect and over terrain where you might not have thought you needed them. There is nothing I would not do for them, and if harm was to befall me, I know they would look after that which I have communicated I love.
The expectations of others can be fuel, but it can also become toxic waste.
I don't know about your family, but mine has all kinds of personalities. Big, small, loud, extra loud, they ebb and flow across generations. Sometimes, I feel the weight of them, even when they aren't around. I feel it more now that I'm in a space that to some, appears impossible to attain.
Am I making the right choices? Am I working hard enough? What if I fail, will I have let everyone else down? These and many questions sometimes haunt my days and nights.
The other thing about expectations is what they don't allow of you. No one told me that the expectations I felt I had to fulfill, would run counter to the ideas I wanted to explore. It wasn't that people wanted the worst for me; I have been surrounded by a village of love. Despite that, their fears also became mine, because I was doing things they might not have experienced, and their dreams for me, became the fears they never faced.
Your talent can take you places your character might not be able to keep you.
Others' expectations can create a syllabus of things that distract you from the work your life might require.
History is not about our comfort.
My father's life has in large part been dedicated to his idea of honor. His father was a navy chef, and a celebrated boxer. He would have been a Navy officer, but it wasn't appropriate for a man like him, poor, black, and from Alabama, to be a Naval officer, so they kept failing him for his test. After the 3rd time, he decided to do the only job that was available to him.
His father was a bricklayer, and his mother cleaned houses. Beyond that, I am unsure where my family tree winds, but there's a strong chance that's because they didn't have names, and they weren't considered people, simply objects of labor. Things to be counted, indexed and stored. I am petrified to explore where that leads, but I can't ignore it, for the same reasons. To not know from whence you came is a different kind of terror.
We know much less than we think of each other's origin stories, and all that comes with it. Mine has complexities and nuances I am still unpacking. The deeper I go, the more skeletons and unaddressed wounds I encounter. But the things that we think might break us, are also the things we do best not to turn away from, because of what they present us with.
The reading of Khalil Muhammed is historical, but it is local as well. The courage to engage with it, and its many contours and disparate terrains, is what allows us to not just be students, but citizens. I am not here to preach consensus to you; we will always disagree upon something. I am here to suggest that it is virtually impossible to have any kind of discourse if you are not willing to understand that which you haven't experienced.
The task I fail at and return to, is to be gracious with the self-righteousness of others, who have yet to experience what they don't understand. That others engaged with my self-righteousness (and continue to), reminds me that grace is renewable and can be a balm for the difficulties that arise in community, if we allow it.
How you care for yourself will determine your ability to effect the kind of change you seek.
I have a tattoo on my right shoulder of Psalm 119:50. It reads. "The comfort in my suffering is this; your promise preserves my life." I got it when both my aunts contracted breast cancer the same year, and subsequently beat it. Now I look at it on days I feel particularly unworthy, which I have battled with recently, being at Harvard. Some days I feel like an imposter, just like I did in high school. Hiding, waiting to be discovered as a fraud, unmasked as not really what my subjective accomplishments appear to be. Other days, I wonder if I am taking full advantage of all that's presented to me.
On every one of those days I am worthy. On the days I feel fantastic, I am also worthy. The concept of self-care is becoming increasingly commoditized, but I'd challenge you to understand: it is less about what you do so you can be ok, and more about what habits you form so that you can feel all of yourself, even when it's uncomfortable.
You will be required to leave good things.
I was everything people thought I couldn't be. A polymath from a place no one paid attention to. An autodidact that knew enough about who he wasn't to never try and pretend what he wasn't. I asked too many questions, had too many ideas, and I find now that the freedom to learn, to question, and to know that your experience is not only valid, but necessary, is a freedom that you feel compelled to share.
I have intellectually processed these learnings, but I'd be lying if I said I applied them. Lying in a chapel speech in an Episcopal chapel feels like the wrong way to start the weekend.
To remain soft, to remain strong, to remain grounded, to remain whole, to listen with intent, love with joy, and hold accountable with trust, to remain resolute in your convictions but compassionate in your ability to see people, that is the work of a life well lived. It is our work, no matter where we may go, or who we might grow into. That work begins whenever you decide it will, and it continues for as long as you draw breath.
The future isn't just yours, the present is too. Not because you are an exceptional student, or a gifted athlete (or for some of you both), but because you have the choice of choosing yourself, over and over again, in a world that would rather you succumbed to its idea of you, than to the idea that you can be more than what your current circumstances look and feel like. To leave with more questions than you came with, is an accomplishment all its own: that you will live while you are here, and take up enough space so that you do not settle for just existing.