Thursday, January 19, 2012

When name-calling is a beautiful thing

Godfather, he used to call me.

“Sensei,” I was called by another young brother, years earlier.

“Big Daddy, Dwight,” was one of my more recent appellations. It came from one of my many young charges who, like me once upon a time, chose journalism as a career with the expressed intention of making waves to change an unfair, racist world.

“Obi Wan” is perhaps my most favorite nickname. Joe Gray calls me that whenever we talk. It’s not all that frequently these days. He’s really busy, working for Time, Inc., as a page editor. And, yes, he continues to make his mark in New York City, quite a few miles and decades from where we first worked together in Detroit.

I hired Joe for his first full-time journalism job at the city’s business publishing group. As managing editor, I had just created the region’s first small-business magazine – and Joe was my stable’s only horse. The publication was wildly successful. Now Joe’s shepherding other young black journalists as an elected official with the National Association of Black Journalists. I couldn’t be more proud.

The guy who calls me “Godfather” is now a vice-president at Comcast. Neil Scarborough was a hot property almost 25 years ago when I tried – unsuccessfully – to recruit him to his hometown newspaper, The Record of Hackensack, N.J.  
And the cat who calls me “Big Daddy” – Corey G. Johnson – is now up for a Pulitzer in the investigative journalism category. A few years back as Corey switched careers, I helped train him to become a journalist.

I like being called names by these young brothers, many of whom now are seeing the other side of 40. Back in the day, I recognized them for who they were and what they wanted to become, and I worked with them to help them achieve their dreams.

But I was merely passing along the torch. That same torch lighted my way years earlier in the skilled hands of Paul Delaney. He was a national correspondent at The New York Times when he put my name forward to become a news clerk at the paper’s Washington Bureau. I took the job, wrote non-bylined pieces at every opportunity – and remembered his guiding hand and words mixed with an abundance of wisdom and good humor as I – we  – launched my career.

So, for all of my journalist friends who have no doubt propelled many careers in journalism, I have my own name for you: Hero. And I ask each of you to reach back one more time, because we need more young African Americans to help protect our democracy.

We veterans worked hard for our newsrooms and for all the American people. Now it’s up to the young ones to keep America’s oft-failed promise alive.