I met my great-grandfather for the first time when I was 29.
I had never met someone who had been enslaved by other humans.
When I say “met,” I’m using the term liberally (as I do with most terms, I’m a Leo 🦁 after all). I met him by reading about him in an old newspaper clipping from 1898. He lived quite a life:
- He escaped slavery in the US South (Alabama, specifically)
- He made his way North and settled in post Civil War-era Pennsylvania (my home state)
- He graduated from Lincoln University, a historically-Black university started 8 years before his birth
- He became a Presbyterian minister
- He ran a special mission for formerly-incarcerated people, offering them rehabilitation and support, in defiance of local law enforcement’s harsh tactics
- He married his love and safely raised a family in the midst of Jim Crow America
When I first learned about him, I was sitting in a cafe in Oakland, California overlooking Lake Merritt. I went to that cafe every Saturday and Sunday morning, mostly out of tired habit.
I was utterly burnt out from my job, which was quite similar to my great-grandfather’s mission: I was running a nonprofit for formerly-incarcerated young men offering education and job training.
I guess history had its eyes on me. The apple had not fallen all that far from the tree.
This was a special joy for me, learning such history.
Why? Because so many Black Americans are deprived of knowledge of self through historical context about our families. I felt so damn lucky to first and foremost know about this man at all.
Imagine feeling grateful for the “privilege” of knowing your own family members. That should be every person’s inherent right.
I felt even luckier to learn that I come from such strength and perseverance and goodness.
Back then I had no idea this moment – meeting my great-grandfather for the first time through the screen of my laptop – would be a major turning point in my life.
Black Boy Joy On An Island
Fast forward a year or so later and I’m sitting in another cafe, this time in Koh Samui, Thailand.
I’m working on a blog post for a client, sipping my chai latte like every digital nomad stereotype you’ve ever heard.
After I finish my client work, I decide to take my scooter around the entire island. There’s a perimeter road I can follow. The trip takes all day. I stop at a waterfall and bathe in the wading pool with other tourists and some locals.
It’s my last day on the island before I ship off back to the mainland. I’m heading back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving with my family. It’ll be cold back there so I’m basking in the warmth as much as I can.
I look forward to the comments about how dark I’ve gotten from many of my less melanated family members. I love my Black skin. How it responds to sunlight by absorbing it and spreading it around my body. Always have loved that incredible natural phenomenon.
Whenever I would feel down about my Black skin due to bullying or general racism in our community, my adoptive white father would sing this little jingle to me:
White is wonderful
Tan is grand
But BLACK is the color of the big boss man!
He always made a point to really enunciate the word “Black.” The way the “ack” part of the word smacks the roof of your mouth and kicks forth when you say it with feeling.
It would always make me chuckle through my tears in that special way our parents can always comfort us when we’re at our lowest. I remember even back then realizing how strange such words were coming out of the mouth of a white man.
During that last day on the island, my thoughts kept turning to my great-grandfather.
Could he have ever imagined such a charmed life for his great-grandson?
Had he ever heard of a place like Koh Samui?
When I meet him and the rest of the ancestors, how am I going to explain what a “blog post” is?
A few years later, I shared this story with my dear friend Tanya who lives in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. We were sitting on her stoop sippin’ Hennessy and fruit juice at dusk on one of those perfect summer days in New York. Her response: “You’re the freest Black man I know!”
It was a tremendously kind thing for her to say and I’m not sure how true it is, but it made me reflect on how I have shaped my life. I chose content marketing for a reason.
I wanted to be free. I wanted to be creative. I wanted to build beautiful things on my own terms.
Just like my great-grandfather.
You see, a few months after I stumbled upon that newspaper clipping about him, I quit my job. I stepped out of the decade-long career in education and nonprofits and became a freelance writer and content marketer. Just like that.
Five years later, I now lead my own successful content marketing agency.
I guess that little jingle about the Black boss man really stuck with me. 🎵
Black Anger In The Streets
When the protests kicked off last summer, my thoughts turned back to my great-grandfather.
His place in history had been secured. He met the moment. He survived slavery and Jim Crow.
And here I was, sitting on the couch watching Netflix, drinking beer and eating delivery Shake Shack feeling sorry for myself.
I was afraid to go outside and protest the senseless murder (isn’t every murder?) of another Black man at the hands of the police.
Why? Because…my “job.” Some bullshit paycheck. Appearances. Fearful of a legal record. What my friends and family might think.
That’s when I realized I was focused on the wrong opinions. The contemporary ones, rather than the celestial ones. What some dude in Iowa who pays my invoices might think. What some distant recruiter on LinkedIn might dig up on my leftist politics.
I put on my mask and went marching.
I watched as the Philadelphia police tear-gassed huge crowds of people clawing their way up an embankment onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (which, ironically is lined with all the flags of the world to celebrate…you guessed it…”diversity.”)
As utterly exhilarating as expressing my anger in the streets was, I had to face some cold hard realities about myself:
I’m a mediocre activist/protester at best. I’m a little soft. I have a writer’s hands. I don’t like physical conflict. I like nice things (like exotic island getaways). 😂
(I blame it on being raised by two gay white men and being absolutely spoiled by them 😇 )
But what I CAN do is tell stories. I’m brimming over with innovative ideas. I can build new things. I can nurture creative projects. (I just need a comfortable, ergonomic chair and a chai latte 😎 )
So I launched a Black-owned company with a truly diverse and talented team. Our initial slate of clients are 50% Black and 83% women-led ventures.
I’ve got a few other projects in the works including a tech for good podcast, an email newsletter about Black ancestry, an app for social growth, and some online courses.
I’m on my grind.
And I have to attribute a big chunk of this newfound hustle to that moment back in 2016 when I met my great-grandfather.
I’ve never considered myself a particularly religious person, but one of the Blackest things about me is probably my deep and abiding faith in the ancestors. I think their lives, what they learned, what they went through, serve up innumerable lessons to guide us on our own journeys.
They remind us that we are the living, breathing proof of Faulkner’s famous quip, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
If only we took the time to listen to our ancestors a bit more. Imagine the world we’d create. (Well, not all of our ancestors. Some of ya’lls ancestors were a bit suspect!)
This is why this particular Black History Month – all 28 glorious days of it – just hits different.
More than ever, it’s about embracing the truth of the past in order to proactively build a better future.
Whether that’s putting on your mask and taking your damn vaccine, standing up against white supremacy, or developing that new tech tool that improves people’s lives – it’s all about making your own history and sharing it with the world.
The realization that the only reason we have Black history is because Black people went out there and made it!
As I’ve reflected on my great-grandfather’s story, I realized this is the thread that connects us.
He made history – incredible, odds-defying history. And now I have a similar chance to do the same whilst standing on the shoulders of giants like my great-grandfather.
So I’m taking those lessons forward into the future, no longer as a passive passenger but as the pilot of my own time-traveling starship that I call this life of mine.
As Literal Humans grows (and I grow as an agency leader), here are some nuggets of wisdom from the ancestors I am applying to my work in content marketing.
Hopefully these ideas can work for you too.
5 Things My Great-Grandfather Taught Me About Content Marketing
#1 Do your goddamn homework
I marvel at the idea that my great-grandfather figured out a way to escape the Reconstruction-era American South (where most people still considered him to be property) and found his way up North to Pennsylvania.
How the hell did he plan a trip like that???
That trip, one that I wasn’t exactly on myself, was one of the most consequential trips of my life.
And to accomplish it, I can only assume that my great-grandfather sat down and did a ton of research. He built a strategy.
He had a Plan A but also Plans B-Z. His margin for error was essentially zero because making a mistake in that context meant death.
(Now I know where I get my perfectionist tendencies…)
So how does that harrowing story relate to content marketing…you ask?
It means that “Post and pray” is over. (With apologies to my preacher great-grandfather.)
Gone are the days when you could hope for a viral moment just by creating content on your blog and stuffing it with the right keywords. Content marketing demands great strategy.
You actually have to map out your audience, determine what’s valuable content for them, figure out where they live on the Internet, and how you’ll get that content to them through organic and social promotion.
The former teacher in me is pleased to tell you–the homework makes a difference.
#2 Tell human stories
I often try to imagine the people my great-grandfather encountered on his route to freedom.
Who helped him? Who tried to hurt him? What tales did he have to tell just to get by? What did he learn about himself and the world along the way?
(Maybe one day I’ll write a book imagining his journey.)
Until then, I can confidently assume that the man was a natural storyteller. He even became a preacher, which aligns nicely with the deep history of griots and storytelling within our ancestry.
Applied to content marketing? Ask Peloton how it’s going as they lean into telling uplifting Black stories to celebrate Black History Month.
Ask Nike about investing in powerful human stories.
Yes, of course, there’s a fair amount of technical knowledge that goes into great content marketing. But I think many content marketers lean too heavily into the technical SEO stuff and away from producing compelling, narrative-driven content for their clients.
As content marketers – architects of the emerging Internet – we must strike that balance between the human and the machine.
It might sound high-minded, but we’re literally building the metaverse with every keystroke, piece of code, and custom design. It’s a big responsibility.
How does a man escape a regime hell-bent on his destruction?
How does he learn to read and write and even attend university when it’s virtually forbidden for his kind?
How does he heal from all that trauma and learn to extend his gifts to those even less fortunate than him?
If I try to answer those central questions from my great-grandfather’s life, I get overwhelmed.
I also try not to be too hard on myself (though I am) when juxtaposing the challenges of his life with my own struggles (e.g. where to buy the best oat milk for my chai lattes).
In fact, I try to embrace a tremendous amount of gratitude that he has, in part, given me the gift of such mundane “problems” in the first place. Freedom from want, even.
He literally traversed mountains so I could get stressed out by the slight incline in Victoria Park on my daily morning runs.
Here’s how this applies to content marketing: You just gotta keep on keepin’ on.
Content marketing is a long game. Consistency matters. Discipline is key.
We’re awash in paid ads, growth hacks, and other quick dopamine hits to our marketing brains but steadiness, depth, and quality still go a long way. Ask TransferWise.
#4 Add value
As far as I can tell, everywhere my great-grandfather went, he made himself useful.
I say that with great pride because it seems that so little is expected of men these days. The bar is frightfully low. If we’re not abusers or liars, we’re somehow overperforming. Though modern manhood seems to be in crisis, we can look to great men of the past for guidance.
My great-grandfather didn’t just help himself by escaping the South. He was a standout student at his university. He built a freakin’ church. He set up a mission for those with no good options. He committed to raising a family with the odds stacked against him.
The job of every content marketer is to add value.
If your content strategy isn’t making the Internet a better, more interesting place – then take your hand off the mouse right now.
If your content strategy isn’t actually helping to inform, engage, and activate people – then rethink your strategy (before your clients do).
If your content strategy isn’t keeping your team intellectually stimulated and monetarily compensated – then revisit your approach.
Take a page from the folks at Submittable. You can write about interesting ideas that your audience loves AND makes some good money along the way. Live the dream!
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#5 Don’t market things you don’t believe in
My great-grandfather was a believer.
He believed in the redemptive power of his faith. He believed in Black people. He believed in second and third chances for humans.
I’ve seen lots of content marketers cut ethical corners and take on clients and products that, deep down, they know they should’ve passed on.
From SEO jockeys hawking dubious vitamin supplements to whoever-the-fuck rebranded Unilever’s skin lightening cream “Fair and Lovely” as “Glow and Lovely” (like we wouldn’t notice), marketers have an obligation to factor in the human impact of their marketing.
This is why I made the choice in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, a raging climate crisis, and global protests against racial injustice, to focus my marketing efforts on mission-driven brands.
Just like I looked back a few generations to the example of my great-grandfather, I wondered what my future great-grandchild would think of me and my behavior in such an era. I’d want them to be as proud of me as I am proud of my great-grandfather.
Sure it might mean a bit less income, fewer clients, and tighter marketing budgets – but I’ll sleep better at night.
For marketers, you know how much better you perform when you truly love the product. You know it. You can feel it. And we’re lucky enough to live in a time when most brands are angling to demonstrate what fantastic corporate citizens they are.
Lean into that light and put your marketing skills to work for creative projects with brands that will make your descendants smile when they read about you one future day in a cafe.
A Final Word on Gratitude and Content Marketing Principles in 2021
I’ll close out with a note of gratitude. It’s honestly just one of the best emotions.
It’s like free sunshine you can just emit from your body at-will, innit?
Here it is:
Thank you to my great-grandmother as well. Please tell great-grandmama that I’ll share her incredible story another day, I promise!
Thank you to all of the people along the way that helped you along your journey so that I could sit here with my chai latte and write this “blog post” (basically it’s like a newspaper article that anyone can read anywhere in the world at the same time. Crazy, I know!).
Thank you for showing me the value in doing my homework and building a strategy first.
Thank you for exposing me to the power of real human stories and how they move people.
Thank you for demonstrating how far I can get on persistence in so many facets of life.
Thank you for underscoring the importance of showing up and adding value wherever you go.
And thank you for modeling how a belief in greater purpose can allow one to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life.
I know you might not have intended this, but by living your lives the way you did in the 1800s, you gave me some of the most critical skills and mindsets to do my job effectively in 2021.
Maybe time is a flat circle after all.
I love and I miss you. 💜
P.S. Please tell Frederick Douglass I said “What’s up!”
Happy Black History Month, ya’ll! ✊