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Post #7 Better Than You: My Conversation with Curtis Wilson

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

I had the recent pleasure of meeting Curtis Wilson through an introduction from my father. Even though we both grew up in Akron, Curtis is just enough older than me that we didn’t cross paths. But given the nature of relationships and the wonderfully rich Black community in my hometown, it turns out that his mother and aunt both attended Akron South High School with my father, and our fathers attended The University of Akron together. We are practically family.


Ten seconds into chatting with Curtis, I knew I had found a kindred spirit, though, given his charm and charisma, I suspect that many people have the same experience when meeting him for the first time. Smart, accomplished, grounded, and insightful, our conversation reminded me of both the joys and the sadness of growing up as a young Black man in Akron, Ohio. Both high school and college student-athletes. (His high school basketball jersey is in the rafters next to Lebron's)

Curtis Wilson's High school Jersey with Jerome Lane's and Lebron's

Both growing up surrounded by extended family members, often only walking distance away. Sons of military men, we were taught to stand up for ourselves and others, but more importantly, to make sure we stayed focused on what was important; Family, school, community, and moving forward.


One of the things I loved most about my conversation with Curtis is his answer to my initial question, “What do you do?” He described spending time with his family. He talked of mentoring and working in the community with young people.


It is so typically American to answer the question of, “What do you do?” with a description of your job or profession that it is often shocking when someone gives a different answer. But as my father told me when he found me crying uncontrollably immediately after I attended my high school reunion, “Son, you’ve figured it out. The only thing that matters are the relationship you make and the people you meet along the way.” Curtis Wilson knows this.


In this installment of the Big Black Man Project, Curtis reflects on his experience as a Black man in America while sharing his take on how we should manage our often emotional responses to the world in a way that benefits ourselves and our communities.


Thank you again for your support of the Project.


C.L.Greene II

____________________________________________________


Curtis Wilson head shot

Interviewee: Curtis Lamar Wilson

Age: 55

Place of Birth: Akron, Ohio

Occupation: Vice President and General Manager, Merchant Services, U.S. for American Express

Current Location: Montclair, New Jersey

Interviewer: Charles L. Greene II

Executive Director, The Big Black Man Project.


CLGII: So, How would you describe your relationship to America?


CW: What I would say is I learned early what America has to offer. Being a military kid, especially being an officer’s kid, you get access to certain things, like housing, access to the pools, the golf course, the mess hall, other officers. You learn the difference between being enlisted, being an officer, and precisely what that means. Early on, I knew that if a black man performed at a high level, and even though he knew the odds were against him, I learned what was accessible. Even though my father caught hell in the military, it was his way of making life better for his family.



Ed Wilson (Curtis's father) in uniform.

I also remember my father telling me how he broke down when he came back from fighting in Vietnam and couldn’t get a hamburger in certain parts of the world and how much that hurt him. I also remember in America when my junior year, my father was stationed in Huntsville, Alabama, and I’d go work out three nights a week in Huntsville, Alabama, at Alabama A&M. The track’s open; you can work out. And it’s eight o’clock, nine o’clock at night. So the sun’s down, and the lights are on.


As I’m working out, running around the track, running the steps, doing my sprints, my workout, my father’s patrolling the ground with a pistol, his .357, and this is 1986 because he doesn't trust Alabama. So he was born in 1940. I was born in 1965. We both have an idea of what America is and what it represents, how it’s changed. But in his mind, it hadn’t changed enough.


And I think what I have found is that every step I take and I look around, America hasn’t changed enough. It hasn’t changed enough, and I have to watch how my rage manifests itself and how I can best control it. And I see it in a corporate setting, a golf setting, an occasional setting with my kids, interactions at a restaurant, other customers, an interaction or a comment on the train, coming back and forth from Montclair, to Hoboken, to the World Financial Center. I mean, there are days when I’d catch the train from Montclair, where I’ll see three to four brothers at the train station. I get on the ferry. I see none. We go to my office and see the folks that work for Goldman, or Amex, or Amero, and there are so very, very few.


I can’t listen to Public Enemy on my way to work every day. I can’t open up The New York Times and see the horror stories that are going on in the city because I have to deal with what’s going on every day at Amex, and I’ve got white women, black women, Jewish people, gay people on my team, older people, young people. So I’ve got to make sure I can operate in a fair-minded way. But I know what America is and what I’ve seen from seven o’clock in the morning just getting to the office.


I remember a story. It is pre-pandemic. I’ll never forget. It might’ve been 2016. I think the Cavs were playing the Warriors. It was Game 6 was in Cleveland. And I think there was a two- or three-day break. And a buddy of mine, Shaun Powell, writes for NBA.com. Shaun’s from Pittsburgh. He called me and said, “Listen, I got two tickets to the Cavs game when they come back to play Game 6 in Cleveland.” I’m on the back of the train, and it was the quiet car. I told him, “Aye, man, absolutely I’m going. I’ll send you a check for two. I’ll wire you the money. I will fly in. I’ll stay at my mom’s house, and I’ll meet you in Cleveland,” because my mom’s in Akron. “I’ll pay for the check. I’ll pay for the tickets. I’ll meet you there.”


Some guy gets up, walks all the way to the back of the train to chastise me, and says, “Hey, don’t you realize this is the quiet car?” I went ballistic. I said, “Listen, man, take your ass back to the front. And when I’m off this phone call, I’m done.” So I’m upset. So I get to the Montclair exit, and as I walk by him, I say, “Listen, you better think next time about who you think you’re admonishing. You don’t admonish a guy like me.” That’s the kind of mood I was in that day.


Now, I don’t know if that guy does that to everybody. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But he did it to me on a bad day, and I wasn’t dealing with it. And maybe because he was Caucasian, I went at him in a different way. But that’s how I felt that day.


CLGII: I know what you mean.


CW: There are certain triggers, man. I play golf at Glen Ridge Country Club. And for four years, we’re the only black family. And I’ve always played the game, so I knew what the hell I was doing. But some of the rumors would get back to me. “Curtis doesn’t play with the membership.” And I would say, “Listen, I play with the membership when I want to play with the membership.” But it’s just a mentality, man. Don’t be paternalistic around me. I’m a global cat. Don’t come at me the wrong kind of way.


CLGII: Well, I was interested that you talked about the rage. I don’t want to focus on the rage, yet I hear you, and I feel you. I remember, after the 2016 election, I was not happy. I was not happy for a whole host of reasons. And two months after the election, my wife finally said to me, “You have to do something because I can feel the rage coming off of you all the time. It’s impeding our relationship. It’s impeding your ability to be a parent. And even though you aren’t walking around smashing things and screaming, I can feel the rage coming off of you.”


All of this reminds me of the first Avengers movie, when someone is talking to the Incredible Hulk, saying, “All right, you gotta go ahead and do it! Make yourself angry so that you can hulk out?” And he looks back. He tells him, “I have a little secret for you: I’m always angry.” And that moment in the movie, I said, “Yeah, that me.” If I were to examine how I move through the world, deep down inside, there’s always anger at injustice. And I’m confused, and more angered that others aren’t angry all the time as well.


CW: Well, I think James Baldwin said it best. He said, “If you’re conscious as a...” He used the word “Negro” “... as an African-American, you’re always in a state of rage.” But what I would tell you is you have to use that energy in a positive manner. If it’s going to the pool and working out for an hour, if it’s reading a great book, if it’s cooking a great meal, if it’s washing a load of clothes, if it’s working in the yard with your favorite song on, if it’s washing your car, if it’s reading the Financial Times from A to B, use that energy to make yourself better and make your family better. And that’s how to use that rage, man. You have to turn it into positive energy. Or you’ll explode.


CLGII: Right, and the well of need for change is infinite. And no one person is going to change it all. But this Project is why I do this. And it helps me. And I hope it helps the world.


CW: I mean, you will explode because you can look to the left, look to your right, and you’ll always see it. You always will see it. And, Charles, I’m going to tell you something, man. I talked to Clark (Kellog). I told him, “Listen, my father didn’t get a chance to tell his story. He didn’t put it on paper for anybody. He didn’t write anything. He wasn’t big enough to write a book about himself. But if my son or my daughter sees this interview 30 years from now, they will know that it was the truth and how I felt on January 29, 2021.


CLGII: So if you could change the world, what would you change? What would you change first?


CW:: I would change the educational system and the banking system. I would teach children about the real history of not just this country but of the world, so we’re all operating on the same playing field. I would have loved to know more about the rich history of Sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Africa, Egypt, where I’m from, the history of my people, how we got here, how we managed through, and how we helped one another. I would’ve loved to learn that as a second-, third-, fourth-grader. This thing about George Washington lost his teeth, and he got new ones, and I said, “Well, they found out he took them from an African-American slave. So don’t tell me about George Washington and his caring about the country.” And I’m sure George Washington was a nice guy, but he was brutal too.


CLGII: Right.


CW: I would’ve loved to learn my history and the brutality of America. I mean, I think there was an engineer, NASA guy that just passed away. He was in The New York Times. And I forgot his name. But he was from Ohio originally. He started at Wright-Patterson, and he became a NASA engineer, like, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I would’ve loved to know him when I was taking science, mathematics in the third or fourth grade and say, “Hey, I’m connected to this guy.” Or another thing I would say, Charles, if race wasn’t a big deal in this country, then I could say Newton; I can connect with Newton because Newton’s a human being like I am.


If they taught humanism versus race and taught this country’s true history, I think we’d all be better off. I think my father had me reading eight or nine books between the seventh and eighth grade, man, Baldwin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Isis Papers. And he said, “I think you’re ready, Son. I think you’re ready.” Because I was somewhat happy-go-lucky if things were going smooth, but I didn’t see what was coming behind, what was in front of me.


So I would say the educational system needs to be changed. But the sad part is a lot of these cities and towns; we run the union. We sit on the board. I think some of us owe our people a better way of handling our things and doing things. Even in Montclair, man, I was shocked by the lack of participation on Back to School Night, or PTA, or coaching soccer, or coaching baseball, of the lack of participation by black men. There are only two brothers that I knew in Montclair that coached soccer. Everyone else was chasing dollars and being big-time. And I’m like, “Man, that ain’t where it’s at. That ain’t where it’s at.” But that’s me. But that’s how I was raised. My old man, that was my example, for me. So the educational system, number one.


Second, I’d say the banking system and learning about financials and how it works, managing your money, knowing what an asset is versus what a liability is, and how the money can turn over in your own family and community. And in reality, what do you need to live, you know?


I feel like I have learned so much by watching my grandparents. And my grandparents on Haynes Street had a garden, and they made me tend that garden. My eight other cousins and I tended that garden. We ate from those garden vegetables, and fruit, and collard greens.


CLGII: (laughing) Collards. I knew you were going to say it. You ain’t nobody in Akron if you don’t grow some collards greens.


CW: And beans. My grandparents had that for years. And they were pristine. I mean, it was a pristine garden. Or my grandfather in North Akron, who didn’t throw away a tool or a screw.


And he was, like, “I’ll fix it myself. I’m not going to have somebody else come over to my house and fix it.” He built a bathroom, and he could barely see because he had glaucoma. He built a bathroom, man. I remember helping him. So I learned. And my grandpa said to us, “You only need three pairs of shoes. Get you a pair of black tennis shoes, a pair of black shoes, a pair of brown shoes. Get two suits. And you’re sufficed.”


CLGII: So, thinking about the last four years, how have they impacted your view of the world, if at all?


CW: So here’s the thing: There’s always been a repudiation against change. I mean, you can think about Reconstruction from 1865 to 1879 or ’77. You can think about what happened in Tulsa. You think about what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina, what happened in Louisiana, and what happened to the little boy who wrote a little girl a letter in the fourth grade in South Carolina? It was always two steps forward and one step back. It’s always been there. And it hit me with the George Floyd scenario. For about three weeks, I was in a funk because I’m thinking, “Now I’m in denial because I’m thinking that it ain’t real, but it’s real, and it’s on video, and it’s meaningful. And you may not think it can happen to you, but you never know. It could happen to you.”


It could happen to you. And it’s just this backlash. I’m not painting everyone with the same brush because I’ve got friends from all walks of life, but there’s an element of America that has always existed. And here’s my theory: You’ve had the elites, which were slave owners in the South and the poor whites that lived on the other side of the track, separate from the poor blacks who were enslaved or who end up being poor when slavery was done. At the end of the day, they always thought they were better. White folks always thought they were better than us.


Poor whites versus poor blacks—neither with access. Crack cocaine turned into the opioid crisis. Not having health care impacts them. Manufacturing has gone away, so they’re affected. But yet they think that the majority of people of color are moving past them. And it’s always been one thing that’s driven this country, period. It’s about the elasticity of a dollar: economics.


Charles, I may be completely wrong, but even in Montclair, which is supposed to be a liberal town, I believe if a black man has 10 cents and the white man got 9 cents, there’s a problem.


If you’re doing stuff that they’re not getting access to, it’s a problem. My daughter four years ago graduated from Montclair High school, a public high school in town. My wife’s on the school board, like, 10, 12 years. We’re doing something. I’m coaching baseball, PTA, and she’s doing Back to School, Board of Education. I’m doing special needs fundraisers, so all of that. My daughter gets accepted to Stanford, early admission.


Some people come to my wife and say, “Well, if Taylor is getting into Stanford, why is she applying to Penn, Yale, Harvard, Georgia Tech, Michigan? You know, that’s a spot for my kid.”

I’m thinking, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your kid. It’s my kid.”


It’s America. It’s capitalism. Don’t put that nonsense on me. Not when I’m winning; I’m winning. Now all of a sudden, you want... You wouldn’t do that for me, so why would you think I’m going to do it for you? These are “so-called” liberal folks who want to get along until you start winning the game.


When you start winning the game, they ask, “Who does that cat think he is?” I said, “You might want to do some research, man.” I have a saying. People think it’s funny. But someone comes to me, “Hey, Curtis, how are you doing?” My response, “Better than you. Better than you.”

Curtis with his "baby" sister Sharon, future wife Deb, mom Barbara Wilson
Curtis and family "back in the day"






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