Who Do You Think You Are?
Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors
Who Do You Think You Are?Let others recognize your worth.
One of my fondest memories was sitting in front of our black-and-white, floor-model television, watching professional boxing with my Dad. To be more specific, we watched one particular heavyweight — Muhammad Ali. My Dad, like a whole lot of Black men back then, was a huge Ali fan. Eventually, his hero became my hero, and I loved watching those fights with him.
There was something about Ali that attracted me other than his ability to dance, shuffle, and knock you out. An articulate and braggadocious talker, Ali predicted the outcome of his fights in rhyme: “You’re going down in the third round!” Mostly, I liked Ali because he wasn’t afraid of white folk. Be it defending his religion or his stance against the Vietnam War, he used his mind and his mouth to whip all out-of-the-ring opponents.
Imagine Ali’s impact on a Black child who constantly felt like an outsider. The only time I saw Black folk, other than my family, was when we attended an all-Black church some 30 miles away from our home. I was raised in Indiana, lived in an all-white trailer park, and attended a virtually all-white school.
There were ten kids and three adults living in a double-wide trailer. Money was tighter than tight. It wasn’t unusual for the Smiley children to wear hand-me-down clothes or shoes with cardboard tucked inside the soles to cover holes. Neighborhood white kids didn’t hesitate to point out that my family was poorer, bigger, and blacker than theirs.
I developed a deep sense of class- and race-based inferiority.
But that was before I came under the spell of Muhammad Ali.
I convinced myself that Ali and I shared similar traits. I was smarter than most of my classmates, I had an excellent memory, and I could out-talk anybody. If Ali could challenge white people with his mind and his mouth, so could I.
I began to check classmates with my quickness, correct them if they were wrong, argue with them if they thought they were right, and place bets to prove that I could articulate faster, more eloquently, and more accurately than they could.
Substituting feelings of inferiority with intellectual superiority helped me verbally knock out contenders left and right. And, for awhile, it felt great.
Problem was, during my Ali phase, I started getting into physical fights and trouble with teachers at school. The worst part — nobody liked me.
Because of my mind and mouth, I could make no friends.
Mama quickly noticed my growing ego problem. “Tavis,” she cautioned, “you don’t have to run around trying to prove how smart and bright you are. Stop all that!”
One day, after Mama and Dad returned from a brief weekend getaway, she passed out gifts to all my siblings but me. She asked me to stay behind as she shooed my brothers and sisters outside. We sat together at the big family kitchen table.
“I got you something,” she said holding up a small, blonde, wooden pencil holder. Under the little holes drilled in its top, I noticed a black laminated inscription:
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”
Focusing on the last four words, the Ali in me exclaimed: “Yeah!”
“Read it again,” Mama responded.
I did, again and again, apparently not quite getting it.
Mama insisted that I read only the first part:
“It’s hard to be humble . . . It’s hard to be humble . . . “
Slowly, it dawned on me that she wasn’t exactly paying me a compliment.
“Tavis, sweetie,” she continued, “you are so lovable but you’re so not likable. You’re not likable because you’re too brash, too in people’s faces, too much of a smart aleck. You walk around posturing your greatness. You have a humility problem, baby, and we have to fix this problem right now.”
That’s when she pulled out her Bible and hit me with Proverbs 27:2: “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips.”
“Do you know what that means?” Mama asked. “It means you don’t want to be exalting yourself and patting yourself on the back. A leader doesn’t exalt himself; a true leader is exalted by the people.
“You’re not giving people any room to celebrate you; you’re telling them before they ever get a chance to celebrate you.”
Mama suggested an experiment:
“Tavis, for just one week, I want you to not to say anything about yourself — don’t reference yourself at all. You just do what you do, without bragging about it for a whole week, and I can almost guarantee you that somebody, somewhere is going to recognize your contribution.”
Following her directions and trying the experiment would result in my feeling much better about myself “on the inside,” Mama promised.
“Whatever feelings you get from running your mouth and bragging are going to pale to what it feels like when somebody else praises you.”
So, for the next few days, I avoided verbal beat-downs and boasting about myself. One day, after reciting the entire lineup of the Cincinnati Reds, including their current batting averages, I purposely chose not to challenge my classmates to best me, nor did I brag about what I had just done. I simply sat down.
Sure enough, a few impressed classmates complimented my “amazing” memory.
I couldn’t wait to get off the school bus, run home, and tell Mama about my experience. She smiled and cried at the same time.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you, baby. Remember that feeling for as long as you live because the more you achieve and succeed, the more you’ll discover how difficult it will be to remain humble. Always remember, before honor comes humility.”