You Owe You
It’s You versus You
When You Take Ownership, You Become the CEO of Your Life.
Today, I walk into places of unimaginable privilege, from NBA locker rooms to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. But my younger self would never have dared to imagine that boy playing on the block in Detroit could have such a life.
When I was growing up, there weren’t many expectations for me. I was born in Chicago, and raised in Detroit in the 1970s. Back then, if you were blue collar in Detroit, your destiny was already dictated: You graduated from high school; got a job at Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler; started a family; worked on the assembly line for the next forty years; retired; and collected Social Security. That was how my life was supposed to go. And that wouldn’t have been a bad way to do it. That’s how my parents did it. That’s how plenty of people did it back in the day, and that was a sweet life.
Here’s what you have to remember: There weren’t many expectations because it was just good that we were living. My great-grandparents were sharecroppers. Their parents had been enslaved. That my parents owned a house and had cars, that my mom had a garden to tend and a job at Ford Motor Company to go to every day, was beyond any expectation her ancestors had ever dreamed of. When survival is the goal, how can you even think about what your higher purpose might be?
Just so you can understand how I grew up, I have to tell you about how my mom, Vernessa Craig, grew up. If you ask Vernessa what was expected of her, she’ll tell you: nothing. She’ll tell you about how she made it in the 1960s in Chicago at the height of segregation. She’ll tell you that as one of fourteen children in an eight-hundred-square-foot apartment on the South Side, there were no expectations of her because there wasn’t a lot of hope for her to begin with.
Her grandparents were born in the Jim Crow era, a time when African Americans were bound by the color of their skin, and weren’t allowed to share space with white people. Train cars, water fountains, restrooms, hotels—my family was barred from the dignity of communing in public places with white people. My mother’s father was from outside of Selma, Alabama. Her mother came from Sardas, Alabama. These places were impoverished, rural, and still operating on a system that was basically slavery in all but name. Their families scraped together a living based on indentured servitude, giving up a share of their crops to the landowner in order to survive. But, like six million other African Americans over the course of about sixty-five years, they eventually picked up their lives and struck out for some better future up North.
Both of my grandparents, Jessie McWilliams and Mary Craig, and their parents landed in Detroit around 1940. They’d all traveled by train as children up from Alabama, and settled in a neighborhood called Black Bottom, which was famous for its tight-knit Black community. There, they all worked together, fed each other, and looked out for one another.
One of eight children, Jessie McWilliams—the son of Eva and Aaron McWilliams—came over from Ireland with his parents during the potato famine. Jessie was biracial and lighter skinned, passing as Cuban or Italian, so he could move through the world more freely than a Black man might.
My maternal great-grandmother, Kate Gardner, died giving birth to my grandmother, Mary Kate Craig. My mother talks about what a large hole it left in Mary’s spirit, and how she was withdrawn and distant most of her life. She never spoke about her past. The only child of her parents, Mary was raised by a stepmother who was essentially her wet nurse and had ten other children with Mary’s father, Fred. She always felt alienated; she couldn’t connect to the rest of the family. I can remember it as a kid, feeling that my grandmother was serious and businesslike—a true provider, focused on getting her family what they needed to make it to the next day. Of course, as a child I didn’t understand why my grandmother seemed distant. But thinking about how these women grew up and raised children and raised themselves without the help of anyone else, I can see now how it might have kept them from expressing their full range of emotions.
My grandparents Mary Craig and Jessie McWilliams met in Detroit, had three children, and never got married. Eventually, Jessie took off. Mary met Mr. Braxton, my mom’s stepfather, and they moved to Chicago and had eleven more children. My mother grew up thinking that her father was dead, until one day he showed up when she was ten or eleven years old, and she didn’t know him from Adam. She remembers how her father looked white and the woman he came with, her stepmother, Bernice, was white. It took her a long time to accept who he was, but eventually they got close and Bernice fought to normalize their relationship. Her stepfather’s family favored his kids, who were darker, more than her and her two sisters, but despite the complicated bloodlines, the kids grew up treating each other as full siblings and disregarding the politics of the shades of their Blackness.
My point in explaining the tangled dynamics of my family tree is to show you how my own personal history was built on a foundation of instability. There was no certainty for my family in society, just as there was no certainty for them in their private lives. There was constant upheaval, constant worry about having the very basics of survival. There was a pattern of men disappearing while the women were left to fend for themselves and their children. It created a dynamic of dysfunction and a cycle of unpredictability. How can you think about creating a life of fulfillment when you’re living in abject poverty?
Vernessa Craig got pregnant at seventeen and gave birth to me at eighteen. She was top ten in her class at Dunbar High School, a vocational-technical school, where you were accepted based on exceptional test scores. But they kicked girls out of high school for being pregnant back then. Luckily, one of her counselors let her in on a secret that the school didn’t like to share with pregnant girls: You could still graduate if you took and passed your tests. So she did. She tried to make it work with my biological father, a boy named Gerald Munday she met at Dunbar. She remembers him as different from the rest of the young men in her neighborhood. He wasn’t a gangbanger and he wasn’t a troublemaker. But, ultimately, he wasn’t interested in helping her raise me, Eric Munday.
When Mom met Jesse Thomas, a 6-foot-8 man who had played basketball at Texas Southern, they started off as friends. It was 1972. She was twenty years old with a two-year-old son. Jesse thought he was gonna be with a tall woman, a volleyball player type. A housewife type. Mom is 5-foot-2, and she definitely isn’t a housewife. But eventually they started talking, and he understood her and was drawn to her will and her intelligence. He said he wanted children, which meant I wasn’t a deal breaker. In fact, he wanted to adopt me. They were married, Mom became Vernessa Thomas, and after Jesse convinced her to move to Detroit—a place where, if they worked hard, they could own a house, have a yard, find good jobs—Jesse petitioned the court for adoption. In 1974, I became Eric Thomas, Jesse’s son. They never told me I had a different biological father. That’s just the way it was. And that’s what I grew up thinking.
In Detroit, they rented for a while, but eventually settled at 8 Mile and Braile in a three-bedroom brick house on a corner lot. Mom had never imagined that she could own a house or have that kind of life, but she’d worked hard to get it and she loved it. Back then, there were still racial boundaries. The city, like most American cities, was segregated. You weren’t supposed to go two blocks north of 8 Mile. We would venture as far as 7 Mile on occasion, but we didn’t go to 6 Mile or 9 Mile. There was an unspoken one-mile-radius rule.
While I was growing up, Detroit was beautiful. It was vibrant. We had pride for the city that ran deep. The middle American ideal was Detroit. The whole world was listening to our music and driving our cars. In those days, Coleman Young was the city’s first Black mayor and Motown was at the top of the charts—the Temptations, the Supremes, the Isley Brothers, the Clark Sisters. We’d hear that Diana Ross was in town, or that Michael Jackson was rolling in, and my friends and I would hang around the corner, looking into the distance, pretending we might catch a glimpse of a limo on its way to Berry Gordy’s blue stucco studio. My grandma lived around there, and just being in proximity of it made you feel a buzz. Detroit was also all about civil rights in those days. You’d hear about Rosa Parks being downtown speaking, and sometimes the adults would talk about the time that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his Walk to Freedom speech. The memory of Malcolm X, who’d spent time in Lansing and had been assassinated only a decade before, was still very much alive.
As I still do today, I used to wake up before everybody else. Crack of dawn I’d be out on the block waiting for my boys to get up, waiting for the old-timers to roll out of bed. All summer long, we would be gone all day, riding around, or playing football in the street. I thought I was going to be the next Carl Lewis, running the 100-meter dash in the Olympics. Or, if not that, then play in the NFL.