I took his suggestions more seriously after that.
I remember reading “Sonny’s Blues,” “Nilda” by Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer’s stuff, Edward P. Jones, and James Alan McPherson. Jim McPherson's stuff made an impact on me especially: I’d never seen fireworks like that on the page. That’s when I started to realize, now this is the stuff I like.
As I read, my confidence in my ability to learn and comprehend grew too. And in Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, I found a quote that I returned to countless times as I wrote Team Seven:
Philosophers have long conceded … that every man has two educations: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.
I feel like I could have those words tattooed on my heart. I couldn’t only teach myself. I needed Tom Bailey to point out certain writers he knew I’d like, people I’d never find out about on my own. That’s the education you are given. But it’s another thing entirely to actually read these authors, see what they’re about, and decide how much they matter. Nobody can do that for you. That’s the kind of education you can only give yourself.
And it’s applicable in a broader sense, too: People are always going to be telling you who you are. But you’ve got to learn to make your own decisions about who you can and can’t be.
That fall, two things happened. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And I started playing the best basketball of my life.
As a senior in college, it was the first time I’d ever been healthy. At the same time, I could see my athletic life coming to a close. In my senior year bio, the first line was “Marcus Burke is healthy through preseason for the first time in his whole career.” I understood; how much longer could I do this to my body?
I would pray before every game that I didn’t get hurt. I got nervous every game. We’re all out here, and we’re all really strong. If someone hits you in the wrong way, that could be bad.
But it didn’t even necessarily take that. I saw guys get career-ending injuries just turning around on the court. Nothing drastic. I had a teammate—we were just laughing in the tunnel, and suddenly his ACL is done. Nothing dramatic had to happen. Your number can get pulled any day.
But I played. I played so well that eventually that coach reached out through my head coach on campus, and said he wanted to get back in touch. Basically, by the end of that season, me and that coach were back in touch. He said, “I can’t guarantee that you’re going to be playing the First Premier League overseas, but with these numbers you can get a roster spot somewhere. I can say you’ll be able to live, make some money, and figure out your life.”
When [Iowa Writers’ Workshop director] Sam Chang called, it was towards the end of the season. I was at team lunch, and I almost didn’t answer the call because I didn’t know the number. I answered it and Sam came through the phone—“This is the Workshop!”—I made such a fool of myself. I asked her name probably four times. I felt so vindicated. I kept yelling, “I’m going to come! I know already!” She kept saying, “slow down, slow down—I need to tell you: you have a fellowship!”
The world had taught me I could be a pretty decent basketball player. I’m grateful for that; it taught me a lot. But I taught myself, with the help of some great teachers, that I needed to write. So I went.
It’s very easy to be defined by your circumstances. We’re all dealt such drastically different hands of cards. Think about it: Some kids’ parents are 100 percent ready for their arrival. They have a dope room, great clothes, and a whole bunch of people ready to love them. Doesn’t that teach you certain things about yourself? But other kids, they pop up at a very inconvenient time for everybody. And that teaches you certain lessons, too.
Nonetheless, there comes a time when you start to just feel responsible for yourself. Yes, you’re at the mercy of whatever life grants you—but that second education is taking the power back. Developing the ability to say, well, certain things happened, but now I would like to do this or that, and I don’t see why I can’t. We’re always being told who we can be or we can’t be, we’re always having labels slapped on. This is what black guys do, exclusively. Or if you do that, you’re maybe not such a black guy. Of if you’re an athlete, you can’t write—and so on. The second education means broadening your horizons—taking risks to definite yourself against all odds. History is written every day, and nothing is certain. Maybe you’re writing towards a thought of school or tradition that you’re not really aware of yet—and maybe it doesn’t yet exist. But you can come to define it.