Read: What happens when a billionaire swoops in to solve the student debt crisis
Lost in all the shocked, critical, and jubilant responses to Smith’s historic gift to Morehouse, lost in all the serious debates about soaring student-loan debt and the role of philanthropists in solving societal ills, was the priceless gift behind Smith’s projected $40 million gift.
At Morehouse, Smith offered the gift of “Bus No. 13,” the title of his commencement address. He wanted to tell them about the community-made Americans who recognize their buses of opportunity and strive to equalize opportunity, especially for the underprivileged whom the buses often bypass.
Smith identifies as a community-made man, prominently diverging from conventional American male identity, particularly wealthy white male identity, which is built on the projection of the self-made, superior man. White men like Donald Trump ignore or downplay the role of the massive buses that carried them for most of their life. Trump claimed that his father’s role was “limited to a small loan of $1 million,” whereas The New York Times estimated that Fred Trump gave his son more than $413 million. Americans seem more apt to recite Horatio Alger lines such as “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you,” and ignore Alger’s line that implored: “Make yourself necessary to somebody.”
With the United States now the most unequal nation in the Western world, I suspect that every person on the higher end of the divide had buses somewhere along the way. But do they acknowledge all the buses—the policies, initiatives, schools, mentors, networks, familial assistance, friendships, institutions, and programs that benefit certain groups or individuals more than others—that changed the trajectory of their life? Or are they more apt to claim that their personal abilities and efforts are the only driving force of their accomplishments while paradoxically resisting efforts to equalize opportunity?
If a billionaire can humble himself and declare himself community-made, then why can’t we? Then why can’t I?
Read: Burger King’s dystopian student-debt sweepstakes
Smith’s speech moved me to reflect on my many buses, and perhaps you should, too. Growing up in south-side Queens, New York, my parents bused me in a different way—not to white public schools, but to black private schools. From third to eighth grades in the 1990s, most of my private-school teachers encouraged me and challenged me. I responded in kind to this unique opportunity with high grades. But I wasn’t totally appreciative. I disliked wearing a uniform, attending chapel every week, and traveling so far from home each day. I disliked the small class sizes and yearned for anonymity. Spoiled in multiple ways, I took the opportunity for granted then, and for most of my life. I remained shamefully blind to how this bus shaped my own trajectory until a few years ago, when I started intensely self-reflecting on my history to compose my forthcoming book.