I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a cold December day, right after Christmas, and I was packing up my car to head back home to Richmond, Virginia. My dad had recently retired and was looking for his next “adventure” in life after serving as a police officer for 31 years in our hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey. Standing there with my little brother, I was about to walk out the door when my mother exclaimed, “Oh yeah, you know your Daddy just finished his first semester in college?” Twisting my face in confusion, I said, “You in college?” After he confirmed that he was indeed a student, I asked, “What made you decide, after all this time, to go to college?” After more than three decades on the police force, family obligations, and raising four kids, my dad said he just didn’t have time to focus on getting his degree…until then. I congratulated him on his new endeavor, and my brother and I drove back to Virginia.
My dad has always been a leader, but this time he was following in the footsteps of his children. While he had been the president of the Black Policeman’s Association, a 33rd degree Mason who held many top positions, and was always “ahead of the class,” this time he was the freshman. At 61-years-old, my dad was embarking on a dream almost 42 years in the making, and like always, he excelled at it.
When I was the 17-year-old kid who needed my father's tax forms to complete my FAFSA, he handled everything. But after he returned to school, the roles were reversed. I was the expert, and he was now the one who needed my help. Rather than rebel, my dad accepted that I was the teacher and he would be the student. While he was in school, we’d discuss it all. Our “just checking on you calls” were replaced by discussions about financial aid, student accounts, and how to properly write a term paper.
An interesting moment came when the Supreme Court passed marriage equality. As a LGBTQ activist, I had been outspoken on the subject, and had written about many topics affecting the community. One day, my father called and asked for information on the subject, completely blowing my mind. The fact that a masculine, former police officer, king of the castle kind of man was now becoming an intersectional, understanding, knowledge seeking person looking to grow and expand on topics he would once never discuss was amazing to me. Enrolling in college had taught the old dog some new tricks, and I couldn’t have been more impressed and inspired.
We often see the #Blackexcellence hashtag used in times of superior academic, societal, or economic achievement. But watching my dad go back to school has taught me that he, along with many others, have been Black and excellent before it became cool on Twitter.
Black excellence described my dad’s decision to put his dreams on hold so that his four children could reach theirs. Black excellence was staying by my mother’s side after two brain surgeries almost 20 years apart and never wavering in his love for her. Black excellence was being a high school graduate who rose through the ranks to become the interim chief of a police department. Black excellence was surviving major heart surgery during his senior year of college only to graduate Magna Cum Laude at the age of 65.
We live in a society where folks want everything to happen in an instant. You want an answer to a question, Google it. You want overnight success and a large following, become an Instagram model or start making Vines. Want to be your own boss, start an Internet company. Even though I’ve worked hard to find success as a writer and activist, there are times when I compare my beginnings to other peoples’ ends, and I find that I have to check myself and realize that sometimes, goals will be achieved in due time. Watching my father defer his dream of obtaining a college degree was a reminder that I can, and will, achieve my dreams—no matter the age. After all, when a person is determined and fueled passion that just won’t go away, age is not an obstacle.
As a Black man in America, waking up every day to face a world that was not built for me to thrive is akin to a revolutionary act. But my father’s success is nothing short of a miracle either. In honor of Father’s Day, I want to publicly acknowledge my dad, Gregory G. Johnson, for teaching me that Black Excellence is more than just a a personal accomplishment you achieve after accomplishing something rare, but it can also be found in the simple things we do as Black people to survive another day, while setting a good example for the next generation to do the same.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and the Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education, He has a monthly column in A&U magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.