Ricky Day

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afropunk interview: reggie van lee’s black excellence

March 1, 2019
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Photos by Ricky Day for AFROPUNK

Reggie Van Lee is what we call a legend, a status he achieved by breaking barriers often placed on Black gay men in this world. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Van Lee defied the odds that most Black males encounter on their journeys. He refused to be relegated to stereotypes that come with being marginalized, and embody the racist tropes white America often tries to place on our Black bodies.

Van Lee’s resilience and resistance empowered him to do what he desired in life, and to chart an aspirational course that has included attending MIT, receiving a Bachelors and a Masters of Science, and becoming a painter. He’s also received a Harvard Masters in Business, and rose to the position of Executive Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton, the global management and technology firm. He also serves as a patron of the arts. He is among the trustees for the storied Studio Museum in Harlem and sits on the Board of Trustees for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, just to name a few of the institutions he supports. And did I mention he managed to fit in being a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater during his spectacular journey? So, yes: Legend!

Van Lee is a native of Houston with residences there and in New York, who uses his family history and his own sense of self- and community-worth to ensure that the broader Black community — and all marginalized communities — have access to the arts.

On March 11, 2019 Van Lee will be honored by TDF (Theater Development Fund) for his contributions to making the arts accessible to the community. “I like to support the arts, audience development and getting people who reflect our country and our city to see theater,” he said in a statement. “What TDF does is not only the TKTS booths that sell discount tickets, which we all know about, but they also provide free tickets and discounted tickets for students and parents who could not otherwise afford the theater, they also have autism-friendly performances for kids and parents on the spectrum to come and enjoy the theater.”

The legendary Van Lee sat down with AFROPUNK to talk about the importance of the performing arts in the sustaining and healing of the Black community, the art of using the principles of science in business, and how he discovered his great grandmother’s 38 acres of land in Texas and made it his family’s home again.

I want to talk to you about the importance of the performing arts, particularly to the Black community, and why do you think it is important?

This may sound a little trite, but I think performance and the arts are transformative for people, in general, and especially for Black people. Theater is a wholesome, safe way for us to express ourselves. Even our history and our culture, and things that are deeply ours, deeply rooted in our culture, can be expressed theatrically, in a comfortable way, to audiences. That perhaps couldn’t be done the same way in a corporate context. So, all my life I’ve felt that the arts are transformative, and I think it brings out creativity in kids and it is a healing balm for people in difficult situations. So for a lot of reasons I think it’s a really good thing, and I want to support it however I can.

How are the arts good for healing, and also for dealing with social injustice and issues that we face as Black people?

I think the arts put you in touch with your humanity, almost by their very nature. And so, it allows you to understand humanity, your humanity and others’, and how some other people that seem to be evil people doing evil things do that because there’s a pain that they have as well. If you can identify with that, sometimes you can get them through their pain and get them to a better place that will benefit you as well. But, certainly when you are troubled, to have that artistic release, to get that out of you, to not feel embattled and encumbered by that, and to release that out of you is important as well. So you may go dancing and twirl, and twirl, and twirl. You may go to church and sing really loudly, but that sort of release really is important. So, whether it is healing others or understanding others to heal, or healing yourself, I think the arts are very helpful.

When were you first introduced to the arts growing up?

When I was three or four years old, I used to draw and paint, then at the age of five I told my mother I wanted to be an artist, and my mother said, “No, no — artists starve, you should be an architect.”

So at the age of five I decided I would be an architect, and then in high school, my mother said, “Okay, you need to be an engineer, so maybe you can get into architectural engineering.” I ended up being a civil engineer. That appreciation for the arts came as a kid, and my parents encouraged me to draw; they got me the paper and the pens and the paints and the boards, and all these things, so I was able to express myself artistically from an early age.

So, how did you balance the left brain and right brain?  If you’re artistic, but then you went into science, how did that work for you?

I was always encouraged to do whatever worked for me. Of course my parents were very concerned that I’d create a career for myself, that I could earn a living, so the math and science stuff, they loved it, right? But, they were okay with the artistic stuff as well, and I had to make a decision at some point. Their hope was I would decide to go the direction of business and to make the arts an avocation, and that’s what happened. I became an arts patron, and I think I was a better arts patron than I would’ve been an artist. So, it’s never really been a conflict for me.

Over the years, I asked myself, can I study dance as well? And I danced for a while, and that precision and presence and stamina that one has to create as a performing artist, and connecting with audiences and all of those skills, I put into a business context. So as a consultant, the precision and stamina and accuracy, and engaging with people, and engaging with clients, were important. So I practiced it as a performer and then actually employed it as a consultant.

How did you go from science to business?

I went to MIT and I received two degrees in Civil Engineering. When I was getting my Masters Degree in Civil Engineering, I had a friend that was a couple years older than me who had gone to MIT, and then went to Harvard Business School and he was graduating from Harvard. He was getting a Masters from Harvard, I was getting a Masters from MIT. But his salary offers were much larger than mine. I was like, “What’s the deal here?”

He said, “Aw, you know this is business, whether it’s investment banking or consulting, management of funds, it is different than just being an engineer.”

So then I got the notion of, well, let me see if I can parlay this engineering into something else. What I discovered was: what I learned in engineering was how to solve problems. It is about problem-solving. You hear an issue, you have to separate the symptoms of the problem from the core problem. There’s some framework to analyze the problem, obviously some equation you use to solve the problem, there’s some data you have to get from somewhere, all the processes of problem solving, that’s what engineering is. Consulting is problem solving, except in the business context. And, in many cases, it is valued more than technical problem solving. But, it’s impossible to find a business that doesn’t have some sort of technology aspect to it, so I combined my technology interest and expertise, and problem solving, with my business ability to solve problems as well.

Right, and then to be a patron of the arts.

And then to be a patron of the arts, and use those skills and those resources to help the arts. So I think I’ve advanced the arts much more in that way than if I had just been an artist.

I want to talk about your family legacy and finding out about your family’s land outside of Houston.

Like many of us, as a kid, if you lived in the city, you would sometimes go to the country to visit your relatives. We had a great-aunt and uncle who lived in the country, in a town called Wharton, Texas, outside of Houston. When I was a kid, it was a two- or three-hour drive down dusty, rocky roads and backwoods, to this house on family land. And I remember my grandmother telling us when she was a kid, as far as the eye could see was Jefferson land — that was her maiden name, Jefferson. To us, it was just dirt and cows and pigs, cotton and corn. It didn’t really mean a lot to us.

As I became older, as a young adult, my mother made it clear that land is a thing that we have to hold on to the most, that many of our ancestors struggled to get land. So, for us to throw that away would just be a sin. So she paid the taxes on her little portion of this family land that was in Wharton, Texas, for many, many years. When she passed in 1998, she left me her portion of the land.

She had an aunt who never had children, and her aunt left her portion of this land to me, because I’m the only male child on that side of the family. When you put it together, it was a little over an acre. Flash forward to 1998, Wharton, Texas, is a one-hour drive from Houston because there are now highways to get there. There’s a junior college in Wharton, Texas. On the TV morning news, when they talk about the weather in Houston, they also talk about the weather in Wharton. I was like, where did Wharton come from all of a sudden?

So I thought maybe I should go and check out this land, maybe build a little house and we could do some family gatherings out there. My family always spends major holidays together, a bunch of us, direct family, extended family. Maybe we could make that our summer getaway or our holiday getaway. I went out with my attorney and the land surveyor so I could see exactly where my land was, and as it ends up, my portion of the land was such a distance from the main road that, in order for me to reach my land, I basically would be trespassing on somebody else’s land.

Ricky Day

I tried to find out who owns that land, so I could just buy a driveway, basically, out to the property. After some research, my attorney said, “Well, you realize that this property has been in your family since 1899?”

I responded, “Excuse me?” She said, “Yes, it was 38 acres that your great-grandmother purchased in 1899, as a freed slave. My great-grandmother was born in 1862 in Louisiana. At the age of three, they were freed. Her family moved to Wharton, close to Houston, but where they could farm and make a living. Records there show that my great-grandmother’s father, my great-great-grandfather, voted in Wharton in 1866. Can you imagine Black people, former slaves, voting. Having the nerve to vote, right? Having the courage to vote?

Long story made short, the attorney told me, “I think you need to get back all this original land.” So I thought, “Okay why not?” So, it took nine years for me to buy back all the land, it was like a jigsaw puzzle, and she was the front person making the purchase because if people had known I was buying it, perhaps they wouldn’t have sold it, or they would have increased the price because I’m some person from New York. So, it took us nine years to get the land back, and then the question was, what do we do with the land?

Well, the second part of the story is, when I was a sophomore in college, in Boston, I had a friend who was friends with Caroline Kennedy at Harvard. And, one long weekend, Caroline invited my friend to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, and she invited me as her plus one. So here I am, this little Black kid from Houston, Texas, in 1976, at the Kennedy Compound, meeting Rose Kennedy. And I said to myself, I’d like to have a family compound some day, just sort of said it, I don’t think I mentioned it to anyone else, I said it to myself.

Flash now to 2007 or so, when I now have all this land back, and I said I think I’d like to build a compound. And I talked to my sisters and they said, “Let’s go, we’ll do it.” So, it took us a number of years to design it and build it, but now that’s where the family is, that’s the story.

Ricky Day

I love that story. So, talk to me about being an out Black gay man in the 70s, like, you kind of are a pioneer for us because many of us are still struggling to come out and here you’ve just been yourself and been so successful. So, can you tell me what was that experience like for you?

Well, it’s interesting because I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where I was always encouraged to be myself as long as I was achieving, and if you do things with dignity, and you’re achieving and you’re doing your best, everything else is fine. So, I was never made to feel less than, or made to feel like I needed to be closeted or anything by my parents, by my church members, by my friends in school. I just never had that experience, and I guess if I did, I just didn’t pay attention to it, I ignored it. I had enough positive reinforcement from others that I moved ahead with being myself, and I learned to be a little bit intrepid about going after things. In my old age, I realized that what I was thinking was, go for what you want to go for, if it doesn’t happen, it wasn’t supposed to happen, and there’s some lesson you learned from it, so it’s all good.

If it is going to happen, it will happen. If you don’t go for it, it’ll never happen. So, go for it. And, every time I would try something that you would think, “This is not gonna work,” it worked. So, it just gave me the encouragement to continue to do things like that. I learned that, in my life, I’ve basically lived by four “C’s”, and this sounds like a consultant thing, but it’s true.

The first “C” is courage, the world will constantly tell you what you cannot do, and you just have to be courageous and go for it, and I have so many stories of things I did that, how in the world did that turn out, why would you do that, that didn’t even seem logical or reasonable, but it turned out. So, it took some courage to do it.

The second “C” is confidence, and I’ve found that if you have sufficient confidence, you don’t have to be courageous. If you know you can do something, then you’re not being courageous. But, you have to surround yourself with people that build your confidence, not “yes” people that tell you things you want to hear that aren’t true, but people that really are positive and encouraging. I curate my friends and the people around me so that I’m in a room with people who build confidence in themselves and the people around them.

But confidence is only substantive if you are competent, the third “C,” so you can’t fake it. You can’t not be prepared. You have to be over-prepared, and I embrace the whole adage about Black people having to be twice as smart as white people, I said, “Well, good, then I’ll be twice as smart.” So, in those rare cases where the playing field is level, I’m twice as smart. And when I’m disadvantaged, I’m just as smart, but either way, I know what I know, and they can’t take that away from me. So the competence thing has really been important to me, and I’ve always tried to take the harder courses, do the best work, work a little bit more, because I wanted to really know my stuff and know my stuff better than the people around me.

And the fourth “C,” which I find so many seemngly successful people lack, is community. I’ve never lost sight of community. Whether that is African-American, whether that is Southern, whether that’s Texan, whether that is gay, whatever. A friend of mine in Washington said that I am the biggest crossover person that she knows because I am connected to so many communities, and I find a way to keep those connections, and then when I have events and parties, I bring them together. I have very interesting parties because it’s not the same old people that you see all the time with the same conversation. But, that sense of community has helped me. In my most difficult times, I know I have somebody I can fall back on. As opposed to: I got too important and I put people down and I left them behind, because then, if I get in trouble, where do you go?

Right.

So, I don’t do it, all these are protection things. I actually enjoy the melange of different sorts of people and different perspectives.

But that community thing is important. So, courage, confidence, competence and community, are the ways that I live my life. And that’s gotten me where I’ve gotten in life without encumbrance around, “Oh, a gay person can’t do this, a Black person can’t do that, or how are they going to react to this?” And, I’ve found that there’s a certain level of respect that people give you when they see you have that kind of authenticity and courage.

Each year AFROPUNK picks a different mantra for the year. Last year, it was THE PEOPLE RESIST. The year before it was WE, THE PEOPLE. This year, we’re moving in a different direction with WE SEE YOU. What does WE SEE YOU mean to you?

That you’re not invisible, that you are a person, that you have value, that you have worth, that I can connect with you.

In terms of community, especially the Black community, you talked about how it’s important to build your own community, but why is it important that we support the arts as a community?

The majority of the population has a tendency to take anything of value from Black people and make it their own. If we don’t support our art forms, they will take them. And so, for example, the largest collectors of African-American art are Jewish people, not other African Americans.

It’s similar to what has happened in Harlem and in other gentrified communities. People take our communities from us, so they’ll take our art forms from us, as well. I could go on and on about this.

So, how do we own our culture?

Well, first we have to invest in it. When you go to a show on Broadway and most of the people on the stage are Black but most of the audience are white people, that’s a problem. Maybe it’s because of the ticket price, but we’ve got to find a way to support each other, and I can understand why many Black artists go to the white donors, because the Black folks didn’t sufficiently support them. We can’t have that happen. The worst case of that is not just in the arts, but it’s in community service in general. In many of these organizations that support Black kids and Black people, the board is mostly white, the staff is mostly white, and the volunteers are mostly white. It’s crazy. We need Black mentors for Black kids, not a bunch of well-intended, wonderful people who don’t look like the kids they serve, and a kid that looks at them and says, “Well, I can’t do that. I know they’re trying to be nice to me, but.” There’s no role model there, so I think that we get our culture taken away from us if we don’t invest in it and support it.

And then how can the arts for the Black community be used as a form of self-care and resistance?

I think it’s no surprise that so many people in the Civil Rights Movement were artists, because they have that sense of humanity, that wanting to make the world better for themselves and others. I think the arts are connected to things such as social injustice and advancement, equity and self-realization. I think it’s all interconnected in that way, so I think we can use that as a tool to help with those issues.

Perfect, thank you.

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