For many black professionals, there is a common struggle that is going on. Often, the rise in American companies requires adaptations, assimilation and adjustments that leave an individual with the feeling of sacrificing their well-being and dignity. Is it possible to move forward and also to keep the authenticity? John Graham addresses this and similar questions in his new book Plantation theory: the struggle of the black professional between freedom and security. Graham’s book sheds light on the realities faced by black professionals in American business and explores the role and responsibility of those who hold power and privilege. In an email, Graham shared the catalyst behind him writing Plantation theory, why he decided on a release date for Juneteenth, and what he hopes readers will take away from the book.
Janice Gassam Asare: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
John graham: I am a double alumnus of the oldest degree-granting HBCU, Lincoln University, where I obtained my BA in African Studies and MA in Education… I am proud to help global companies find out who they are are at the heart. I am a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practitioner and Cultural Transformation Consultant at Shaker Recruitment Marketing as Vice President of Global Employer Branding, Diversity and Culture. My work focuses on improving the lived experiences of marginalized employee populations through approaches that disrupt the status quo and create equitable and inclusive environments.
In the same way: Why did you choose a release date for Juneteenth?
Graham: On June 17, 2020, my wife and I made a commitment to build a legacy for our children to honor the holidays and embrace the freedom to shape our own destiny, which our ancestors were unable to do. That year, we launched her all-natural hair care brand, Umi’s Roots, which was created to bring dark hair to life with Ayurvedic ingredients and enhance the natural image of blacks. This year, in honor of the holidays, I really wanted to bring the inaudible voice of the black professional and our struggle between freedom and security to the fore in a way that has never been done before. I thought it was appropriate to do this on June 19, given that the tone of General Order # 3, which was read by Major General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, spoke of the essence of the relationship of blacks and this country [and] job.
In the same way: What made you decide to write this book?
Graham: The driving force behind Plantation theory were the universally lived experiences of black professionals that I heard regularly. Daily slights, micro and macro aggressive management behaviors, overqualification and undervaluation of advancement opportunities and much more, were not heard by the people who could truly change the systems of inequity. I did my best to bring a voice of dignity to our experiences. I also wanted to challenge the next generation to assess the premise that was sold to previous generations. Go to school, find a “good” job, then work for 30 years to find a secure retirement. It’s the modern day shackle and if you have the choice between freedom and security or a hybrid option, then at least make the decision with full knowledge of what to expect.
In the same way: Who was the book written for?
Graham: This book aims above all to give a voice and to make worthy the daily life of the black professional. It is about honoring the struggle of our ancestors and highlighting the road we still have to travel on the road to equity. Second, I wrote this book to encourage allies and registered abolitionists to ask better questions. I say at the beginning of the preface that it is not a book of solutions. You won’t have a tactical step-by-step solution to the 500-year-old problem of systemic racism. What it will do is challenge the default assumptions and automatic responses of performative activity in the absence of a willingness to deconstruct the very foundations of privilege, power, and law.
In the same way: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Graham: I hope readers will have a better understanding of what it takes to be Black in American business on a daily basis. I hope that DCI executives and practitioners will ask themselves a very simple question: who are the intended beneficiaries of our commitments, resources and policies? It is my deepest desire that this book help usher in the next era of DCI and move businesses away from compliance-based activities and lead them towards lived-experience-based approaches that improve the daily lived experiences of people. Blacks and other marginalized groups. Finally, I want black professionals to know that they are not crazy. That what they experience on a regular basis is not just in their head and that it is not acceptable. I want them to know that their genius, excellence, passion and authenticity can be funneled into other avenues that can provide a ramp out of the abusive relationship with their employers if they decide to choose freedom.
In the same way: Do you think it is possible for black professionals to rise in American companies without selling themselves, so to speak?
Graham: That’s a great question… I think we have to accept the concept that we accept when we accept an offer. Selling is a function of putting aside one’s integrity, values, and morals for the sake of profit. You can certainly maintain your integrity, but you should know that there are certain requirements for moving beyond a certain level in organizations. It’s no coincidence that in the nearly seven decades that the Fortune 500 published its index, only 19 CEOs have been black. Think about it. Of the 1,800 possible CEOs during this period, only 19 were black. What this tells you is that those who look like us and have found themselves at the helm of these organizations have mastered something that many of us do not have. They endured the isolation… the ruthless zero-sum stakes, politics and hidden languages of the power structure of the dominant culture. Only 19 … there is a cost to climb. We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and determine whether we are willing to pay that price and whether we want to quench our thirst without losing sight of who we really are to reach the highest heights of leadership in a business we will never own. .
This interview has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.