Visible Man: An Illumination of My Black Father

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The subtle yet remarkable line from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man published in 1952 continues to be a declarative voice in today’s society: Black men do not play a role in raising their children. There are so many, including my grandfather and my own father, who have proven this stigma to be incorrect.

Despite being considered invisible, black fathers have remained beautiful statues to emulate for their children. It was the year 1972 and a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed towards Philadelphia with his parents’ directives echoing in his head’— “Work hard and good luck, son.” For the first time in his eighteen years of life Thomas Campbell was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree—the first of his siblings.

The opportunities many black fathers have generated are now profoundly evident in the accomplishments of their children. One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born in 1953 in the Northeast corridor of Washington D.C. A year after his birth in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Fifty-three years later, I was graduating as one of a few African-American students from a private high school in Washington D.C.—a vicarious atonement of what may have been for my father had his parents been able to afford the tuition when he was accepted to a similar school. “I wanted you and your sister to have more than I could have ever dreamed of as a kid. When I grew up my family never had a car and never went on family vacations,” he remarked.

There are a multitude of young black men changing the world owing the qualities that have made them successful—dedication, commitment, and perseverance—to their black fathers.

“Jason, remember you can be whatever you want when you grow up.” As he tightened my tie on that Easter morning looking his ten-year-old son in the eye. “If you put your mind to it, then it’s yours.” Nineteen years later as I climbed the six shallow stairs in the auditorium at my medical school graduation ceremony my father’s words reverberated. A story nothing short of recurrent and delivered dreams: receiving a private school education followed by three more degrees—the last one permanently attaching the initials MD to my last name. What even I struggle to fathom is what my father must have felt when I walked across that stage and was declared a ‘Doctor.’

The magnificence of my achievement truly belongs to my father. Despite having grown up in a home where his own father could neither read nor write he journeyed to earn his law degree. Subsequently, he cemented a path for me and my sister to earn five degrees between the two of us. My father’s example serves as a declaration for my sister and I that boundaries do not exist.

Grown J and dad

Like a multitude of black fathers, Thomas Campbell exemplifies a vision of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line.

Once invisible men—now visible. They are black fathers.

A Beloved Team & A Beloved Mentor

The last time the Cleveland Browns won, I texted Dr. Kevin Olson.

During the 2016 season, I arrived very early one morning, to a small clinic on the West Side of Columbus. As I knocked on the side door, I was greeted by a middle-aged red-headed woman named Tina. This was Dr. Olson’s right-hand woman–sweet as pie but tough as nails–knowing exactly how to give Dr. Olson a dose of his own medicine. She tried to prepare me for what would happen next, but none existed. The back door to the clinic flew open, entering a man yelling what I heard as offensive football play-calls, and the more I got to knew him, it became the most accurate assumption. After he sat his black briefcase down in his office, I went to greet him. “Good morning, sir. My name is Jason Campbell.”

“Jason Campbell, the quarterback?” he posited.

“Something like that, sir” I smiled.

I felt automatically accepted. Jason Campbell, my namesake, had played for the NFL Cleveland Browns at one point in his multi-team career. From that day forth, I was the former QB from his beloved football Browns—young Jason Campbell—as he referred to me. Each day Dr. Olson would share a piece of Browns’ history, which included rattling off the entire list of players who once carried the reigns for the Browns.

Sipe. Kosar. Ryan. Graham. Couch. Nelsen. Phipps. Plum. Anderson. Testaverde. McDonald. McCoy. Weeden. Frye. Hoyer. Kizer. O’Connell. Holcomb. Quinn. Ninowski. Dilfer. McCown. Garcia. All men who have hurled the pigskin for the Browns for at least 10 games and Dr. Olson knew each one, their college institution, and their NFL winning percentage (occasionally off by .1).

Every day in clinic was filled with yelling, laughter, frustration and insight. Once, after we had addressed a patient’s rotator cuff tear with multiple physical exam maneuvers, the patient went on to list four or five more problems he wanted Dr. Olson to assess. “You just tore up, from the floor up, aren’t ya?” Dr. Olson said, aloud. With no delay, the patient responded, “Yes sir. I am!” Dr. Olson’s patients had come to love his lighthearted demeanor interwoven with the knowledge of a medical savant.

For me, these little moments have become threads of memories, which are woven into a picture that show the legacy of a great man. A man who embodied the true character of a doctor. Family physician trained, Dr. Olson received a master faculty appointment by Ohio University for his exceptional contributions to clinical training in this sphere. But there was more to Dr. Olson than any award could describe. He made his patients feel whole even when they were the most ill, just like only a die-hard, ever hopeful Browns’ fan could. I walked into countless patient rooms where the entire family had been treated by Dr. Olson—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. This all-encompassing trust was shared by more than a few in the community.

If I wasn’t sure of it before the memorial service, I was absolutely certain of it after. Lines and lines of people flooded the funeral home: from the bustling main hall, the filled lobby, and through the parking lot. Multiple photographs of Dr. Olson and his wonderful family, friends, and colleagues were on display. The most lasting one…the one of him in his Cleveland Browns sweatshirt.

A beloved physician proudly representing his beloved team.

A few weeks ago, as I watched Baker Mayfield perform in his splendid brash manner, as he had done for the Sooners of Oklahoma, I knew a cheerful Dr. Olson was reliving the 1986 days of Bernie Kosar, with an incomparable grin on his face. Finally, his team looked like the team he grew up loving.

For me, Thursday September 20th, 2018 was more than a football victory & more than a team overcoming the weight of the world; it was manifested joy by a beloved and unforgettable man.

After his passing, it is near impossible to fathom a Browns’ win without imagining Dr. Olson’s excitement. I always had difficulty understanding his love for the Cleveland Browns with what I saw to be their errors, burdens and faults. But, now I realize those were the exact human qualities that made him love his team and his patients. As a physician, his passion for his patients—through their sickness, addictions, and infections—gave him purpose so, they too, would heal again.

 

sanc·tu·ar·y

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” 

That quote hangs on my wall in my childhood bedroom.

I first started running with my mother as “punishment.” I don’t know if I thought, at the time, it was a form of punishment but looking back I think that is the most accurate classification. I truly only have one distinct memory of running with her although I know it happened multiple times (I guess like other heinous acts, I have blocked those other times out). I was attending one of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conferences with my mother in which, like most research scientists and physicians, she used these annual 4-day conferences as a family vacation. We were in Orlando, FL and my mother and I left the hotel setting out to glide under the hot blue sky. If you’ve ever been to Florida, you know how long and incessant those black roads are lining the roadways in this never-ending fashion with the sun of the sunshine state glaring down. A few minutes into the run I was tired, frustrated and annoyed by the pace she had set troubling my short-legs and untrained lungs. I remember a school bus driving by and I thought, “They’re going to think I’m slow behind her.” As a result of my despair, she quickly became irritated with me as I was disturbing her peace. She always used to articulate how running was her escape from the perils of life—it was her sanctuary. I didn’t understand that then.

Not until one night when I walked out the doors of the Emory Athletic facility—The WoodPEC—onto the track. A cool spring Atlanta evening greeted me after a long day of medical training. Before I even stepped onto the track to begin warming up for my workout, I went into the bleachers and just sat there. My eyes circled around the red track, from curve to straight to curve to straight away. I can’t remember what I thought about but I know I was calmed. From that moment on I always viewed the track as a safe haven, a place where, even if everything was wrong in my world, the track was always right.

A few minutes from my present home, there’s a track here in Portland at the Under Armor Satellite Headquarters. I always drive by it on my way home from the hospital. It is not the most direct route, but it soothes me after a long intern day. The track represents so many memories—joy, sadness, humor, accomplishment, and defeat. Whether it was my mother pinning my racing bib on my 14 year old self at my first official race as my on-looking teammates teased me from afar, or watching the University of Michigan relay team run 16:04 with a 3:52 anchor leg for the 4xMile or running third leg on the 4x400m relay team that led us to a comeback conference win for our Emory’s Men team or being named captain of the Emory University team or being a part of the coaching staff for the first Ohio State Men’s Track and Field Big Ten Championship since 1993. The memories flow as I do when I am on the track.

One of the greatest races of my career came at a Junior AAU meet in Florida. The night before, I had run a 1500m time, slower than some of our 11-12-year-old girls, that resulted in me finishing second to last. I didn’t know how to “hurt yet,” or maybe I didn’t want to experience the pain and agony that is necessary to race the middle-distance events well. The next morning, I woke up ready to respond. As I began my warm-up today felt a little different. I spoke with Mikias Gelagle, one of my teammates at the time, who went on to be one of the best high school runners out of the state of Maryland in the 2004-2006 era. He gave me a game plan of which mostly I do not remember but I remember him distinctly telling me if I started out way in the back that’s where I was going to end up. He urged me to “go out near the front and to believe in the training I had under my belt.” This was a 3000-meter race I was lining up for, and most of my teammates were still back in their hotel rooms. As the gun sounded, I shot to the 5thor 6thposition and found my cadence. Lap after lap I was in it and as the race began to thin out I found myself running alongside a runner from another DC track club—The Pioneers. In his all-purple uniform, his crowd, situated opposite my contingency, would cheer him on as we ran past, giving him the motivation to pull a step ahead of me. As we rounded the track, I would do the same as my DC Redwings’ coaches implored me to “do what I knew I could.” Three laps later, this dance routine continued, but the only difference was that most of my teammates had now arrived from the hotel. Probably to their astonishment I was in the race, and to my delight they began cheering for me as we closed in with two laps left. Our cadences had become one at this point, synchronous like the Olympic swimmers, but I knew only one of us could cross the finish line first. As we approached 200 meters to go I started quickening my stride and using my arms to drive my tired legs forward. Down the straightaway we came, and I barely crossed the white line before him. I think I finished fifth in the race. The glory was all internal, but externally, the congratulations from my teammates and coaches, was the prize I needed. I finally felt like I belonged—one of the sacred feelings in life. It’s the emotions, the coaches’ turned fathers and the teammates turned brothers and sisters that make me proud to call myself a runner.

“Once a runner, always a runner.” For me, that motto transcends time. Whether you’re an Olympian or a has-been/never-was, if you’ve spent time lying on the ground in exhaustion, eyes closed, swallowing your saliva because there was no water in sight, then you’re a runner.