Sammy Davis, Jr., Loyalty, Hugs, and Betrayal: Reflections on Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History Episode - The Hug Heard Round the World

Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is a mixture of history, psychology, and mystery. Whenever I read his work, I am impressed by the clever way he strings facts and storylines like beads on a necklace.  In his stories, as the plot progresses, every carefully chosen word peaks your interest until it reaches a plateau, and you are forever smarter for taking the ride in the first place. His stories are duplicitous-both educational and entertaining.

I discovered Malcolm Gladwell by accident. Coincidentally, I happen to be reading a Time magazine issue which featured an article about The Tipping Point, a popular Malcolm Gladwell book.  Of course, I had to buy and read the book. Then I read his articles in The New Yorker, my favorite of which is Black Like Them. I have read several of his books including Outliers, Blink, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. Now, I listen to his podcast, Revisionist History.  The following is a description from the podcast:

“Revisionist History is Malcolm Gladwell's journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.”

Each Revisionist History episode profiles a controversial event from the past, and is reevaluated with new eyes and current facts.  Usually, each episode ends with a reflection about how it ties to current day events, and how the information can be used to better understand human nature. At the core of the stories is a desire to make the world a better place. Knowledge is power. And per a famous poet, Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.” However, sometimes the truth hurts, and makes you cry like the season 3, episode 6, "The Hug Heard Round the World." I am still haunted by this episode, and I probably will be for the rest of my life.
Sammy Davis, Jr. is known as one of the most talented entertainers who ever lived. Though, the main focus of the Revisionist History episode was not the beautiful way he could tap dance on air, his exquisite voice, or his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, the episode was about a fateful night at the 1972 Republican convention where Sammy Davis, Jr. hugged President Nixon. As a result of that hug, which Sammy Davis, Jr. did after the president gave him a compliment, he received hate mail, was ostracized from fans and booed at the Operation Push convention in Chicago. Malcolm said the episode was about loyalty, tokenism, and what it feels like to be the first person to integrate a group. I see Malcolm’s point, but I believe there is more at stake.    

Issues of loyalty are not only about integration, they cross our personal relationships, as well. We all have had our Judas moments, or you will. Consider these types of scenarios: (1). You have been friends with a mentor for years. This person practically raised you, but then you find out the mentor committed an act you disagree with. Do you stay silent? Continue to support the mentor? What if you still respect the person, but cannot get over a perceived mistake? (2). You find out a close friend told people, who you do not know well, personal details about your life. Do you continue the friendship?  Turn the other cheek? Avoid? (3).You were a Democrat, but have decided to become a Republican. Your best friend hates Republicans. Do you hide your new identity? Confess? (4). Should you submit to an arranged marriage, or marry the person you really love? (5). Your mother is an AKA, but you want to be a Delta. Do you switch? Betrayal is an inevitable part of life, intentionally or not, because rarely do our actions meet others' expectations. 

How do we maneuver life with such ironic challenges? Eventually, as we mature, we become more discerning about how much of our lives we share with others, and we learn to trust our own opinions. At the same time, we bond through sharing secrets and being vulnerable. Right?  Yes, it is complicated. We are torn between being loyal to ourselves and being in community with others. I think this dilemma was at the heart of Sammy Davis, Jr’s life. On one hand, he wanted to entertain and connect with most of his fans, who were White, but he also wanted to connect with Black people, his race. Just like you cannot serve two masters, you cannot love two opposing ways of thinking without being considered a traitor.

The waves of betrayal cross many oceans. Roseabeth Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, was featured in the podcast. She did a research project to explain why the first women of a sales team struggled instead of excelling at a male dominated company. In summary, the research proved that due to their small numbers, the women experienced relational aggression at the office. At times, to show their loyalty to their jobs, the women turned on each other. However, as their numbers increased, the betrayal was not necessary, the women could bond and be themselves, and they were successful. In other words, there really is strength in numbers. It is difficult to be the only one, anywhere.

Sammy Davis, Jr. predated Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Richard Pryor, and other famous Black entertainers. He did not have numbers on his side. When he hugged President Nixon, who did not have a cordial relationship with the Black community,  some of his supporters felt betrayed. When I listen to Davis' interviews, I hear a man who believed in his craft and who did the best that he could with the materials within his reach. To be an entertainer, he had to play by the rules at the time. Sports enthusiasts know that teams do not go undefeated for very long, they will eventually lose a game. It goes without saying that we learn the most about life from our losses, not wins.

Instead of booing Sammy Davis, Jr., I cover him with compassion. Often, it is not until the aftermath that we realize the magnitude of our actions. The people who booed Mr. Davis were not rejecting him per se, it was the hug and what it meant to them from their point of view. Later in his life, Sammy Davis, Jr. regretted the hug, but only after the negative feedback. Coincidentally, Chrisette Michele received the same type of backlash when she performed at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. She apologized as well. Yes, we have free will, but we are not free to control the consequences and who we disappoint.

Historically, we put our entertainers and leaders on high pedestals, only to be crushed when we see their shadows. Over the years, I have learned how to separate people from their talents. I no longer have role models, instead, I admire people for their skills and positive traits. Nobody is perfect. We all have flaws, but this is not a license to be na├»ve. Using another Maya Angelou quote, When people show you who they are, believe them."

Eventually, you are bound to disagree with the people in your life, it is only natural. In my blog post, Compassionate Disagreements, I detail how to disagree with others in a way that may salvage bonds instead of breaking them. Emotional intelligence encourages the ability to understand and not judge the behaviors of others. At the same time, protect yourself and be wise about who you consider confidants. Have empathy for yourself and others.

At the end of season 3, Malcolm Gladwell expounded on the theme of the entire season. In theory, it is easy to condemn and judge people for making mistakes, but it takes courage to understand why the mistakes were made at all. The reason why this episode haunts me is because of the human message-It takes courage to live your own life, especially if your choices conflict with people you love and care about.  

I really hope that you listen to all episodes of the Revisionist History podcast, especially "The Hug Heard Round the World." You will definitely be introduced to alternative ways at looking at the world, which may make your life easier to live.

The following are links for your enjoyment:

Please comment. I appreciate feedback. Thank you


Unknown said...

Interesting insight

Unknown said...

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