Amaechi asks 'Why speak if not to change the world?'
By Acacia O'Connor
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. _ "Would you recognize your soul in the dark?" John Amaechi asked a full room of Vassar College students, coaches, faculty and other community members.
He repeated the question, which his mother once asked him when, at the age of 17, he informed her he wanted to play in the NBA. Looking at her bookish, not incredibly athletic son Amaechi's mother did not point out that he had no previous experience in the game of basketball; instead she told him it seemed as if it would be an incredible journey.
Just so. Amaechi's career in basketball is surprising and impressive enough to speak for itself. A two-time First team All-American at Penn State, Amaechi was signed undrafted by the Cleveland Caveliers in 1995. He was the first Brit to play in the NBA and the first undrafted free agent to win a starting position in the league. After playing in Europe in 1996, he returned to the NBA where he played for the Orlando Magic, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz.
Most of those present at the lecture on Oct. 8 knew Amaechi for one of two reasons: First, because of his basketball celebrity or secondly, because in February he became the first (former) NBA player to come out as being gay.
Despite this fact, Amaechi spoke relatively little about these two facts of his life, which he addresses in his new book Man in the Middle. Instead he engaged the students in audience in a conversation about tolerance, activism and the power of their generation.
"I'm here to recruit you... and not to 'the gay side'," he said to a chorus of laughter.
Amaechi went on to talk eloquently about oppression and diversity, in a way that was somehow both cynical and inspiring.
He said he was offended by the notion that he was someone who should be "tolerated."
"I have no time for that phrase," he said, adding that tolerance is something he has for American Caesar salads with anchovies, not an attitude toward people different from onesself. "How many times in history are we going to decide how many fifths human people are?" he asked.
Though he gets dozens of invitations to come and speak, he said he accepts few. Why visit already-liberal schools such as Vassar?
"You people are going to become disproportionately powerful very soon," Amaechi said. "You will be the policy makers, the teachers... the good news is that your generation is the most open of any to date."
Another of the central themes of the talk was Amaechi's concept of creating a future history. Martin Luther King Jr., when he gave his "I have a Dream" speech, had an idea of what the future history might look like: an image in his mind of what the world could be and a will to create it. Amaechi said he could only ask that those present to do some meta-thinking about their "future histories."
"[My future history] is about making a connection between me and other people," he said. "I do small things, with a view on the big picture."
Being a self-proclaimed cynic, is Amaechi skeptical about the possibility of changing things?
"I'm hopeful," he said. "I have hope. That's why I'm here."
"One thing I always ask now is 'Why speak if not to change the world?' "