(Editor’s note: This letter probably won’t mean much to its recipient — seated on the right in this picture — at the moment. Right now he’s probably too young to full appreciate the truth of what I’m about to tell him. Chances are he might not ever get to read it. But if he’s anything like me (or many other Americans) he’ll google himself and maybe run across this piece in an internet archive.)
An Open Letter to Jelani Kilpatrick
You don’t know me, but I feel like I know you. I know that I’m almost your dad’s age, so you might be tempted to think that I don’t know anything about you. But I probably know more about you than you think.
I imagine that the level of scrutiny you and your family are walking in right now borders on the insufferable, especially since it’s become public that your dad was having an affair with a woman that he worked with. Right now you’re, what, twelve years old? So if you’re anything like I was when I was twelve, a lot of the drama is going right over your head. You know that your father messed up and I’m sure you know that your mom and many other people are angry and disappointed with him. But the enormity of what he did and why it was so bad… it’s probably not going to hit you until you get older.
And when that happens, you might have some people around you who will encourage you to completely disassociate yourself from your father. They’ll want to use you to get at him. They’ll try to get you to pull an Absalom and throw your dad under the bus.
Don’t do it. Don’t go there. Don’t believe the hype about your dad.
Not because he doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, but because you are in a unique position to learn from your father’s mistakes.
As another Jelani who grew up with a fairly high-profile father in a family known in my community for a certain field of ministry, I understand what it’s like to always have to bear your father’s legacy. Sometimes that can be a great privilege. Sometimes it can feel like a millstone around your neck.
But it is what it is.
Don’t let it define you, but don’t run away from it either. Learn to evaluate all of the hows, whens and whys of all the ways that your dad messed up. If your dad is anything like my dad, there will come a time when he’ll open up and answer any questions you have about his decisions. Hopefully that process will show you that it wasn’t just one bad choice he made that led to all of the controversy — but a series.
Remember the words of The Big Aristotle, who said that excellence is not a singular act, but a habit.
Don’t be afraid to forge your own identity, regardless of your pursuit in life.
Even if you end up becoming, say, a pediatrician, there will always be those around you who will tell you how much like your dad you’ve become. And there will always be good things about that. Your father wouldn’t have ascended to the heights from whence he fell if he didn’t have some incredible attributes. But still, you’re going to have to live your own life. At some point, you’ll have to learn how to take the good parts that you inherited from him and build on it so that you will be able to achieve things that he did not.
Alas, it might become a temptation for you to use your father’s shortcomings as an excuse. For what, I don’t know. But your disappointment with your dad could easily turn to resentment, and if it does you’ll wish that he was better at certain things. You might even wish that you were born into a different family.
But don’t. God does all things for a reason. And using the excuse of your dad’s failures — or any excuse, really — as a way to not try your best, or as a pre-emptive justification for future failure, is just dumb. It’s self-sabotaging. And speaking as a recovering perfectionist, I know all about self-sabotage. It’s just not worth it.
One other thing. I know this goes without saying, but please, please PLEASE don’t repeat your father’s mistakes. Not just so that you don’t ruin your life, but because you’re not just representing the Kilpatrick family name. You’re also representing my name. And I’m quite proud of my first name right now, but all it takes is one really bad scandal to taint a name that is associated with it. And if you think I’m wrong, ask anyone named O.J., Monica or Katrina.
By the way, if your brother Jalil wants to know, all these things apply to him too. But I thought I’d tell you first, since, well… we’ve got a few things in common.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.