Racism From The Eyes Of A Child...A Candid Conversation With Mathew Knowles

BELLE MORGAN March 26, 2018

Man. Husband. Father. Educator. Philanthropist. Mogul. Visionary. Mathew Knowles is many things and yet, I wasn't quite sure what to expect when given the opportunity to chat with him about his most recent book, Racism From The Eyes Of A Child. Yes, I'd seen the excerpts from the book and witnessed the subsequent media frenzy. Yes, I thought it was a bold (and necessary) move that will, hopefully, advance the national conversation about race. Yes, I greatly admired his business acumen and curriculum vitae. But, in my mind, Mathew Knowles has largely remained an enigma. Sure, we've watched him beam with pride as his eldest daughter became a living legend. We've watched him successfully navigate through the maze that is called the music industry. We have even watched him overcome some very personal lows. And while there exists lots of commentary about who Mathew Knowles is, it's mostly speculation. During our conversation what I noticed was that, above all else, Mathew Knowles is human. Incredibly warm. Sometimes funny. Sometimes vulnerable. Extremely candid. Always teaching. And, like me, he sometimes forgets his children's names. It was my honor and privilege to speak with the proud Omega man.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

MK: A number of things motivated me to write this book. I wanted to tell my story of growing up in Gadsen, AL. and the experience of being one of the first to integrate junior high, high school and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I wanted to research my roots because I never really understood my family on the Knowles side. I knew my grandparents but I didn't know my great grandparents. I wanted to explore that information and share that. I also wanted to write a book that would begin dialogue abut racism and colorism in our community and across the globe. I wanted to be vulnerable and share my defining moments after years of therapy and encourage black men to utilize that resource. And because I am an educator, I write. As educators we are encouraged to do so.

Q: Do you think that the perception of what a beautiful black woman looks like has changed?

MK: First and foremost, all black women are beautiful...regardless of their shade. Do I think things have changed? No. Do I think we've progressed? Yes, but we still have a long way to go. Colorism was imposed on us during slavery but it's not just a black community thing. Colorism affects the whole world. You see it in Mexico, the UK, India, Africa. You see it with the prevalence of skin bleaching globally. And it's all related to money, power and control. The lighter you go up the spectrum of color, the more money, power and control you're supposed to have. At least that's the perception.

Q: Did colorism and racism impact the way that you presented Destiny's Child to the world?

MK: What impacted my decision with Destiny's Child, quite frankly, was demographics. When we look at the American population we have approximately 240 million whites, 60 million hispanics and 40 million blacks. So, from a business perspective I had to look at the numbers and understand them. And I also had to understand who my audience was and how to get all of that audience, which included white people. I realized that I had an uphill battle at Columbia Records and Sony. Back in, we're talking 1997, you had the black/urban music department. That's what existed, I mean, there was segregation within those labels. I had to maneuver through that to get pop radio to play Destiny's Child. So from that perspective, yes.

Q: Did colorism affect how you raised your children?

MK: I can tell you that colorism affected me. When my mother told me not to bring any nappy-headed girls home, I internalized that. That influence and prohibition influenced many of my decisions. 

Q: Can you give an example of how the internalization affected you?

MK: I thought that she meant that I shouldn't date black girls so, in high school, I primarily dated white ones. In college I dated a lot of white women or black women that were very light skinned. When I initially met my former wife at a party, I thought that she was white. Now certainly after talking to her, I realized that she was a black woman but, yeah, that's how I internalized it. That's why therapy was so helpful. It helped me understand how my mother's words affected me.

Q: During your undergraduate studies, did you find that your views about race & color were challenged or were they similar to what you observed on campus?

MK: Good question. My first two years of college were at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I was actually one of the students who desegregated that campus. Of 15,000 students, there were maybe 25 of us that were black. I played basketball and like a lot of the other athletes, I dated white girls. Well, one December, while school was out, the coach caught me in my dorm room with one of those white girls. He wanted to expel me but later decided not to. That's why I transferred to Fisk University. Not because I wanted to but because I had to. But then when I got to Fisk... I had never been to a black school in my life. Can you imagine that? I had never seen anything like it. I have a chapter in the book called Fisk Out Of Water [laughs]. I was really surprised when I got there. That was the last year of the brown paper bag test. You know, when you applied you had to submit a photo and they took a brown paper bag and held it up to your picture. If you were darker than the bag, they wouldn't accept you. The exceptions were if you were an athlete or if your family donated a substantial amount of money to the university. So I experienced undergrad on two opposite extremes.

Q: Was there one experience that you valued more or were they of equal value to you?

MK: I valued my HBCU experience at Fisk University the most. By far. It took me a while to get comfortable because I hadn't been around my people. I can't say that enough. You know, it's interesting because in junior high and high school I couldn't go to the black parties because I would get beat up. They called me an oreo. And I wasn't being invited to the white parties so I was isolated. I had a very unique experience and that's why I wanted to share it. I wanted to share my story. And it's not just me. There were six of us who integrated Litchfield Junior High. I also went on to help integrate Gadsen High School. Fisk was the best, by far, for me. I'm proud to say that I graduated from Fisk University.

PR: HBCU's matter [laughter]

MK: I teach at an HBCU, right? I'm a professor at Texas Southern University.

Q: I understand why you wrote the book but why now? Was this something that you've been wanting to do for a long time? Were you compelled to have that conversation because you had daughters? Was the desire heightened by the birth of Blue Ivy? 

MK: When I wrote this book there was definitely a strategy. I wanted to transition out of the music industry. I also wanted to teach at Texas Southern so I went to Cornerstone Christian Bible College and got my MBA and PhD. My first book was The DNA Of Achievers because I didn't want to write a book about music. Racism From The Eyes Of A Child had been in my head for maybe four or five years but you're right, part of it was that I wanted Beyoncé & Solange to know about their grandparents and great-grandparents. I had no idea that my grandmother Hester had twin brothers, Sidney & Gidney, which explains why, through DNA, Beyoncé had twins. I learned a lot researching this book. I've had a very blessed life. Working in corporate America for 25 years and being the number one sales rep worldwide at Xerox three out of four years. It's interesting...my professional life was just like my childhood. At Xerox there were only two black sales reps. And I didn't sell copiers. I sold breast cancer detection technology. I was one of the first, if not the first, black sales rep to sell CT/MRI scanners in America back in 1988. And then I went on to be a neurosurgical specialist for Johnson & Johnson. You don't really see too many black neurosurgical specialists either. My third book is halfway finished and it's called The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music and my students are the co-authors.

Q: Why do you feel that young children need to understand racism?

MK: One of the things about racism is that it wants the power to erase our history. If you erase our history then we don't have knowledge. If we don't have knowledge then we don't have power. Power comes from knowledge. An example of that is this current president. He wants to erase everything that Obama did. That's part of racism. There are so many kids who have no idea that we had colored water fountains and colored restrooms. They don't realize that we couldn't eat at certain lunch counters or go to certain doctors. They have no concept of beatings, electric prodding or being spat on. I just think that young (and old) people should know our stories. In my book, I talk about my cousin who lived in Cleveland. When she would come down to Alabama it was like night and day for her. In Cleveland her dad, my uncle, worked for Republic Steel and she lived in a mixed neighborhood. Her perspective was very different. That's what I hope this book does...shows another perspective.

Q: What would be three tips that you would give our youth today when dealing with racism and inequality?

MK. Feel good about yourself. And that's up to parents to help with that one. When I give my talks across the country at black college expos and we talk about social media, I'm blown away by how much they've bought into the idea that they have to be liked. It hurts me when I ask the students how many of them have contemplated suicide and, out of sixty or seventy people, seven raise their hands. And it's mostly because of bullying on social media. The second thing would be to surround yourself with positive people. The third tip would be to maintain close and open dialogue with your family because, at the end of the day, that's what's important.

Q: What has the media and the public gotten wrong about Mathew Knowles?

MK: Well, they don't know me. People don't really know me. The media has painted a picture, like they do, about most black men. You can look all around us to see that. But when people get to know me they will, oftentimes, say "I didn't know you were this smart" or "I didn't know you were this tall" or "I didn't know you were this handsome." You know? My students know me. The people in my business know me. My family knows me. The outside people? They don't know me. Today, we live in a world of soundbites. At the end of the day, the media sells advertisements and I understand that. So from that perspective, because I do understand, I know that they need content that will bring in the numbers needed to sell advertisements. Journalism used to be real. Today? Not so much. That's why I'm proud and thankful and grateful that you have taken the time to talk to me and really get to know me.

Q: Solange said that she learned a lot about how racism and colorism affected you during the recording of your interlude on her album, A Seat At The Table. Any thoughts on that?

MK: So I wanna drink some Lemonade while I have A Seat At The Table [laughs]. Man, I laugh at myself sometimes. Gotta have fun with stuff [laughs]. Solange has always been a great writer. That album was genius...how she tells stories through each song. And the skits? It was great. And Master P did an exceptional job kinda emceeing the whole thing. If you listen to the songs she says exactly what I'm saying. She talks about when she goes home and gets to the gate where she lives, she has to go trough this whole thing where she has to prove that she lives there. A lot of black folks in America have had that happen. I experience the same thing on airplanes. I have to prove that I belong in first class. Solange is a really good penman. You know, I didn't know until recently that Tina, my former wife, whom I consider to be a friend, didn't know I was gonna be in the studio to record. I knew she was gonna be there so I'm not sure what that was all about [laughs]. That was a great moment.

Q: What did you take away from that particular gathering to record those interludes?

MK: I took away that Tina could have been a Black Panther [laughs]. I love what she said about not understanding the offense of Black History Month because all we've ever been taught is white history. I thought that was genius.

Q: What do you want the conversation to be once Racism From The Eyes Of A Child has been read?

MK: I hope that the take away would be that they've learned a lot about the trauma that black people endured in the 50s, 60s and 70s in the South. In my book, I have four guests. My signature style of writing is that I don't like to write the whole book, I like to have guests who give their own perspective. I hope they learn a lot from these stories. One of the guest authors is my first cousin who was honored by President Obama. I am very proud of him. I hope that the dialogue for men is that you're not weak if you go to therapy. Therapy is not a bad thing. I hope that's the dialogue of men. I also hope that some men learn about eroticized rage and consider that, maybe, that's why they mainly date white women. I hope that women get together and share their perspectives on colorism and their own insensitivities. Mostly, I hope that we can finally tell white people how we feel about them and they, in turn, can tell us how they feel about us. You all know that when we're in mixed company we get very quiet. We have to stop doing that. It's time that we speak up in those shared spaces. That's what I hope comes out of this book. Damn, that sounded good, did you get that? [laughs]

I got it.

Racism From The Eyes Of A Child is a personal reflection on racism in America through a childhood lived through the country's most separate past. Growing up during the burgeoning civil rights movement, music mogul Mathew Knowles experienced one of many firsts from integrating all-white schools in the south, up through the corporate, and later music, world. Knowles examines the backdrop of discrimination by tracing his family's roots from post-slavery up through the civil rights era, on into the present racial climate.

For more information on Dr. Mathew Knowles, please go to: http://mathewknowles.com