Walker Smith Jr. was better known to the world as Sugar Ray Robinson, perhaps the greatest boxer in history. Even at the ripe old boxing age of 37, he was still able to throw the most difficult punches such as the check left hook against Gene Fullmer (shown below) better than any boxer had done before or since.
He was also known for his impeccably flashy style and his glorious pink Cadillac.
Sugar Ray Robinson was known to me as something else entirely. When I was fourteen years old, I enrolled the Sugar Ray Robinson after school program for young underprivileged girls funded Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation. At the time, I was a somewhat under confident, slightly overweight young woman trying to find my place in the world.
If you know me now, it may be impossible to imagine who I was then. When you grow up in an all black community in the United States, your view of the world is often much smaller than it should be. It was difficult to believe in myself, when it seemed like the rest of the country did not. People get confused about racism, because it is not that powerful if you don’t believe it. If you do, it’s everything.
When I entered the program, it was filled with girls like myself trying to find their place in the world. We were immediately greeted by our coaches. The Curtis Junior High Coach was Katie. Medium height with a spectacular reddish blond jheri curl, Katie bubbled with confidence and purpose. As a Soul Train Dancer, she was the most famous person that any of us had ever met, but she was far from untouchable. Friendly and warm, she doled out colorful wisdom: “If you hang out with chickens, you are going to cluck. If you hang with eagles, you will soar” as she built up our skills and self-esteem. Katie taught us to work harder and be smarter, but more than that she encouraged us to dream beyond our tiny worlds. The program progressed and I could feel myself grow and my universe expand as we worked towards the grand finale: The Miss Sugar Ray Robinson Teen Pageant to be held at the Hollywood Pallidium and hosted by Jermaine Jackson.
I incessantly prepared for the contest. Immensely confident, despite never having had a single music lesson, I wrote an original song that I planned to perform. When I arrived at the first rehearsal, the pianist who was to accompany me asked for the music. I said: “what do you mean?” He said: “the sheet music with the notes that you need me to play.” Slightly embarrassed, I informed him that I did not know how to read or write music. In almost any other environment, I would have been made to feel less than. But this was Walker Smith Jr.’s world and the pianist shot me a warm smile and said: “here, play it for me and I will remember it.”
Bolstered by my pianist’s support, I strolled onto stage with supreme confidence and this entirely untrained 14 year old girl gave the performance of her life.
Overflowing with self-esteem, I won the title Miss Congeniality. At the time, I did not know what congeniality meant, but I learned and to this day that may be the most appropriate title for whom I have strived to become. There are certainly smarter and more talented people in this world, but nobody is more determined to meet, understand, connect with, and help people than Sugar Ray Robinson’s Miss Congeniality 1981.
I walked into that program hoping to be anything. I walked out believing I could be something special.
So when my friend Tina Knowles Lawson told me about her program for underprivileged kids, I was intrigued. Although she is a business woman, and a Philanthropist, like Walker Smith Jr., she is better known for something else: her massively talented, super accomplished offspring Beyonce and Solange.
That connection brought me all the way back to 1981 and as I looked into Tina’s Where Art Can Occur (WACO) program, I was not disappointed. The kids, the mentors, and the spirit were so much as I remembered the work of Sugar Ray Robinson. Ms. Tina busses in inner city kids from the most “at risk” neighborhoods to ensure everyone gets a chance. When they arrive, they are greeted by the new Miss Katies — experts in fields from art to finance. They take that bus and are transported from the neighborhood to the world.
With the best intentions, people frequently ask me about what can be done about issues of race and inequality in America and they often believe the problems are intractable. I can say with high certainty that WACO, like Sugar Ray’s efforts before it, works. I would not be writing this if it did not. Please join me and support Where Art Can Occur.
“To be a champ you have to believe in yourself when no one else will.” — Sugar Ray Robinson
Originally published at medium.com