Gen. Brooks: Why Be Discredited For Achieving Excellence?
I can never get enough of General Brooks. Yeah, I love the fact that he’s tall (6″ 4″) and good looking, but my attraction to him goes beyond the physical. Let’s just say that he is like the brother I always wanted, the father I never had. He has a great career and also appears to be an awesome family man. With that said, below is another article about the General written by George Curry, Editor-In-Chief for The National Newspaper Publishers Association. Curry is the first reporter to be given a one-on-one interview with the General.
Gen. Brooks: Why Be Discredited For Achieving Excellence?
by George E. Curry
NNPA News Service
Originally posted 4/29/2003
DOHA, Qatar (NNPA)—Vincent K. Brooks is a person who always stands out. He stood out as a straight-A student and star basketball player in high school, he stood out as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and now, as a brigadier general in the Army, he stands out as he conducts daily briefings here on the war in Iraq, while billions of people around the world weigh his every word.
Although Gen. Brooks has never sought the spotlight, he has never run from it.
“I am 6’4,” he says in an exclusive interview with the NNPA News Service, the first one he has granted since the fall of Baghdad, Iraq. “I’m an infantry officer, I’m Black, I look younger than I am, and all these other things. You stand out.
“So do you want to stand out and be seen as somebody who can’t – because you’re going to stand out one way or another – or do you want to stand out and be seen as someone who can, whatever it happens to be? And at the same time, take a dose of humility every day, all day because someone else is greater than you all the time.”
Standing out was ingrained in young Vincent and his older brother, Leo Jr., by their parents, Naomi, a teacher, and Leo Brooks Sr., a retired two-star Army general. Leo Jr. is also a brigadier general and commander of the U.S. Corps of Cadets at West Point. Their sister, Marquita, is a lawyer.
“There are a number of influences in my life that set me off on a very good foundation,” Vincent Brooks recalls. “Two Christian parents who are loving and are concerned about bringing up a family of excellence and longer sets of roots in every direction that believed in the same thing.”
Brooks expresses pride in his family’s history while being careful not to appear boastful.
“I’m one of those lucky men who has known his father and all of his grandfathers,” Brooks says. “My great grandfathers passed away before I could remember, but both of my grandfathers were family men who took care of their families and believed in excellence.”
One of his grandfathers died while he has been serving in the Persian Gulf.
“He was 92 years old, had worked for decades with the United Mine Workers Union, was the chauffeur and personal assistant to the United Mine Workers [presidents] from all the way back to John L. Lewis – every single one of them, the entirety of that organization. So, the ethic of doing your best all the time, being as good as you can be, no matter what your role is, was passed down to both my mother and my father.”
Brooks would need all that and more as he discovered that excellence sometimes extracts a cruel and heavy toll.
“I remember when I got straight As and the word got out. Some were congratulating me, especially the military kids. The military kids understood, the Black kids particularly because they were also striving for excellence as part of the culture they were in.
“Some said, ‘The only way you’re going to get straight As is if you’re kissing up to the man. So you must be an Uncle Tom.’ I made straight As at this school, the same school you’re in, which says it can be done. For whatever reason it is, follow me.
“Even at that early age—I think it was my sophomore year in high school—it was: ‘Why would I be discredited for achieving excellence?’ Not all saw it that way, but some did.”
But anyone who knew Brooks during those years was impressed by his determination to succeed.
A yearbook inscription under his senior year photo at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif., reads: “Determination determines success. He who progresses announces to his impediments, ‘Pardon me, sirs, I’m coming through.’”
Brooks saw no impediments to attaining his goals in life.
“I was always interested in medicine. Forever. Sometime in my junior year of high school, that started to change. I still don’t know why. And the thing that really put it over the table was when my brother came home from West Point during his first year at Christmas leave. He was just different.”
When asked how different, Brooks does not hesitate before replying.
“Military academies have a tendency to change you a little bit,” Brooks explains. “He was a football player, a track athlete, when we were in high school. The first thing is physical appearance changes when you go off to an academy. Of course he had been there about six months at that point, Christmas break. Wearing a uniform that fitted him, that’s inherently sharp. So that catches your eye right away. Then everything else—posture, bearing, what was on his mind. And he brought his roommate with him, and it was the same with his roommate. What is this?
“First you have a little bit of a recoil: What have they done to my brother? Then, there’s something here that appeals to me. So I shifted my orientation from medicine to maybe being a doctor in the army to being an army doctor with priorities changed a little bit and then it was I just wanted to be an army officer and go to West Point.”
Although it was late in the admissions process, Leo Brooks told basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski about his younger brother, who was both smart and a good basketball player. After reviewing some tapes of young Brooks, Krzyzewski, who would later lead Duke University to three national basketball championships, was interested in having the younger Brooks on his squad.
At West Point, Vincent Brooks would again stand out.
In 1979, he was selected First Captain of the Corps of Cadets, West Point’s highest cadet honor. It is a position once held by such military luminaries as Douglas MacArthur, Jonathan Wainwright and Robert E. Lee. No African-American had ever held that envied position in the history of West Point. And with that came enormous pressure.
“You’re 20 years old and somebody says, ‘first Black first captain’ and you get constant microphones put in your face. I had an awful lot of media exposure then at a very early age and some questions were, ‘What’s it like to be the…,’” Brooks recalls, leaving it for the reporter to fill in the blank. “Other ones were: ‘How does it feel to be the…? That’s all it was, without regard necessarily to your attributes and what got you in that position.”
And when he was placed in that position, Brooks learned that not everyone was celebrating his accomplishment. If there were any doubts about that, they were erased by the bombardment of hate mail that he received.
“Some of the hate mail was postmarked from places outside of West Point, so I don’t think it was the people of West Point,” he recalls. Still, he remembers the comments, such as “Go back to Africa.”
This was a shock to a kid who had lived in integrated neighborhoods as a military brat, mostly Alexandria, Va., and the Sacramento, Calif., area.
“It was a very eye-opening experience for a young man who believed he was just doing the right thing and had been called to a position of leadership, ready to do that leadership,” Brooks says.
Even though most of the postmarks were from far away the places, there was one note that struck close to home.
“There was one that said, “Dear Regimental Coon.’ That’s how it started,” Brooks remembers. “That one I always wondered about because unless you understand how West Point is organized, you might not know that the brigade commander, which is the title that had gone public, is responsible for four regiments and that there is a regimental structure inside of that. None of the articles, none of the releases said anything about regiments. So that one tells me it was somebody that had inside understanding.”
And it also tells him that in America, to borrow a title from one of Prof. Cornel West’s books, race matters.
“Having grown up in the 60s, people our age haven’t forgotten some of the hatred that’s out there,” recalls Brooks, 44. “But I certainly thought that by 1979, much of it had been set aside and I could almost take that for granted. But it’s not so. And it was a reminder then as it remains a reminder now that the work is not done that causes people to just be measured by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. There’s still work to be done. So, I carry that with me as well.”
He also carries with him memories of being vilified by members of his own race.
When he was attending the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., almost a decade ago, the officers had been divided into several discussion groups. In one group, he was a topic of interest even though he had not been assigned to it.
“As the discussion went on, someone says, one of the Black officers says, ‘Opportunity is not equal. You have to achieve more in order to be measured equally.’ And someone says, ‘Well, what about Vince Brooks? He seems to be achieving and he’s Black.’ So suddenly, I’m now the knot in the tug-of-war rope. One of the officers responded, ‘But he’s not one of us.’
“Same thing—straight As all over again. And that hurts. When you hear things like that, you go, ‘You missed it. If I am achieving excellence, if I am given the opportunity and I open the door and I reach back for someone to come through the door with me, come with me. Don’t stand back and talk about how the door got opened.’”
Brooks tries to help others walk through doors by visiting cadets, serving as a mentor, and helping prod service academies to become more inclusive.
“If you’re going to pass through the door, the way I’ve been raised, you have an obligation to see that someone else can pass through the door. Some of that comes by your example, some of it comes by facilitating passage through the door, some of it comes by standing alone and being unafraid that if you’re the only one, then it’s you. Don’t look for someone else to make it happen—make it happen.”
Brooks is a workaholic who sleeps only five hours a night. So, how does he relax?
“I hang out with my wife,” he replies. “Quality time. I’m a hopeless romantic. Contrary to what it might seem—the hardened exterior—I’m truly a hopeless romantic. If quality time means sitting down and watching ‘Def Comedy Jam’ or watching the Lifetime Movie Channel—anything she’s interested in, it’s good enough for me.”
Although it’s rare, Brooks can even be seen suppressing a laugh or two at his daily briefings when a journalist says something funny. At other times, he doesn’t try to hide it at all.
“I might express some emotion every now and then just to let people know that I’m really not a robot, even though some people think that I am,” Brooks explains. “At the same time, I try to take it seriously and make sure that I’m being professional in my bearing on it because it’s serious business we’re talking about. There are lives at risk.”
Although Brooks faces a sea of reporters every day, he is not assigned to public affairs. He is deputy director of operations and prefers planning military operations to being viewed as the “talking head” of the war.
Regardless of the role he is thrust in, Brooks has been guided by one unshakable belief.
“Frankly, the way I look at things like this is I believe that God puts me in places to do things. I really do. And if I’m put in the position to do something like that, whether I think I am up to the task or not, He thinks I am up to the task, so I just ought to get on with it. That’s how I learned to carry the pressure over time.
“Sometimes it gets kind of lonely. Any leadership role or any exposed role will cause people to conclude things about you that may not represent you.”
Many African-Americans are proud of how Brooks is performing and tune in to the briefings only because a distinguished Black man is conducting them. But there are the usual detractors as well.
“I saw some chat on the BET page [BET.com] and it was interesting. When you talk about the ’60s and ’70s, some of the chat says, ‘We love what he’s doing. He represents us well.’ Others say, ‘No, he’s not one of us.’ And that’s an experience that I’ve had throughout life and many have, especially in the minority community as you strive for excellence. Unfortunately, there are still occasions where parts of the community will try to drive it down and not realize that it’s an achievement for all of us.”
And clearly that troubles Brooks, a person of tremendous achievements.
“People have their reasons,” he says, with a tinge of sadness. “I don’t know what that is, but it’s not gone. It’s still there. There’s still that element that certainly still exists in the culture and it is often viewed as Uncle Tomism, or being used by or any of those sorts of things.
“It’s not that at all. I am who I am, I am what I am, always have been and always will be, and you can measure me by however you want, but I am what I am.”