Inspiring People

Author, Political Strategist and Talk Show Host, Keith Boykin

Keith Boykin
Keith Boykin is the editor of The Daily Voice newspaper. He is a host of the BET television show My Two Cents, a New York Times best-selling author of three books, and a frequent political commentator on CNN and MSNBC.

Educated at Dartmouth and Harvard, Keith attended law school with U.S. Senator Barack Obama and served in the White House as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton.

Keith has been actively involved in progressive causes since he worked on his first congressional campaign while still a student in high school. He is a veteran of six political campaigns, including two presidential campaigns, and he was named one of the top instructors when he taught political science at American University in Washington.

Keith has traveled extensively across four continents, and in 1997 President Clinton appointed him, along with Coretta Scott King and Rev. Jesse Jackson, to the U.S. presidential trade delegation to Zimbabwe.

In 2004, Keith launched his media career as a star on the Showtime television series "American Candidate." Since then, he has appeared on Anderson Cooper 360, The O'Reilly Factor, The Tyra Banks Show, The Montel Williams Show, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, and on numerous other television and radio programs. He has been selected as one of The Advocate Magazine's 10 "people of the year" and as one of Instinct Magazine's 25 "leading men" of 2005. In 2004 and again in 2006, he was designated as one of Out Magazine's 100 most intriguing people.

A founder and first board president of the National Black Justice Coalition, Keith has spoken to audiences, large and small, all across the world. He delivered a landmark speech to 200,000 people at the Millennium March on Washington and he gave a stirring speech about the AIDS epidemic in front of 40,000 people in Chicago's Soldier Field in July 2006.

Each of Keith's three books has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, including his most recent book, Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America. Keith won the Lambda Literary Award for his second book, Respecting The Soul, while his first book, One More River to Cross, is taught in colleges and universities throughout the country.

Keith is an associate producer of the 2007 feature film Dirty Laundry and is working on his fourth book. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Keith currently lives in New York City.

Keith Boykin is definitely someone who has chosen to follow the dictates of his heart when it comes to building a successful career. What is compelling about Keith is that, although most might consider that he has figured things out, he is intent to be in an ongoing inquiry about what it means to live a successful life. Keith, it would be safe to assume, considers himself to be a work-in-progress. I consider him to be refreshing, thoughtful and inspiring.

DR: Tell me about your life.

KB: I seem to be spending most of my time right now on The Daily Voice, which is a new online news source. We haven't officially launched yet but we will some time this month. I am also spending a lot of time this year doing political commentary on CNN and MSNBC. From January until the beginning of June, things were just incredible. It was really exciting for me to be able to cover that for The Daily Voice as well as for CNN and MSNBC. I have been doing a lot of politics this year which is something I love in the first place so that's a good thing.

I also host a show on BETJ called My Two Cents. We tape that show pretty far in advance. We go in for a month and tape hour after hour and show after show and then we get to rest for a few months. There is good and bad with that. The good is that we get all of the work out of the way. The bad is that it is not always as relevant and timely as I would like it to be, so what we try to do is deal with broader issues rather than what is happening day-to-day and every little controversy.

I have to say that I'm really into Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth. The principles behind that book are helping to shape my own sense of inner peace and happiness and also helping to influence my writing.

I am working on a new book, which I don't yet have a title for, but its all about transcending identity politics and getting beyond our tribes and identifying ourselves more for what we have in common as humans rather than who we are separately with whatever identity we take ownership of.

DR: What do you think the ultimate value is in abandoning our identities for what we have in common?

KB: I don't think we should abandon our identities but we should put them in context.

I am questioning whether or not we should literally think of ourselves solely based on our identities. That I am Black or a male or that I am Gay or a New Yorker or Christian or from St. Louis or six feet tall - those things are not who I am. Those are just parts of me. It's challenging when you live in a society that loves to label things, to break out of those labels and realize that we are not just those things.

DR: Sometimes I grapple with "Who am I". I don't know that I have found an answer so far, to that question myself. For you, if you are not all of those things - Black, a New Yorker, Gay, six feet tall then, who are you?

KB: Well, that's really the frightening part for a lot of us. We have to strip away those identities that make us feel comfortable because they put us into a group. We feel better about ourselves because -- while we may be this, at least we're not that. Or, we feel better about ourselves because we take pride in the accomplishments of other people who are part of our tribe. But in the end, by identifying with those specific identities it makes us separate from other people. I think that is really a challenge. I think that a lot of the racism, sexism, homophobia and all of the other biases out there are based on identity politics. The people who are wearing the confederate flag and donning the KKK robes every week are in my opinion are affected by and afflicted with identity politics.

DR: What I like about the idea of your book is that it offers an opportunity to strip away all that we hide behind so that we can deal with who we are fundamentally. I don't think that a lot of people take the time to grapple with that because it's hard to confront and so easy to avoid by allowing ourselves to get distracted by other things.

KB: You can easily be distracted by all of the labels you have to deal with --

If I am not all of these things than what am I?

Eckhart Tolle suggests that we just simply are and that we don't have to fill the void with another identity to answer the absence of identity. I am just trying to explore what this means in a political context.

I think that Barack Obama is perfectly positioned to lead that conversation. He is challenging us to think beyond the way we have labeled and segregated and packaged ourselves based on our identities. Because he is Black, because he is White, because he grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, because he grew up blue collar but worked his way through Harvard, he represents, in some ways, all of America. I think there is something really significant to his rise at this particular time. It never occurred to me until recently how this is all working out.

DR: Do you have a general philosophy that guides you?

KB: I wish I could wrap the answer up in one sentence but I can't do that...

DR: The deep people never can...

KB: I think I'm guided by a lot of different principles.

I try to be present which is one of the more difficult things to be as someone who is constantly obsessed with the next thing. I try to be in the moment and when I am not I try to remind myself that I am not.

It's easy to worry about what is next instead of appreciating where I am...

One of my favorite books is Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love. I have been very influenced by the principle of Love over Fear. It helped me respond to people who I might have perceived as my enemies, to understand where they might be coming from and to understand that we are all struggling to "figure it out".

DR: Speaking of being present, one of the things that keeps me from that is trying to understand why things happen. I am always trying to figure out and control what will happen. It sounds to me like you have basically surrendered that struggle. It sounds like you don't do that.

KB: I can't say that I have surrendered the idea that I can control the future. I have felt that I could control the future my entire life. That is what has motivated me to be involved with so many different causes. But I guess I do try to put things in perspective and to sort of sense of what I can and can't change. Obsessing about what I didn't do or what I could have done, I find to be an unproductive exercise.

For a long time I felt like I was guided by some other hand, leading me in the direction of doing what I am supposed to do. I have never really worried about how I was going to provide for myself or move from point A to point B. I just always felt like I would do what my heart told me to do. But I go back and forth on that to be honest.

I am involved with someone who I think has been much more self motivated than I have been in terms of our career paths. He is ten years younger than I am. I think it common for people who are younger to have a plan from the beginning.

I travel a lot and give speeches on college campuses and I meet these kids who tell me that -

"When I am twenty one I'm going to graduate. When I am twenty four I am going to graduate from grad school. When I am twenty six I'm going to have this car. When I am twenty eight I am going to have that house. When I am thirty I am going to get married. When I am thirty two I'm going to have kids..."

And I'm thinking "Wow. You've got that all figured out?!"

I never did. I didn't plan any of that I just knew I wanted to be involved in things that were important to me and I think that I have had a rich life as a result.

When I graduated from college I went to work for Michael Dukakis at a time when nobody ever heard of the guy. It was the most exciting eighteen months of my young life. I got to travel with a Presidential nominee all across the country. I got a chance to see forty eight of the fifty states. Then he lost but that gave me an opportunity for a whole new experience.

I became a teacher and taught eighth grade social studies and tenth grade English and discovered that, while I really liked working with kids, I didn't really like being with all of the issues.

Then I decided to go to law school at Harvard and I got involved in activism on campus and the diversity movement, had a chance to meet Barack Obama - he was a classmate - and I got a chance to come out! I didn't expect to do any of those things.

I left law school and instead of practicing law I went to work for Bill Clinton and when he won, suddenly I was working for the President of the United States.

I could not have planned any of those things. I just allowed myself to be present enough to be able to go where my heart was telling me to go. Even when I left the White House, people didn't understand why I would do that to go write my first book. Nobody thought it was a good idea. The book really repositioned me and I was really fortunate to be involved in a movement -- The Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community -- at a time when people were really looking for leadership and direction. I felt like I was able to provide some of that in the books that I wrote and in the organizations that I led.

I moved from D.C. to New York and started re-exploring what I wanted to do and I discovered that I didn't want to be the Black Gay activist for the rest of my life. People resisted that. People told me that I couldn't leave because I had been doing it too long and they needed me. I had to...

DR: It had become your identity...

KB: Exactly!

I feel like I have re-invented myself many times but people don't want you to re-invent yourself. Alice Walker said that "No person is your friend who demands your silence and denies your right to grow".

We get comfortable with people as we want them to be, because they serve a purpose in our lives. We want them to be there for us the way that we want them to be. When we turn on MSNBC we want this guy to tell us whatever we want to hear from him. We want Tim Russert to still be on Meet the Press. We want our mom to be able to give us pearls of wisdom and we want our spouse to provide love to us in exactly the same way that they did when we first met them. The reality is that people change. Things evolve and we have to be willing to accept that and deal with it.

DR: What do you believe most to be true?

KB: What do I believe most to be true?

DR: Yeah...after all of that...

KB: I believe in love. In all of its forms, I believe in love.

I do believe that love will conquer fear and that light is the only answer to darkness. Love is what that light is. Love is the answer to our problems. It's so much easier to say that than to practice it, but then again, nobody has ever really tried it really, so how do we know.

I am talking about really loving yourself and really loving others.

I identify myself as a Christian - speaking of identities. People have often said to me, especially when I was involved in the LGBT movement - how can you reconcile your sexuality with your spirituality?

My faith is largely about what Jesus said in Matthew 22:32-37 when he is asked by the Pharisees what is the most important of the commandments. He says

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

To me, that was and is the eternal message. It's all about love.

DR: Yes. I always like the "as yourself" part...

KB: Exactly! How can you love somebody else if you don't love yourself?

DR: Maybe part of the struggle with loving other people is the fact that we don't realize it begins with a deep self love.

KB: We feel that there is a certain amount of narcissism and ego involved in loving yourself but I don't really see how we can expect to love others if we don't love ourselves. If we don't than we start to become jealous and bitter of others. Loving yourself is a necessary part of loving others.

DR: How do you think of yourself in relation to the rest of the world?

KB: If you had asked me this question a month or two ago I would have said that I feel like I am on a mission which is to do good and to make a difference in the world. I wouldn't be satisfied if I didn't do that. I have always felt like I have had a purpose.

Before I started at Dartmouth as an undergrad, I read these words in the college bulletin:

"Dartmouth seeks to admit students who will make a significant positive impact on society".

Those words stuck with me and I have always thought that was my mission in life. Now, I am not so sure. Its not that I don't feel like I have a role to play but I feel like a lot of it has been ego.

Maybe my role is to just let life unfold, to experience the moment and to love. I am learning as I go along. I can't say that I have a definitive answer. Maybe I will in a month from now. That answer is in flux.

DR: Well it certainly is an interesting inquiry, I'll give you that 'cause I'm over here thinkin' about my ego now.

A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

KB: When I was in high school I had a teacher, Doug Yarborough. He taught humanities - an honors humanities course. He gave us the final exam on the first day of class. It was a question we had to answer by the end of the class:

"Why does man create"?

I have been struggling with that question ever since. It is something that I have been trying to figure out most of my life. Part of it is that we are trying to defy our sense of mortality. But I think there is something more to it than that. I think it's related to how people want to be remembered. I think just to be remembered at all would be a wonderful thing. I don't know. I don't have any control over that so I'm not so sure I should spend any time worrying about it.

If you do what you love and enjoy doing what you are doing everyday and make a difference any way you can, than there is a good chance people might remember you. But, if they don't what can you do about it?

DR: So what do you want to be remembered for a hundred years from now?

I don't know if I care about how people will see me a hundred years from now. I care about how people see me now.

A hundred years from now I hope that people will see me as a human being who did what he thought was best, made mistakes along the way and tried to make a difference.

Thanks Keith!

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