"We have a nearly identical genetic makeup with the greatest minds who ever lived, so the only question is 'why not me?'", says Willie Jackson, founder and publisher of Abernathy, aptly billed as 'the magazine for black men'. We got a chance to sit with Willie at a scenic retreat in Hastings-on-Hudson (which doubles as an office), just about a half hour away from his home in Harlem.
FB: 'We assert that black men must control our own narratives.' That's the first statement on the site. Why is that important to you?
WJ: My father was born in 1944 and raised on a farm in the segregated south. He left the farm when he was eighteen, and joined the military. My grandfather was a sharecropper with a sixth grade education.
When I was 22, I bought a five bedroom house, I was on a plane twice a week for work, and had every opportunity in the world in front of me. So in my family alone, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress in just two generations. But there’s still so much work to do, and this progress tells only part of the story. I wanted to balance the hard truths of the black experience with possibility and hope, and good news.
That's why we share stories by and about a range of people—not just the successful outliers. The representation of black men in the media—be it radio, the news, or what have you—is abysmal. If you’re not an athlete, entertainer, or criminal, you don’t exist! But the reality is that people like me and you and the folks reading this have stories and narratives that are worth sharing. I wanted to create a space where black men can show up fully and completely, with all the quirks and nuances of our humanity.
FB: You arrived to this set of conclusions and this manifestation of it in Abernathy through a process, like most people tend to do. When you were working as an IT consultant, what's one career challenge that you were faced with and how did you overcome it?
WJ: I think the challenge was that I actually started to get what I wanted, at least what I thought I did at the time. I had the corporate gig and a big house, right out of undergrad. But I was solving problems I wasn't particularly interested in or passionate about. More importantly, I didn't feel like I was doing work that really mattered.
I felt stuck between gratitude for my job and what it allowed me to do, and also this desire to be an entrepreneur, and to tell my story on my own terms—not just chase promotions or some material possessions for the next fifteen years. So I quit. There's something about taking great leaps that helps you achieve great things, and that's what happened. I didn't allow what anyone else thought to dictate what I was going to do, and this has allowed me to create a great life on my own terms.
FB: And that led you here, by way of a pretty major player in the marketing industry over the last three decades or so. Tell us more about Seth Godin.
WJ: I don't think there's any person who has influenced my thinking about life and business and art and putting things out in the world more than Seth. I’ve learned a lot from his vast body of work, but the most actionable for your audience is probably the importance of getting started. When you arrive at a decision and move as fast as you can, the universe often conspires in your favor. But you have to decide. That's paramount.
There's a tremendous amount of emotional labor involved with making important decisions, and that’s why it’s so scary. Because most of the time, we're standing in our own way. That's always his reminder to me and a reminder to be courageous, empathetic, and thoughtful—with ourselves and others.
FB: We'll switch gears for just a second because we always want to know this. As a New Yorker (at least for now), what's your favorite thing to do in the city?
WJ: Over the past few years, I’ve cultivated a small social circle full of people who aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. Spending time with folks like this is invigorating, inspiring, and life-affirming. That's one of the reasons I was most excited to not have a traditional day job because I could avoid the mundane, surface-level conversation every Monday about what happened over the weekend. So, this is a long-winded way of saying, “I love spending time with people who push themselves and others.”
FB: What's one piece of advice that you'd give to someone on maybe a similar path to discovery as you were toward the end of your nine-to-five days?
WJ: My biggest takeaway from last year was that "I've always had everything I've ever needed to do everything I've ever wanted". Abernathy is just over a year old, but we've been able to build something significant and important and special that's mainly because I decided to stop getting in my own way. That was exhausting. I think a lot of our job as humans is to not necessarily become someone or something else, but rather to discover who or what we already are.
FB: And lastly, what's your grooming regimen?
WJ: I'm actually one of the few black people I know who can put a razor to my skin and not break out. Believe it or not, clean skin, warm water, and a cheap razor does the trick for me. Other than that, it's just the usual suspects: African black soap, Shea butter, and coconut oil to 'moisturize my situation and preserve my sexy', word to Sean Combs.