When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

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Tyler Merritt: Before You Call the Cops

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Tyler Merritt is an Activist, Author, Actor, and public speaker. His video monologue, “Before You Call the Cops,” garnered national attention after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and has been viewed tens of millions of times.

In his new book, I Take My Coffee Black, Tyler talks about his experiences as a black man in America, as well as privilege, religion, multiculturalism, and even musical theater.

Follow Tyler on Twitter at @TTMProject, and on instagram at @thetylermerrittproject.

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Tyler Merritt:

We live in a world, in a society where we watch people kill people, and then have to sit around and have oftentimes white people decide on whether or not those people are going to be penalized for the things that they have done. If you do not think that causes trauma for Black people, I want to invite you to stop for a minute and think about how that might affect us

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

My guest today is Tyler Merritt, an activist, author, and public speaker. His video monologue titled ‘Before You Call the Cops’ garnered national attention after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and has been viewed tens of millions of times. In his new book, I Take My Coffee Black, Tyler talks about his experiences as a Black man in America, as well as privilege, religion, multiculturalism, and even musical theater.

Before we begin though, I want to share with you the monologue that started it all. Here it is.

Before You Call the Cops by Tyler Merritt:

Before you call the cops, I just want you to know the first thing that I did when I woke up this morning was yell at my alarm clock.

My parents were raised in the south. I have to roll tide or they'll disown me. They raised me in Las Vegas. That city still has my heart.

I hate spiders. I'm a vegetarian. I'm not proud about it. I've done goat yoga. I'm really not proud about that. I can tell you every single word off the NWA Straight Out of Compton album. I can also sing you every single word from Oklahoma. Bananas are disgusting. I am a Christian. I spend almost every Sunday morning teaching kids in Sunday school. I am often asked if I am Muslim. I'm okay with that.

I'm pretty much convinced if you met my mother, you'd automatically become a better person. My father is a veteran. He taught me how to say, "Yes, sir" and, "Yes, ma'am" to everyone that I meet. I don't hate our president. I pray for him. I love basketball and also hockey.

This is my brother James. This is my brother Mike. This is my brother John. And this is my brother Rob. This is my niece Zoe. This is my nephew Justin. This is my niece Allie. This is my nephew Declan. This is my nephew Jordan.

I've never been to jail. I've never owned a gun. I hate that anyone at all might possibly be afraid of me. I'd go around the world and back again if I knew that single act might make your day better. I'm a proud man. I'm a proud black man. Does any of this really matter? No.

I just wanted you to get to know me better before you called the cops.

Ken Harbaugh:

Tyler Merritt, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Tyler Merritt:

Hey Ken, thanks for having me, man. Really first, let me say this. Thank you for your service in the military. And I know people say all that all the time, and that's a thing that's said, but being a military brat, I don't think people necessarily understand the toll that takes place on families when mothers and fathers choose to serve in the military. And I wanted to personally thank you for that piece, man.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks, Tyler. I appreciate that. And I'm going to ask you about your dad at some point. We've all got complicated relationships with our fathers.

Tyler Merritt:

For sure.

Ken Harbaugh:

My dad was Air Force as well. And it sounds yours was stationed in Vegas, probably Fallon?

Tyler Merritt:

Nellis.

Ken Harbaugh:

That's what I meant, Nellis. I went through Fallon, the little top gun program there, but Nellis, and he took those secret flights out to Area 51 doing God knows what. I read your book. But I want to talk about the video first because man, we could not agree more about spiders. I try- I know that every creature in God's beautiful creation has a purpose. And that's what I tell my kids when I catch them and pretend to take them outside. But half the time they're going down the toilet and I feel bad every time.

Tyler Merritt:

The only difference between you and I is I have no spider death guilt at all whatsoever. Zero, zero.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, my kids try to tell me, and we are way in the weeds here. We'll get to important stuff in a second, but every time I kill a spider, I'm just strengthening the gene pool because the strongest survive. That's scary when you think about it.

Tyler Merritt:

Man. See you just put that in a... Man, I'm over here thinking that I'm fighting the cause against them and you just proved the point that spiders will never die. Thanks.

Ken Harbaugh:

So give us the context for the video and we'll make sure to run it at the top of this episode so listeners have it, but from hearing your interviews about it and some of what you've written about it, I gather that it was well thought out. It was strategic. You sometimes get the idea with a lot of these viral things that they're just spontaneous, but I want you to talk about it because we're going to address some of the criticism that the video received and it wasn't just some off the cuff remarks you made. You were thinking about the audience you wanted to reach.

Tyler Merritt:

For sure, man. I'll tell you when sometimes I joke with friends on saying, "I wish that I just made really funny cat videos or I had a child that would say something crazy and I could post it online and a million people viewed it, but I have zero desire to want to be a viral sensation." Instead, I have always had the intent of wanting to have an impact on social justice, on racial reconciliation and a better understanding of people in general and to bring love and to bring laughter and to bring humanity into our population. And so I wanted to create content that was going to do that through the Tyler Merritt Project. And when I created the video Before You Call the Cops, which has now been seen over 100 million times, I didn't just loosely enter into making or creating that piece. My whole goal was to, like I do in my book, take in consideration how important proximity could be and to bet on proximity, to bet that if you let people in that proximity will create a sense of wanting to have empathy for somebody and it will eliminate fear. And that was my hope in Before You Call the Cops. I just could've never imagined that it would've had the impact that it did.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to stay here for a minute because this section of your book about proximity, I think is going to stay with people the longest. And at the top of it, you quote Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to read that. He said, "People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other." That's your goal. Step one, bridge the gap through communication.

Tyler Merritt:

Yeah, 100%. And man, I talk in my book about the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Malcolm X concept, where as a Black man in America, so many of us stay angry all the time, 24 hours a day. So the idea of going in the midst of this anger for so many reasons as Black men in America, I'm also going to take the time to explain myself, to get closer to somebody who I do not know, or to take that risk or chance, which on some levels can literally cause us our life to cross over and make the decision to allow someone to have a better understanding who I am for a greater cause. And that was the goal in my book. I talk about this on other podcasts and other places that I speak. It is not my job as an African American man to humanize myself off to anyone. I think there are a lot of, and I mean this respectfully, I don't know how many times white men wake up and go, "Today my singular job is to humanize myself to America." But that's something that Black men are continually having to do in the United States, not because we should, not because we have to, but some of us in this fight for social justice have decided to cross over that line and say, "Look, we are so much more than just our skin color, but our skin color should be enough."

Ken Harbaugh:

You have talked about this as a life and death issue, which it's not for white men. I never have to wake up and think about the chances of me coming home. I never have to worry. I worry about other things when I get pulled over by the police, but I don't worry about getting shot. Can you speak to that ever present reality of your humanity for you being a life and death issue in a way it's not for me?

Tyler Merritt:

Sure. First I want to say this and I want to say this in respect to your listeners, that I'm not so naive to think that there are not white men, white people, we'll sit with white men for a second, that don't have the fear any American might have that when they leave out of the house, something could happen to them. There may be some sort of violent crime. There may be something in their life that prevents them from getting back home to their children, to their wife, to their husband. The difference though is, just like you said, most of the time I would argue that when you get pulled over by a cop... Now I don't want to put words into your mouth, but I'm going to assume here are probably the top three or four things that you think of. You think, "Officer, why did you pull me over?" You think, "Was I speeding?" You think, "I wonder if I can work myself out of this ticket?" You think, "How much is this ticket going to cost me?" Right? I would say that your head probably leans in that direction. Granted, I'm just guessing. For myself though as a Black man, I will be 100%... I'm not trying to be hyperbolic here. When those blue lights go on behind me in Nashville, Tennessee, immediately, Ken, I turn down my radio. I roll down my window. I check my seatbelt. I immediately start to pull over the side of the road. I put my hands to 10 and two. I open up my glove compartment to make sure anything that is in there I can have easily accessible. I take my driver's license and set it, my driver's license and my insurance card, and set it on my lap. My thought when I pull over is, "My God. I just want to be able to continue this drive after I'm pulled over." One, because I'll be honest with you. When I see a Black man killed on the side of the road on video, that's trauma for me. That's not just a video that I get to click on and go, "Man, that's sad. I wonder what happened." That is trauma that I take on as a Black man. But even more so, I am very aware that I am a six foot, two Black man with dreadlocks and that can be scary to some people. People walk up on me, not knowing who they think I am. They don't know that I love my mother more than life itself. They don't know that I teach Sunday school to kids. They don't know that I was probably listening to a Broadway musical in my car. They don't know any of these things that are 100% me as a Black man. But what they do know is that I am six foot two. I can be intimidating. And my whole entire job, Ken, is to make sure that I live through being pulled over. That ticket is probably ninth or 10th on my list of things I'm concerned about in that moment.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm going to ask you to do something uncomfortable, which is, make it visceral for us. Why do you put your ID in your lap? And I know the answer, but it reminds me of a conversation I had with another friend of mine who said he always leaves his insurance in the visor above him because he doesn't want to be seen to reach over anywhere that the officer can't see where his hands are. So make it clear to us. Why is it important to have that ID in your lap instead of a pocket?

Tyler Merritt:

Simply put and not to be dramatic, though I am definitely one to make things dramatic. It's a matter of life and death for me. As soon as that officer of the law looks around the corner, usually with the hand on their waist, a few steps away from my car. And they say to me, usually, "Sir, do you know why I'm pulling you over," or whatever it may be. I am hoping that I have provided them with every single tool that they need to keep themself safe. So if they can look in and they can see, "Okay, this guy has his driver's license sitting right there on his lap inaccessible." I don't even want to have it, in my hand, ready to hand him over to him because I don't want him to get the idea that I'm moving toward him in a way that- I want him or her to be able to see everything that they can right there in front of them.

Now here's where it gets tricky, Ken. Your listeners might think to themselves, "That's a smart Black man right there. Now that's the way that you survive a run in with the cops." Or you might have listeners that might be saying, "That's ridiculous that you have to do that. Or that's a precaution, that you're going too far." But let me tell you what my mom would say if she was listening to this. My mom would say, "Boy, you do whatever it is you need to do to make sure that you get your ass home tonight, whatever that is." So this is not time to put your pride in front of anybody. This is not the time t o try to prove who you are or hope that they know that you have a video that's gone viral or that Jimmy Kimmel wrote a forward for your book. When you get pulled over, son, you are a Black man. And in that moment you have one task and that is to make it home.

Ken Harbaugh:

Tyler, you've said that one of the most important things that folks like me can do is elevate voices like yours, elevate and amplify Black voices. But I find this irreconcilable tension in that because on the one hand, I totally agree. On the other hand, it seems an unfair burden to you to hand you the mic every time and say, "Speak for Black people." And I'm wondering how heavy that mic must get sometimes because you don't owe me. You don't know anything. Yet it falls to you and folks with your persuasive abilities to grab that mic and preach as you've put it. Does that feel burdensome?

Tyler Merritt:

Burdensome, I'd say, is probably an understatement, but I've said this before and I believe this strongly, Ken. We are all trying to put this fire out. We are all trying to put this racial racism in America, burning bonfire of craziness out, and everybody is attempting to do it in their own way. And all of our hope is that one day we can walk in this United States equally and some of us are going to do whatever we have to do to accomplish that task. And I want to talk about elevating Black voices for a minute. I feel elevating Black voices is important, but before someone can assist in elevating a Black person, a Black voice... This is going to sound asinine to you, Ken. It's going to sound asinine and I know, but above elevating, the first is to believe what it is that we say.

One of the most exhausting things and when I tell you exhausting, one of the most exhausting things that people that are not Black cannot understand is how difficult it is to just simply get people to believe our stories, to just believe that what happens in our life every single day, Ken, is what actually happens. So I just recap to you, my experience of getting pulled over as a Black man and the energy it takes me to then say to somebody, "No, I promise that's actually what happens." And for somebody to go, "But what if someone comes up..." No, that's cool, but I'm telling you, this is my story and what I do. "What if a Black police officer walks up?" If a Black police walks up, I do the same stuff. What do you not understand? How many times do I have to tell you that my experience is significant to me as a Black person? And though we are not all monolithic, we are all in the same boat in that people do not want to believe us.

So there's that first piece of just getting people to believe us. Then there's a second piece in hoping that people will elevate our stories. And then there's that last responsibility, like you were asking about, the weight of that. Not everybody should carry it. Not everybody has to carry it. Black women have been carrying that weight in the voting booth for years. Black women have been carrying that weight in the midst of raising their children for years. But sometimes you have to decide what are those things that you want to put on your back and make them known to people. And for myself, I have decided that I'm going to lean into proximity. I'm going to lean into love. I'm going to lean into understanding.

And for me, I do not care what the cost is going to be because our lives are too important. And I have zero hate, which this might be a good way to tune into other things we'll talk about, but I have zero hate for any other Black folks that go, "Tyler, this ain't your job. You need not do this and you need to stop." We're going to disagree amongst ourselves, because we're human, but it's a mission that I've taken on. And I hope that one of these days when I'm gone, people will look back and say, "I don't remember Tyler for much, but I remember how he loved people."

Ken Harbaugh:

That's beautiful. And I just want to acknowledge that I'm aware in asking you to relive this and to carry that mic for this half hour we're talking, I'm asking you to carry a burden and it's not a fair one. And I wouldn't ask you unless you were out there and volunteering to be that voice. We talk a lot about trauma on this show. I think because I'm a vet and a lot of our guests are vets and it's an audience that seems to value our perspective on it. But hearing you talk about the trauma of watching what has been happening to Black men, granted it's been happening for forever, but it's been captured on video in the last decade or so. And that is evocative to me of the same re-traumatizing exposure that veterans experience post combat, seeing brothers and sisters being killed in front of your eyes. Have you looked at it through that lens?

Tyler Merritt:

Only on this level, coming from a military family, I understand the brotherhood that takes place with those that are in the armed forces. It's something you can't ever understand. This is such a mild comparison, and when I tell you it's mild, forgive me if anybody takes offense to this comparison I'm going to make, but just hear my heart in this: In my book, I talk about playing in a band. And I played in a band for years and I say there's nothing like walking on stage with your brothers in a band. There's nothing like it in the world. And it's true. There's a very specific thing, and very few people in the world understand what it's to walk on stage in a band and have people sing the words that you've created. Not everybody gets that. In the same sense, if you choose to go in the military, the training that you go through, the psychological warfare that takes place that's made and created to bring you together as brothers in the military, unless you're a part of that, you don't get it.

I can try to understand what my father has been through with that, but I don't really get it. So when he was in the military during Desert Storm and he ended up not going and we were in Nellis and he so badly wanted to go. The best way he could communicate to me is to say, "Tyler it would be like rehearsing for a play all of your life and never getting to actually perform it." And I still didn't get what he was trying to say. In my mind I'm like, "Dad, you didn't have to go to war, bro. Represent." But to him, he's going, "No, you don't understand. The stories that I live through with these brothers in which I serve." On the same level, but very different. When you are a Black person in America, we walk in a very significant lane that only we can get.

It's one that we can't explain to you if you're not Black, it's one that we try to. It's one we make jokes about like you're invited to the barbecue, for those who don't know what that means, it's our joke of saying like, "Yo, you're cool enough to come and hang out with us, but don't bring the potato salad because it's probably going to be nasty." You know what I mean? We're saying come and be a part of our community, but you actually can't unless you walk through it. And with that in mind, Ken, when we watch trauma and it is trauma for us. When we see somebody who looks like us lynched, lynched on camera, and then we spend, you read my book, and we spend so much of our energy having to defend the thing that we saw in front of our eyes, Ken. Right now we're waiting for the trial- Whenever people listen, this is to give them some concept: the Ahmad Aubery trial is taking place right now. And there are people that are in court. The people that murdered Ahmad Aubery and we're waiting to see what's going to happen there. We live in a world, in a society where we watch people kill people, and then have to sit around and have oftentimes white people decide on whether or not those people are going to be penalized for the things that they have done. If you do not think that causes trauma for Black people, I want to invite you to stop for a minute and think about how that might affect us in the same way, years and years and years ago, where Black people would get lynched, literally lynched and hanging from a tree and white men would look at that and that image would become trauma for them in a way of thinking that those people are not human. Those individuals hanging from that tree are not human. And then the trauma that takes place from the Black person walking by and seeing someone that looks like them hanging from a tree, what that does to us, what that does to us is in 2021, I'm still talking about that trauma. And I'm hoping to God, Ken, I'm hoping to God, man. I don't have kids right now. Not that I know of. Geez. I'm hoping to God that my kids one day won't have to walk through the same trauma that I do in 2021.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think it's worth calling out that one of the compounding features of that trauma is that the victims are revictimized every time it's talked about in the media and I do it without thinking about it. We call what's going on now the Ahmaud Arbery trial, it's not. It's the trial of his murderers, but it seemed like George Floyd was on trial. It seems like Ahmaud Arbery is on trial. He is not. And yet we're going to have to relitigate his decision to go for a jog through a white neighborhood.

Tyler Merritt:

Right. Right.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've lost buddies in uniform and we don't second guess every decision they made. We, in fact, elevate their sacrifice. We name schools after them. Yet in the trials that we've seen following the murders of young Black men, they seem to be the ones on trial.

Tyler Merritt:

Ken, you knocked out of the park with that example, man. Is that we're losing our life just for living, just for living. When you begin, when people begin to ask, "But yeah, but what did Ahmaud Aubrey do?" He jogged. That's a hard thing to swallow, to explain to your kids. It's a hard thing to swallow to anyone that you're trying to explain something and say, "No matter what it was they did, did they deserve to die?" And something that I try to do in my book, man- The reviews for my book have been great. And I love this because I'll be honest with you. I was super, super scared, man. I was super scared to get so intimate and let people in so closely to me in this book, because I end up letting them in in a way that if you're reading it with your spouse, you will go, "Oh my gosh, honey. This Black man just said some crazy ish. Let me tell you about it." Because I invite you into my world so closely. But my hope was that if I were to do that, it would begin to make you think things and thoughts like “What if Tyler was my physical brother?” “What if my child was walking through some of the same things that Tyler walks through?” “How would I feel as a father?” “How would I feel as a mother? If I knew that my son, as a white man, was walking down the street or jogging because he was just trying to get to a bench where he likes to pray and seek out God's advice. And he had to take down his hoodie and take off his headphones and his bandana and his glasses and put on a smile just to walk across the street so he wouldn't scare people.” “How would that make me feel about my son?” “How would it make me feel about the woman who was being scared by my child?” And hopefully in I Take My Coffee Black, I'm allowed to let people in to begin to ask those questions of who are we that we turn our heads so easily at individuals who are losing their life just for living?

Ken Harbaugh:

Have your parents read the book, Tyler?

Tyler Merritt:

Oh yeah, man.

Ken Harbaugh:

How did that go?

Tyler Merritt:

In my book I talk a lot about my father and him being in the military. And one of the reasons why it was important for me to talk about my dad being a military man, is that, I don't know why this is. I don't know why this is, but it's very hard sometimes for white people to picture and or understand that we have a military family as well. There's this weird assumption that you don't understand. You're a Democrat or you're a whoever and you don't understand weaponry or whatever. I come from a military family. My dad is from the south. My grandma used to sleep with a gun under her pillow, homie. You know what I mean? So I talk about my father, but I talk about what it's like to go through living with a man who was never someone who was encouraged himself, therefore he didn't pass that on to his son.

So I talk about how difficult it was to never really be seen by my father. And with my mother, I talk about how she had to work so hard as a Black woman to get to the place he is now in Las Vegas. I call her the Oprah Winfrey of Las Vegas because she's become so successful. But I tell some pretty hurtful stories about our life. And the other thing in the book is I cuss a lot. And so when I first turned in the chapter to my mom for her first to read, her first reaction, Ken, was, "Son, are you sure that you want to use this language in this book?" And I told my mom, I said, "Mom, listen, I'm about to write 18 chapters of a book. The only person I don't cuss in front of is you and kids okay?”. So there's no way I'm about to write 18 chapters- and once she got into it, she got it because she understood I wasn't using it to be bad or anything. It was just part of who I was. And the second part was my father. I love this. And you have to understand, there's a reason why there aren't a gazillion Black biographies. Because Black people ain't trying to tell family business. And my dad says to me- I said, "Dad, I'm writing this book, man." And he goes, "Okay, cool. You know, there's certain things you can't talk about, right?" I said, "Yes, sir." I said, "Yes, sir." But what I did say to him was I said, "Dad, I'm going to talk about..." This is actually funny, Ken. I said to him, Yo, dad, I'm going to talk about how, when I stopped doing sports and I started doing musical theater, you never came to anything I ever did." And my dad goes, "Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute, son. I came to that thing." And he goes, "Jerry," which was my mom's name, "Jerry, what was that thing I went to that Tyler did?" Now, I've been performing all of my life, Ken, and my dad had to go, "Jerry, what was that thing that I went to?" Which my mom was like, "You didn't go to anything Milt, just take this one for the team. Let the boy tell his story."

Ken Harbaugh:

She had your back. Your folks, your dad didn't just grow up in the south. He grew up in Eutaw, Alabama. And I say this as a kid who spent my high school years in Montgomery, Alabama. I know where Eutaw is. And I mean, that has got to be a formative experience. And I want you to just paint the picture for us. And I think maybe the best way is to talk about the Eutaw Massacre and the message that was sent at that time, and how it reverberated through generations.

Tyler Merritt:

Here's what's fantastic about Eutaw. I talk about this in chapter two in my book, a trip that I took as an eight year old kid. If you go to Eutaw now, and you're going towards Mississippi and you get off on the Eutaw exit and you take a right, you can either take a right or you can take a left. If you take a left, you're going to go into a little bit more of the city portion. But you take a right, you're going to go where a predominant amount of the Black people in that city live. And they all live in one area. And that's where mom and dad grew up and it's nothing but Black folks. It's just Black folk central. Now to this day, Ken, it is the same way to where we pull up to the country store, which my mom and dad have now bought. It was owned by white people. But they grew up going to this little country store in their area. But now that my mom and dad got some cash, they're like, "We're going to own that shit." And they bought it. So thank God, a Black owned business in that community. As soon as you pull up to the country store, everybody in that city knows you're there. Every Black person in that city knows you have arrived in their little country. That's Eutaw, Alabama. My parents were raised in an environment where raking the dirt, which is literally just making sure the dirt looks okay, was important in their community because that is what they had to take care of. If you go today, Ken, it's still the same way.

But the Eutaw Massacre took place years ago in that same city where I joke with my mom and dad in the book about when my dad's telling me about him being raised and he was raised as sharecropper. And as he explains what a sharecropper is, I say to him, "Dad, you were a slave. You were kind of a slave growing up." And my mom was like, "Boy, he was not a slave." And my dad was like, "Don't listen to your mom. I was a slave." This was the world they lived in and this is just my parents. But in their lifetime, there was an experience that took place there where people, Black people, wanted to begin to have the right to vote. And because they had the numbers, they took on the responsibility to do so. And instead of white people finding ways, like political reasons to win a vote or to change the narrative of a story through politics, they did the things that white people could do at that time, which was kill Black people.

Within the Eutaw massacre, they killed a handful of individuals. And the handful of individuals that they killed stopped the voting process. It changed the voting process. It switched over the environment because they literally took people's lives. Now this is known in history as the Eutaw Massacre. And my mother and father did not know that that took place in their city until they read my book and heard me tell them about it. That tells you not only how we bury the history of our Black stories, that also tells you what we do to keep Black people ignorant so that they don't know how to fight against historical moments or to use those things to fuel us on to get change. And so that story of the Eutaw Massacre is now being shared there in Eutaw because people are reading about it in my book. And I'm hoping that more people get to hear that story.

Ken Harbaugh:

That is similar to my experience going to high school in Alabama, in which stories like that weren't just erased or whitewashed. But the opposing stories, the perpetrators, were elevated. Our main rival high school was Jefferson Davis High School. Robert E. Lee High School was right around the corner and it wasn't until I left the south that I learned about, for example, the Tulsa Race Massacre in '21 or the coup in Wilmington. And I guess I'm grateful that some of this history is finally being revived and taught, but boy, it's encountering some headwinds. You have all of these state legislatures now saying, "We don't want to teach our kids anything that might make them feel uncomfortable." How do you react to something like that?

Tyler Merritt:

That's insane to me out of this simple fact, Ken. When I tell you it's insane, it's insane. Ken, we as Black people don't know our history. I want you to think about this man: Think about all the history that we know and that we've been taught in that we have US history classes. What are you teaching in those classes if not solely the victorious lives of white people and what you've accomplished. Forget about educating white people for a second. Forget about that. If Black people don't know their history, they walk down a street and see a monument and they attempt to try to figure out why that monument is important. Or they're told from only one aspect and we're told to respect the monument of an individual who became known for killing our people? And we have ignorance. We're able to just go past a landmark and go, "Huh, no big deal," because we're ignorant to it, and not ignorant in a negative content. Ignorant in that we have been taught to ignore that history. So when I hear about that, I'll be honest with you, man. When I hear about critical race theory, don't get me wrong. Sure, I think white people need to learn about Black history, but my bigger concern is Black people. I want Black people to know their history more than white people because we need to. We need to. And so in the midst of these stories about not wanting to talk about critical race theory and this or the other, is nobody thinking about Black kids in this scenario?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I think no one's thinking about Black kids in this scenario. I know that's a hypothetical question, but I think it's safe to say. Tyler, I want to end with your reflections on the subtitle of your book because I think it's subtly provocative. The title I read at the top was, I Take My Coffee Black, but the subtitle is Reflections on Tupac, Musical Theater, Faith and Being Black in America. And I feel the point you're trying to get it across there is that there is a lot of diversity in Black America. It's not a monolith and this gets to some of the criticism your video received, and I hate that these words are even coming out of my mouth, but people said it wasn't Black enough. Can you explain that and how you reacted?

Tyler Merritt:

Yeah. I think that I'm going to use this example. Now let me be clear: I'm not trying to compare Black people to animals. I'm just using an example. If you put animals in a cage with no food and you leave them on their own for a long period of time to survive in the best way that they possibly can, people are going to do what they have to do to survive. Their value will change. Their interests may change. When it comes down to simple things trying to survive, just because of hunger, that's where you have conversations about cannibalism and what are people going to do to survive? And I hate to say this, Ken, well the years and years of trauma that Black people have, sadly, some of the toughest things that we have to fight against are ourselves. Black on Black crime is a real thing. And there's reasons behind that we don't have the time or bandwidth right now to go into the reasons as to why Black people can even sometimes consider themselves enemies against each other. We are in a society now where Black people don't know, or even respect other Black people on other sides of the United States out of ignorance from just simply not knowing from a cultural diversity that has pulled us apart versus brought us together.

But I talk about, if you go onto a campus of an HBCU, of an historically Black college university, and you get to see all the different flavors of African American of Black people, the beautiful differences between a Black person who is a huge fan of Tupac Shakur, but also a huge fan of Bon Jovi, a person who eats cornbread and greens and then a person who eats caviar. There's just such this wide, this brevity of Black people and beautiful Blackness that exist. But sadly, we live in a place where we can fight against each other. And in my book, I wanted to do this. I wanted to say, "We are not one thing." It is possible for me to know every single word to the NWA Straight Outta Compton album, and also want to be in Dear Evan Hanson the musical. I can also talk, and this is a secondary theme that I think is really important if I can focus on this for a minute. I talk about faith and I talk about in my particular world, my relationship with God, with Jesus, and how significant that relationship is, but also how difficult it can be sometimes. And it's something that Black people in the Black church, our relationship and walking with Jesus tends to be very different.

When I say in the Black church, I don't mean technically and literally in the Black church, I'm talking about being our Black in our relationship with God, how different that can be to the whitewash picture of a white evangelical relationship that sometimes represents a flag or is connected to nationalism. But I let you in very, very real to my struggles as a man of faith, tied into hip hop, tied into culture, tied into dreaming, tied into failures because I believe that broken recognizes broken. Failures recognize failures. As I've gotten older in my life, I believe that the things that you have failed at are the things that tell me much more about who you are than the things that you've won.

So the simple answer to your question as far as about not being monolithic is you are completely right. I wanted to pour this glass full of all of these differences and what I love about it with Black folks that are reading the book, because it's now out of the context of just a three minute video, is that they're able to go, "Okay, bro, I get it. I get what you're saying. I didn't know you were raised up in a gang infested area in Las Vegas and junior high, but I also didn't know that you accidentally stumbled into a theater class and that changed your life. I feel you because I understand your story." And my key and my hope is that the more we understand our story, the more we understand each other.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yep. And I think that's a beautiful paraphrasing of MLK's observation.

Tyler, it's been incredible having you on, a real honor. We end every episode with the same question. What is the bravest decision that you've ever made? And you can't say goat yoga for this one.

Tyler Merritt:

That's easy, man. And I'm going to try not to get emotional about this. Last year, right around this time, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called liposarcoma. December of last year, 2020, right after I finished reading the book, writing the book and I had to have a super invasive surgery, in which they removed a 28 pound cancerous tumor and one of my kidneys. And as I spoke to my urologist the day before I went into the surgery, I said to him, "Buddy, I know you don't know who I am, but I still have a lot of stories to tell. And I have a lot of world to change. So I need to not die." And I started crying and that urologist went home that night and watched every single video associated with the Tyler Merritt Project. And he came back the next day and said, "You were not kidding. A lot of people come to me and they go, 'Try to keep me alive.'" But he goes, "I feel I need to keep you alive." And I remember in that moment Ken, thinking that the bravest thing that I have ever done is allowed people into my life to really get to understand my story. Because if my story all had just nothing but Ws on the list, if it was all just wins, I feel pretty proud about it. But I'm letting people into my life to experience my losses. And even as I sat there right before my surgery, I started debating if I had made the right decision. But considering one of the chapters in my book is called never going to be president now, AKA, your husband found my pictures, and me walking through the truth in those moments. The bravest thing I ever did was to let people into the realness of who I am in hopes that our realness will help bring us together.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, we are all so lucky you did Tyler and I'm lucky to be able to get to talk to you. Let's do it again.

Tyler Merritt:

Thanks Ken. I appreciate you, bud.

Ken Harbaugh:

You got it.

Outro:

Thanks again to Tyler for joining me.

Make sure to check out his new book, I Take My Coffee Black.

You can also follow him on Twitter at @TTMProject, and on instagram @thetylermerrittproject

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.



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