How Writing Helped One Man Set His Sights on Reversing the Devastating Effects of the Streets
Ralph Burgess’ story could have ended like so many reported tales of wasted talents of young Black men in metro-urban America. Growing up in Irvington, New Jersey, Burgess found inspiration in writing during an elementary school visit by the late writer/poet Amiri Baraka. Later his creative juices were stimulated by the legacy of Langston Hughes during his college days at Lincoln University.
During a semester break Burgess returned home to witness his former high school classmates making money via drug sales and couldn’t resist the temptation to join them. “I was a gross underachiever,” Burgess told me over the phone. “I dropped out of college, sold crack part time and worked full time as a bank manager for two years.”
During the third year of his new career Burgess broke the fourth crack commandment – never get high on your own supply. “I became curious and tried the product after observing that the majority of my clients were well respected, intelligent individuals.”
The downfall wasn’t immediate, things dissolved in stages for Burgess before enough was enough. “I functioned as an addict for a year and a half. I maintained my job, and started a family. As my addiction worsened, my life fell apart. I had lost my job, my car, my house and was relying heavily on the love of family. Only on the verge of losing them did I decide to fight back.”
The former sinking addict turned successful entrepreneur said his determination not to lose his family initially carried him along the recovery journey. As his struggle intensified, he began to rely on the power of prayer to kick his crack habit.
“During one of the darkest days, God instructed me to write.” It was then that Burgess penned his first novel, Coping through the Eyes of Lance Davis. He called this a major personal accomplishment. “That was the first time I finished anything as an adult. I matured late like many of the other men in my neighborhood. The completion of this poorly written novel was my rite of passage into adulthood.”
For the next five years Burgess wrote in the library four nights a week and ignored those in the background mocking his dream to become a writer. During his time in the main branch of the Newark Public Library, Burgess met historian Charles Cummings and their relationship grew into that of budding writer and seasoned mentor.
“Charles told me whether you had majored in English or Creative Writing, the degree would have only helped to ensure that your writing would be clean. You can’t major in creativity. One either has it or not. You have it, Ralph.”
Those encouraging and empowering words motivated Burgess more than any sermon or passage of scripture had to that point. As Burgess and Cummings continued to work together perfecting the young writer’s content creation process, life didn’t stand still for Burgess.
“I was laid off twice in the span of 18 months, and realized that I had to figure a way to become financially independent to provide for my family. So, I took a leap of faith and started Burgess Publishing & Trading, LLC.”
Armed with the direct approach of getting in front of check writers and securing funds as quickly as possible, Burgess took aim at school systems struggling with high dropout rates, bullying and gang activity. “In our first book, The Learning Adventures of Cool Calvin, the title character is a metro-urban Black boy who shows readers that there is nothing cooler than doing the right things: excelling academically and obeying the rules in school, which extends to obeying the law in society.”
When asked if Calvin’s civil obedience was an attempt to reverse the alarmingly increasing school-to-prison pipeline statistics, Burgess answered in the affirmative and explained, “The second book, No Bandanas for Me: Staying Gang Free, also aims at reversing the ill effects of the streets on youth of color.”
Through these two projects, Burgess’ fictional characters – Calvin and his Latina friend Rosa – are influencing youth in such metro-urban school districts as New York City, Rochester and Newark, NJ. Eventually he hopes to see a reduction in the dropout rate, a decrease in gang-related activity and an increase in metro-urban youth setting and attaining their goals of higher education and vocational skills. Most importantly, the aim of Burgess Publishing and Trading, LLC is to get youth of color to realize that “it’s cool to succeed in school.”