Mathew Knowles tells part of his life story in his new book, “Racism From the Eyes of a Child.” Part memoir, part testimonial, Knowles leaves out stories that directly speak to his relationships with his daughters Beyoncé or Solange.
He doesn’t talk about them much, except to say that they love the book and that he wrote it in part so that they could learn about the side of their family that they don’t know all that well.
Mathew Knowles’ deals with the impact that racism he experienced as a child has had on him and his relationships. (Courtesy photo)
The book looks at a totally different side of the 66-year-old music executive— one that could never be told by anyone but him. As he talks about why he wrote this book, he speaks to a panel of about seven journalists with excitement and mild amusement as he jokes that, even after over 20 years in the music industry, no one has really ever gotten to the center of who Mathew Knowles really is.
“No one knows that I have this sense of humor,” he adds after joking that we’re all just there to get tickets to Beyonce’ and Jay-Z’s “On the Run II” tour, which was recently announced.
But he only mentions his daughters’ names one more time before the end of the call. The rest of the conversation focuses on the topics Knowles discusses in his book: racism, its effects on his self-esteem and his development of what he describes as eroticized rage. According to Knowles, he had the idea to write on this topic four years ago, after therapy, and after healing from the embarrassment of his childhood upbringing. Living in rural Alabama for the first 18 years of his life, he found himself ashamed of living on a dirt road with his family and being made fun of as one of the only Black kids in an all-White school.
“I wanted to write this book for three or four reasons. One, I wanted to tell my story of growing up in Alabama in the 50s and 60s when segregation was at its height,” he says, “And I wanted this story to engage conversation and dialogue about racism.”
In the book, Knowles starts by sharing his research into his family’s bloodline, first-hand accounts of family members’ individual issues with self-esteem, and detailed stories about their encounters with racism. By the end of the book, readers are fully acquainted with Knowles’ stern grandmother, his jovial grandfather, the “hell-raiser” of a mother that raised him, and the gentle, benevolent spirit of his entrepreneurial father.
Though we get an inside glimpse into the Knowles’ family tree that we’ve never seen before, that’s not the point of the book. According to Knowles, he hopes that the experiences his family lived through will speak to a generation of young people, first and foremost, about what racism looks like and how it can plant unidentifiable seeds of self-hate. This is important, he says, because this generation thinks they live in an era where racism no longer exists.
“There are young people who are not even aware that we had colored water fountains, colored restrooms, colored waiting rooms,” he laments.
But Knowles experienced all of that, plus more. He narrates different anecdotes about constant messages from his mother, dictating that he should never bring a ‘dark-skinned girl with nappy hair’ home to meet her, being scolded for kissing a White girl on the front steps of his school and getting kicked out of college for getting caught with a White girl in his bed. And he expresses near the end of the book how this led him to approach his first wife, Tina Knowles-Lawson, and then how years of therapy and a diagnosis of eroticized rage helped him finally feel free enough to marry a woman with a darker complexion, Gena Charmaine Avery.
And that evolution— that freedom— has opened him up to be able to write about these things today. He writes in the hopes that in this era, it will help to educate young people about the blockages and hurdles that they sometimes don’t even know are there. Some of the same issues he faced are still plaguing the Black community today, he says, but they are so subtle, that people are not even aware of how it’s affecting them. And he believes that those blind spots are born from holes in African American history.
“One aspect of racism is to erase our history,” he tells the AFRO, “and that’s what’s lacking in young people— having the knowledge, because what comes with knowledge is power. I think it’s up to us to share our story. It’s up to us to educate and to motivate our young people.”
In the book, Knowles talks about how he was among the first students to integrate his high school in Gadsden, Alabama, how he was the first to go into medical diagnostics for Xerox in the 80s, and how he feels that he was one of the pioneering minds that erased the racial divisions within record labels in the music industry.
These firsts, he feels, subjected him to a lot of different forms of racism—both the blatant and subtle. And he wanted to share his story because, through all of that, he still has hope that things can change.
“I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen the climate of America change but I also lived through it as a kid. I’ve seen the south— especially Alabama— change,” he says, “So that’s why I do this. There’s hope that there can be change…but it requires action.”
Some of that action, he admits in the book, includes therapy. He has been in sessions for more than 20 years, and he says it’s been a gift.
“I wanted to be vulnerable because I wanted our Black men to know you’re not weak when you go to therapy. It’s really a sign of strength,” he shares, “I’ll be the first to say it… I’m not even sure I’d be alive today had I not gone to therapy because there was a lot of trauma that I experienced.”
Knowles says that after penning this project, he has decided to release a full autobiography and it will be on its way soon.
When Knowles is not writing books, he is teaching four courses at the Texas Southern University. Additionally, he has started his own Knowles Institute, an online business school.