Most of you who have followed my conversations know that I grew up on the Mississippi Delta during the era of legal segregation where the races were divided as a way of life—and still having impact. That division between them and us—young and old remains a picture that I remember especially when shaking hands. As a young boy, you didn’t shake hands with people who didn’t look like you—cautious conversations from home prepared me for that. Now let’s fast forward to the 21st century, Overland Park, Kansas where I had been invited to deliver several speeches to educators and mostly talk to eleventh and twelfth graders who were part of an incredible innovative and entrepreneurial educational experience. It was in this setting that I met a host of students, but this one white male student—a senior stood out beyond the conversations one would typical expect from a group of high school student. However, his “handshake” was the difference I was not expecting.
Our handshakes can be very telling.
I am in Overland Park, Kansas, a place where you expect people to be civil. I am a guest and the keynote speaker and that alone provides for short conversations and multiple handshakes. I’m in the moment and not really thinking about the weight of my childhood. I am having a grand time. However, the expected “routine” soon became extraordinary when one of the “white” male seniors shook my hand. When “Young Bennett” walked up and shook my hand, the past I clearly remembered was taken aback. My past was shaken because of his grip, solid, firm and filled with welcome. It was a different grip! I expected a hand shake, but not the one I received. He wanted to shake my hand—an extension of my life. I intuitively knew that. It was not perfunctory. He brought his life to the handshake, allowing me to bring mine. At least that how it felt to me. This was not a handshake I would have experienced while growing up, but the type of handshake we all need to share and experience.
He brought his life to the handshake, allowing me to bring mine.
Young Bennett’s grip said loudly and clearly, “I respect you. I respect your life.” That’s what I heard while we stood man to man simply shaking hands which now had become much more to me. Over the course of my full day and evening in Kansas City, we probably crossed paths and shook hands several more times and each time, the conversation of human respect continued, not verbally but coming through loudly as we shook hands. Keep in mind I had shaken many hands that day, and all were gracious, but his handshake held a conversation—one I wished all could have heard. His handshake was genuine…reaching far beyond the moment. I never mentioned this to him, but I trust that my grip spoke to him as well. However, as our day progressed, he was no longer “Young Bennett” the sharp “white” kid, but now a sharp human being with the capacity to be among the generation of promise—those who follow us, to be better and do more.
His handshake was genuine…reaching far beyond the moment.
Our paths may never cross again, but I trust that his life will continue to exemplify the conversation I heard from the handshake we shared—embracing our shared humanity. Although the picture from my childhood remains, young Bennett has permanently altered it. I intend to continue to shake hands holding the conversation that matters and trust that “Young Bennett” will do likewise. We miss so much when we are not intentional about giving respect, affirmation and including others. Sharing a genuine handshake is a great way to start a transforming journey towards a flourishing community.
Sharing a genuine handshake is a great way to start a transforming journey where we live, work, study and play.