Standing Up for Your Beliefs
ON GIANT SHOULDERS
Daughter of Al Sharpton
In third-grade, at Johnson Preparatory School in Brooklyn, we put on “The Wiz,” and my dad said he couldn’t wait to see the show. Even back then, Dad worked 24/7, but he still managed to support his daughters in every way possible, including attending all of our school plays. My younger sister Ashley starred as Dorothy, and I was cast as Glinda, The Good Witch. This was incredibly difficult to accept because I was certain that I was the better singer of the two Sharpton sisters. My mom tried to boost my spirits by putting a fancy costume together—sequins, a pink sheer cape, gold make-up and glittering high heels. The works! I was dressed like a star, but my performance was less than stellar. My friends tried to make me feel better by saying I stole the show. But my dad was more interested in conveying what he felt was an important truth. Playing the role of director, he gave me his “notes,” pointing out all the moments in the show when he couldn’t hear me say my lines. “Speak up,” he said. “The audience needs to hear your voice.” Years later, I would come to recognize this advice as an essential life lesson that I learned from my dad. Yes, he wanted to make me happy, but above all, he wanted to help me to do my best. He wasn’t afraid to stand up and speak this hard truth even though he knew it would not be easy for me to hear.
That’s my dad all right—a guy who is totally committed to standing up for what he believes in. He says this is his calling in life. As a kid, it was difficult for me to understand what he meant by that. In fact, it was difficult for me to understand what my dad really did every day when he went to work. “He talks,” I’d say. But what was the talk all about? And what did he actually do? This was always a bit of a mystery to me. Friends would ask about my dad’s job, and I’d often respond, “My dad is Al Sharpton.” When adults asked me about his views on the latest hot topic, I never knew exactly what to say. I was just a kid. I listened to him speak, and I could see his passion and the way he inspired people, but I never really got why he was so controversial—and why we got death threats all the time.
The death threats were especially tough on Ashley and me. My mom imposed strict limits on TV time—she wanted to monitor everything that we watched—just in case. She went to extremes to protect us. We didn’t have sleepovers in our house, friends rarely came over, and my parents worked hard to keep us out of the public eye. But all I wanted was to be a regular kid.
The worst time was the Bensonhurst incident. It was January 1991. My dad led the protest demonstration for Yusef K. Hawkins, a black youth who was shot and slain after being surrounded by a white mob. Just as Dad was starting to march, a white man stabbed him in the chest, and Dad fell to the ground, doubled over and bleeding profusely. They rushed him to Coney Island Hospital. My mom called from the hospital and gave our babysitter strict orders to keep the TV off. I had asthma, and mom was worried that the evening news might set off another attack. But Ashley and I managed to watch the TV anyway. The news was broadcast on every channel, and there was no possibility of escaping it. All I could think about was what if he dies. I was hysterical, and of course, my mom’s concern for me turned out to be for good cause: a full-blown asthma attack followed, and I was rushed to the same hospital as my dad. He escaped serious injury, and my asthma was brought under control, but the image of my dad—motionless, lying on the ground—lingered. Dad was thirty-six at the time. I was five and completely baffled by Dad’s response. He kept saying, “This is my calling,” and I didn’t get what he meant. He assured me that when you are called upon to do the Lord’s work, no real harm could come to you. I remember sitting by his bed and asking, “Dad, is it like having an invisible bullet-proof vest?” He said, “Yes, Nik, that’s right. It’s a vest made of God’s grace and mercy.” I can even recall the sensation of shaking my head as if I agreed when in fact I didn’t get his behavior at all. I couldn’t figure out how Dad could be so calm and understanding. I was angry and scared. I didn’t want my dad going out there on the street ever again.
When Dad did get up and go right back out there on the streets, I thought, How could he do that? I held onto the fear, too. Losing him would be too much. I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. Those feelings stayed with me, but eventually the anger gave way to an intense curiosity about his work. That’s what inspired me to work here at the National Action Network (NAN). It all goes back to Bensonhurst. I wanted to understand why my dad was so willing to risk danger in order to advocate for the rights of others.
The public Al Sharpton is well known: he outspoken and often controversial. The off-camera Al is a shy, sensitive, and very creative guy. People are often surprised when I describe the delicate way he communicates with Ashley and with me. He’s not confrontational at all—but very subtle and laid back. A softy, really. But even though he has this quiet side, he was always comfortable in the public eye because he believes it’s his responsibility to speak out for civil rights.
Dad’s path to activism started early in life. Raised by a single mom, he gave his first sermon at four years old and was ordained as a preacher at nine. He started signing “Reverend Al Sharpton” on his elementary school papers. When his teachers told him to stop doing that, Dad stood his ground—as he always does.
Dad’s mom was his number one supporter; she showed up at the church and shouted out to praise the Lord and to rejoice in the words my dad spoke. More than once, he was embarrassed by her enthusiastic and spirited display. “Why do you have to do that!” he’d say. But she wouldn’t back down. “I’m gonna shout,” she said, showing her pride for her son and her love for God. That’s what our church is all about—it’s a lively, spirited place—and loud. Real loud. All that energy in the room—it ripples through your body and takes hold and before you know it, you’re rising to your feet, too—stirred by the force of the words. Grandma passed away recently, and now my dad lovingly remembers those exuberant outbursts that were once a source of embarrassment. It’s been hard—losing her. The grief is intense, the loss profound. First time, I ever saw my dad cry.
Just after Grandma passed, I saw something on CNN that brought tears to my eyes. The news clip reminded me of when my dad ran for president. We went to the convention with him—everyone was there—everyone except Grandma. She had dementia by then, and it was tough for my dad because she had always been a constant support and physical presence. To boost his spirits, Ashley and I had a ring made for him. In the CNN footage, I noticed that he was wearing the ring. The ring has the letters ADA—for Ashley, Dominique, and Al—three letters that together also spell my Grandma’s name. He hasn’t taken the ring off since that day.
Grandma was a great role model for my dad. He raised me in this same tradition. “Dominique, you’re never going to be satisfied in life unless you live up to the purpose that God placed in you, and stand up for what you believe in.” Dad says everyone has a calling that can be captured in a single word. For him, the word is activism. I’m still not sure about my one word, but I’m trying to figure it out. I know I want to further the work of NAN, and as membership director, I believe the best way to do this is by investing in our youth.
I began the path to finding my voice several years ago when I met an eleven-year old actress while working on a theater production outside of my work at NAN. Young Victoria Pannel approached me one day and said, “Dominique, I want to work with you on your projects at NAN.” Even though Victoria was only eleven at the time, her compassion for activism was quite clear, and I wanted her to get involved. My father was emphatic when he said that the NAN office is “no place for a child.” But something inside me just pushed: “We need Victoria and other kids like her.” I suddenly had this vision of all the positive benefits that having the youth involved could produce, and I needed my father to see that this somewhat wild and unconventional idea was central to our mission. I had to convince my dad to give her a chance, not just for young Victoria but also for others like her.
After much back and forth, Dad finally agreed to invite Victoria to talk at a rally on Martin Luther King Day, and the rest is history. I think he loved the fact that Victoria was so determined to speak out for the good of others. She was an overnight sensation. The press described her as “Al Sharpton’s prodigy.” Dad agreed to let me design an internship program for Victoria: she answered the phones, worked on spreadsheets, and gave speeches on the broadcast. Now she blogs for the Huffington Post—a twelve-year-old! That was a real breakthrough: when it comes to the operation of the organization, my dad is the captain. This was the first time he ever changed his mind. Dad runs a tight ship—he likes to review every plan and give his final okay to every single thing that goes out of the office. “It’s my ass on the line,” he says. He’s even threatened to fire me more than once. But not this time. This time I knew I had it right. I knew that I had to stand up for what I believed in, even when it meant standing up against my own father. The audience needed to hear my voice. I was determined to speak loud and clear—that’s what my dad always wanted me to do.
Now we have eight chapters in the youth movement—a cadre of young activists from four years old to thirty years old. This is what I am most proud of. These kids deal with their issues—bullying, protesting the closing of post offices, lobbying to lower the voting age, speaking out against teenage obesity, and educating young people to save money and make sound investments. I think my dad is really proud of our youth members. And I like to think that he’s proud of me for staying firm in my commitment.
Recently, I found myself thinking about that one word that might describe what I’m all about. I can picture Dad after “The Wiz,” and he is telling me to “Speak up.” Now I see that this life lesson that my dad lovingly imparted through his words and his deeds. Maybe activism is my word, too. I’ve learned why it’s so important to stand up and speak out for what I know is right. I just need to do it in my own way.
On Giant Shoulders… A Daughter Can See Clearly
- Setting Clear Limits and Providing a Moral Code (submit your story here)
- Spirituality and Religion (Ingrid Peart)
- Standing Up for Your Beliefs (Dominique Sharpton)
- The Importance of Humility (Kathryn Ho)
- Lasting Values Over Materialism (Nan Nicklaus O’Leary)
- Helping Others (Helen Rafferty)
- Failure…and Learning from Mistakes (submit your story here)
- Value of Hard Work (Stephanie Staubach Phillips)
- Mindfulness (Carmela Cipriani)