Brains and Nerve

by Jay Nordlinger

In Impromptus today, I mention Thomas Sowell, whom I recently visited out at the Hoover Institution. (I say “out at” because I am on the East Coast.) (If I lived in Seattle, I’d say “down at.”) A piece appears in the forthcoming National Review. In the office yesterday, some of us were talking about Sowell: the extraordinariness of his life. Something like the following occurred to us: He was born in the South, when it was bitterly and deeply Jim Crow. The year was 1930. Moreover, this child was the product of a “broken home,” as we would say now. Really broken. When he was eight, he moved up to Harlem — W. 145th St. He went to college at Harvard. Got his master’s degree at Columbia. And his Ph.D. in economics at Chicago, under George Stigler.

Think he was smart? Think he had nerve?

I’d also like to tell you about Ralph Bunche (the American U.N. diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950). He was born in 1903 or 1904 — we’re not quite sure, and I don’t think he was either. His parents, both of them, died when he was about 13. He was raised primarily by his grandmother, and spent his teenage years in Los Angeles.

You know how there are sports stars and academic stars — star students? But usually these aren’t the same people? At Jefferson High School, Bunche was the outstanding athlete. He was also class valedictorian. Okay, that’s not so amazing, you might say — certainly not freakish. But consider this. He proceeds to UCLA, on a basketball scholarship. Works various jobs in order to get the rest of the necessary money. Once again, he is the outstanding athlete, or one of them. And once again he is class valedictorian.

Now consider that we’re talking about a black kid in the 1910s and ’20s.

I’ll give you a coda: From UCLA, Bunche went across the country to Harvard, where he eventually became the first black person in America to earn a Ph.D. in political science. Before he left L.A., the black women of the community raised a thousand dollars in cash for him — not a small amount in the mid-’20s.

Sowell was an athlete himself. He tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. He faltered in the fielding portion of the tryout, and they wouldn’t let him hit. He consoled himself by thinking that they had lost Johnny Mize the same way. “His fielding didn’t impress them, so he never got to hit.” Mize entered the Hall of Fame in 1981. Sowell is in a different sort of hall of fame.