LUMBERTON — Since he was a child growing up in government housing, Gene Jones was told that life was a struggle.
He watched as his father, who was black, struggled to fulfill his dreams because of his skin color, but from inside his home on Briarcliff Road, Jones argues that there is value in overcoming obstacles.
“I see that youth today want success in two or three days, but it doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Jones, who spent 20 years in the Army after being drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969, recently reflected on the lessons of his life in a 181-page book. “Arrested Potential,” which was self-published in July, details the challenges that built his character and led him to eventual success.
Like the title implies, “Arrested Potential” focuses on the obstacles people, particularly black males, face in finding success.
The introduction reads: “This book was written to assist young black males in finding constructive ways to succeed in life.” Seated in a large leather chair in his quiet living room, Jones recalls his inspiration.
“I was looking at the statistics online and in the newspaper about the crime between 17 to 25 year olds, and I did some research and found that a lot had not finished high school,” he said. “I looked at it — and it’s not necessarily a black thing — it has transcended to all races, but I felt comfortable talking about blacks because I am black.”
Jones says that he could have been a statistic. Unmotivated as a student at Lumberton High School, it was only the need to excel in class to maintain eligibility on the football team that kept him afloat.
According the Schott State Report on Black Males and Education from 2007 to 2008, 47 percent of black males graduated from high school in the United States. This percentage was one point higher than the graduation rate of black males in North Carolina, which was 46 percent.
“I can understand 10 or seven percent,” he said. “But more than 50 percent?”
Jones credits the problem to what he calls “tunnel vision.” He said youths have a “need for instant gratification” that prevents them from making and pursuing long-term goals. According to Jones, it’s for these reasons, as well as weakening family and parental values, poor self-esteem and single-parent households, that make the road uphill and rocky for young black males.
“Today, everyone wants something instantly. They want money instantly, so they go out and do the crime … . You can’t demand anything if you don’t have the qualifications, if you don’t have the know-how.”
Jones, who calls himself a product of public housing, said his parents had to work their way out of the system, which in the 1950s was “viewed … as a path to upward mobility.”
“Public housing was supposed to be a transition until your situation changed so you could find a house. That’s what it was for, not for generation after generation to stay in there as inherited property.”
He describes leaving home after graduating from high school to find work, and the intoxicating feeling of freedom. He lived his life that way until he was drafted into the Vietnam War, where he served as infantry.
“I’m the guy out there crawling around on my belly, trying to shoot somebody in the jungle,” he said.
“Arrested Potential” details the journey of Jones’ life, paying homage to the ups and downs — the disillusionment after returning home from the war and then re-enlisting in the Army, the lessons he learned by traveling to Vietnam, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Panama, and the final realization that he controlled his own destiny.
Life taught Jones something that each word in his book spells out — that struggle is not a bad thing; it has a purpose.
In 1994 at the age of 43, Jones graduated from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke with a degree in Business Administration. He is now retired, and closing the chapter on a childhood dream.
“I wanted to write a book to tell my life experiences but I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I used to tell my grade school friends that one day I was going to write a book and they laughed at me … . It just was a dream deferred until I got to a retirement.”
Jones said “Arrested Potential” is his first step in helping young blacks find a positive path.
“There is no less knowledge in the community today than there was when I was young. We just look at the problem and discuss it and we do nothing about it. That needs to change.”