A Journey to the American Dream
This piece was originally meant to be published by the Rolling Stone. Due to editorial differences I have chosen to self-publish.
On a bitter-cold morning in February 1988 during my mother’s senior year of high school, she found herself dragged from the bed. As she was tossed into the front yard, dew now coating her pajamas, she learned what she was being kicked out for: dating someone black. Seven years later, on April 19th, I would be born at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.
I have experienced moments in my life that beat within me like a second heart.
At seven years old, as I sat playing in the yard of my white friend’s house, I remember being pulled to the ground by his father and having a water hose sprayed in my face. I walked home full of shame and sadness, not understanding why someone would do that.
At eight years old, I told a classmate a story of watching my dad load a lawnmower onto a trailer. Later that day, my homeroom teacher pulled me out of lunch into a room where the school resource officer interrogated me to incriminate my father in an illegal act. My parents were never notified this had occurred. Only a week later, I was called a nigger for the first time by another student. I knew it was not something someone should say, yet when I told my homeroom teacher this, her only reaction was to say “so?” before walking away.
At eleven, I discovered programming. I fell in love with the idea of being able to bring computers to life and began creating programs in Java during my days at the public library.
At thirteen years old, I would become homeless, a victim of the 2008 recession like many. Separated from my immediate family, I would find myself staring at many unfamiliar ceilings over the coming months, as I bounced from motels to the couches of family friends. One fateful day while walking down the road, I was struck by a wrench thrown from a moving truck, the assailant shouting “get out of the road, Obama!” as they sped off. I’d also come face-to-face with the same reality my mother did in 1988, as my first girlfriend broke up with me simply because her parents had found out I was black.
At fourteen years old, I survived a lynching. Surrounded by our peers in the backyard of an abandoned house, another student and I shook hands, and we fought to settle a longstanding feud. As we wrestled on the ground, I felt a sharp pain enter my right shoulder. Someone had stabbed me. Then two fists became many: I was now being punched and kicked from all sides. Through the adrenaline and fear, I broke free, jumped a fence, and began running through the woods towards a family friend’s house. Eventually, I would find myself on the freeway, only to hear a car screeching behind me, and in what seemed like an instant, I was rolling off its hood. A woman stepped out. As I withered on the ground in pain, she began calling me a stupid nigger. The orchestrator of this attack had been the student’s mother.
The police officer who showed up immediately cast blame on me, stating that I must have instigated the encounter. My sister, who had sped to my location not knowing my condition, was threatened with arrest due to “reckless driving.” No charges were brought against the student’s mother, who punctured my arm, hit me with her car, and encouraged a mob to assault me.
At fifteen, I made the difficult decision to drop out of high school. I focused my time purely on software development, honing my skills, and discovering my passion for building products for people.
At eighteen, I purchased a ‘99 Camaro from a Walmart parking lot for $900, all the money I had in savings. I drove it to Miami, Florida, where I would bootstrap my first startup.
At twenty-two, after pivoting my startup, I sold everything I owned, packed a bag, and moved to Seattle to dive head-first into the unknown. I would raise millions of dollars and be awarded Forbes 30 Under 30 and the Thiel Fellowship. A journalist once wrote about me, saying, “Sampson is the perfect example not only of how capitalism can and should work in this country but also of the American Dream.”
Now, twenty-five, I became the first person in my family ever to own a home. So, for all intents and purposes, I achieved the American Dream - but at what cost? Founding a company in an ecosystem rife with other forms of racism and disregard for the humanity of individuals shredded my mental and physical health, and I have never felt more alone in the world.
Despite my hard work, all my talent, I am where I am today for a straightforward reason: luck. I survived a system and society that chews up and spits out black people. We are stripped of our self-confidence and alienated from society. When we do succeed, our stories paraded as proof things are fine and that racism does not exist.
Generations of pain, as well as a lifetime of hardship, molded me into the person I am today. My motives are not rooted in capitalism, nor do I care to align with tech brain myopia’s mediocrity. I strive for success because of eleven-year-old me, sitting in a public library, wondering why no one who looked like me was building the future.
My American Dream is to support the next generation of black founders, engineers, and intellectuals by giving them the support and resources necessary to achieve their dreams. So, no bright black child ever again feels they cannot change the world. To that end, I still have some work to do.