Behind all the invisible work that doesn’t get credited or compensated is, of course, the invisible worker.
Doug Melville is a chief diversity officer who has devoted his career to equity and to, well, making the invisible visible. His journey has been generations in the making: Melville is the descendant of unsung Black veterans who pioneered innovation and set standards Americans take for granted today, including airport security and speed limits. He has spent the last few years researching his own family story, and thinking through how we might apply the lessons of his ancestors to our own lives and careers.
The result is a book to be released this week, Invisible Generals: The amazing true story of America’s first Black generals, that offers inspiring, overlapping lessons in history and leadership. Melville is the grand-nephew of Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a pilot, officer, and administrator who became the first Black general in the US Air Force. His father was Benjamin O. Davis Sr., one of few Black officers who ascended through segregation to become the US Army’s first Black general.
I’ve written about invisibility a few times in this column, maintaining that women and people of color often build networks, communities, and organizations without getting adequate credit. But Melville’s book (which is currently getting quite a bit of attention, including a feature on The Daily Show last week), exposed me to the idea that being invisible, being underestimated even, can be a superpower. His family history is a case study in how invisibility enables us to change systems by working within them. It can feel very lonely to be on the outside looking in—and yet that perch, as unfair as it is, shapes and enables perspective that can result in deep change and innovation.
I spoke to Melville, the global head of diversity and inclusion for Richemont, a Switzerland-based luxury goods holding company, on how the past is guiding current attitudes toward diversity and divisiveness. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The idea to research my family came about from attending a screening of the movie Red Tails, where the commander, who is played by Terrence Howard, was General Benjamin Davis. When Terrence Howard showed up on screen, he was addressed as Colonel Bullard. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t use real names in the movie, and I was furious.
My dad said, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ He also said: ‘Doug, if you think having your name omitted from a movie is something to be concerned about, you should know what I lived through.’ That was when he shared with me the story of Ben and his dad, how he was raised by them, and how he had firsthand accounts of real things he went through that were much more important to our family than a name being taken out of a movie.
I said: ‘I want to know the story he’s telling and make sure that it’s right in the eyes of history. I want to own it.’ That was the moment where my purpose came together, when I said, ‘You know what? I want to contribute to corporations who can use my insight to ensure that those who are being kept invisible are made visible.’
What part of the generals’ work was invisible, and how do you relate that to innovation?
The Invisible Generals is the story of America’s first two Black generals, a father and a son. The father was in the army. The son was in the air force, where he worked to desegregate the military and also helped create and command the Tuskegee Airmen.
Ben Jr. couldn’t get a job in the private sector after he retired, so the Pentagon created a role for him. They put him at the end of the hallway in the Pentagon and he says, ‘The first thing we need to do is we need to treat commercial aviation like we do military aviation and ensure it’s safe.’ So he creates commercial airport security, which is now the TSA. Then he creates the United States Air Marshal program. Then President Carter’s Department of Transportation had him observe traditional transportation. That was where he led the creation of the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit to ensure that cars were traveling at a safe speed and idling with the maximum return on fossil fuels.
If you looked at all the 500+ Black newspapers around in the early 1900s, the name Ben Davis was one of the top five most used names—up there with Lena Horne, Jackie Robinson, those kinds of people. When you look at mainstream papers, they only have one small article on Ben Jr.
Your family members created standards in this country, even as institutions didn’t always include them. What does that teach us?
Between the two men, they worked with eight different presidential administrations, so they were very aware that if only two Black officers are generals, then any single thing could be one day used against them.
They lived by one saying, and that is my motto: You must use the system to diffuse the system. You cannot diffuse something and criticize it at the same time. If there is something that you need to fix or you feel needs to evolve, your performance is the way to do that, by being allowed in the room to have a voice. Now, every voice is not a vote. So if you go into a room, you’ll have a voice to begin. Over time, you’ll have a vote. And then over time, you can affect policy and change. And they were willing to wait that long.
Another thing they always said: The impossible takes time, but in time you can accomplish the impossible. Ben Davis Jr. got his fourth star at 89 years old. He died on the 4th of July. He wanted to make America a better place.
That’s beautiful. Tell me more about how writing this book affected your work in corporate diversity, equity and inclusion.
When I became a diversity officer in 2012, the role itself was much less political than it is now. We looked at diversity as if it was a client. How are we to position diversity? How will we communicate or brand it? What would the frequency be? What would the message be? What would the hero images be?
What I learned through Ben is take your time, have patience, use the system. Work with the system to create solutions for it. Don’t go in there and say, ‘I’m going to do this, and the next thing I’m going to do is…’ A lot of times people do that when they get a new role, but you have to get the base set up first.
My dad is a judge, and he always taught me to think about both sides before you speak. What is the other person’s position? Write it down. These are things that we sometimes skip: the steps that we can control. Again, diversity, when I started, was more of a domestic emerging market. It was an opportunity to get new business, get new clients, get new eyeballs, get new hands. And there were milestones: #OscarsSoWhite, same-sex marriage, #MeToo, #StopAsianHate, #BlackLivesMatter. As each of these milestones hit, the subject matter of opportunity and openness was limited in the amount of air, time, and space these subjects were given to grow. Everything turned into a sound bite, a quick hit, a point of view, a blurb, a breadcrumb, a statement.
The industry as a whole now has so much scale that you also have people that use it as a way simply to divide people. But I believe diversity makes everybody stronger and brings everyone together.
That’s the important thing to look at when you’re laying out your diversity program: How do you make it bring people together and not tear people apart?
What about the need for companies to weave history into their DEI efforts?
We should learn from our family names and our own stories. The first half of the book is the story of the invisible generals, but then the second half is how to become a visible general. And I actually walk through the steps and tips on what I did on researching my own family and how to do it.
When I told my dad I wanted to be a diversity officer, he goes: ‘Doug, why would you want to spend your career talking about race, ethnicity, age, gender? You are in a no-win situation. Don’t dedicate your career to that.’
I said: ‘Dad, the biggest opportunity and need is just like the need you saw with civil rights law, and Ben Jr. did with aviation, and Ben Sr. did with the army. Corporations would benefit to have someone advise them on these topics that have historically been unspoken of, because the younger generations are becoming way more vocal.’
These two Black generals had a lot of influence over recent US history. What do you think of their invisibility now?
On one hand, much of their work was done successfully because they were invisible. They used invisibility as a superpower. Not as something that they would have chosen, not as something that they wanted, but when labeled that by the mainstream, they said, ‘Well, then that’s part of the system that we have to use.’
On the other hand, being visible is a part of your identity. With social media, everybody has a brand and a channel and a platform and a point of view and a domain. Being visible translates to making more opportunities or creating more opportunities for yourself. The word invisible can be used as a superpower, the unintended consequence is that it is a way of oppressing people. My family fought for me to have more opportunities. I should fight for other people to also have more opportunities.