Growing Pains #14: Curiosity

” I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” – Kendrick Lamar

My passion for learning and having unique experiences has led me to some interesting places. Most importantly though, I’ve searched for the feeling of “home” for quite some time. In fact, it was something that claimed my attention until the summer of 2016. I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad a few times and build relationships with people from different pockets of the world. I traveled out of excitement and curiosity, but also because I was searching.

I spent the start of 2016 in Ireland. My friend Rachel and I decided to go to Ireland and parts of the UK and we ended up in Dublin for New Years. On one of our other days of traveling we decided to go out with some people from our hostel and we ended up meeting up with people from Montreal (Canada) and Geneva (Switzerland). We ended up walking back to our hostel with our new friends. We found out that they were both engineers on vacation and that they went to grad school together.

Grego, from Geneva but working in Burkina Faso, asked, “Where are you from?” I said the United States, and after recognizing confusion on his face, I asked did if he meant something else. He changed his question. “No, no, what is your origin?” He was speaking of my ethnicity. He was curious about my heritage, which sparked my curiosity as well. He had seen my features before, but not my complexion. He also displayed genuine curiosity when asking. My family always talked about our Black, Native American, and Irish roots, but I never really looked too much into it. His question prompted a mini-identity crisis, but in a positive way. I just gave a generic response, but that question stuck with me. What is your origin? (PS. It’s definitely a United States norm to explain your genetic make up to other people.)

The question carried me into this year. I decided to try the Ancestry DNA kit. I sent the package in and eagerly awaited the results. What is my origin? Where do I come from? One of the common statements that prominent black people in the US frequently use is that “we don’t know where we come from.” Because of slavery, we don’t have a definitive place to point back to and say “I am from X and this is My Culture.”

The day came when I received the email, and I would discover the direction in which I could travel to learn about my heritage. I take great pride in family heritage, generational stories, lessons, and ties to the past, but this gave me a place on a map, well a few places. I intend to visit most, if not all these places. I discovered my origin and no I’m curious to learn about the cultures and histories so I can better understand myself and the world.

My curiosity is at an all time high right now. I’ve loved learning all my life, but right now I have more access than I’ve ever had before. I have time and resources to have new experiences. I am in the mindset that possibilities are endless and that I can become more and more myself each day by peeling that the curtains back one by one. It is a privilege to have time and freedom to seek these things out. There are so many who don’t have that luxury, which is why I’m also compelled to make a better world for others through my work. I am living my best life right now, and it is only the beginning. The relationships, interests, jobs, and opportunities have aligned and continue to align in such a way that I get to do all that I want to do, which isn’t me saying that I can go and do anything I want. But instead, saying that I can choose. I can say no to the things I don’t want and yes to what I do want. I’ve found direction, but most of all, I’ve found home, in myself.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #15: Authenticity will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #13: Mirrors

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There is no “right” way to be black, but because of how culture works, there are similar or shared experiences. Being a member of the culture and seeing myself as different caused me to reject some ways of displaying culture norms and widely accepted behaviors. Trying my hand at archery, being a gymnast, camping (which I’m still not sold on, but I’ll do because I love spending time with my friends), and a variety of other things are examples of “non-normal black people activities” (Stereotype).

My context has most often been US-based so my perspective is influenced by the culture in the United States. Consciously and unconsciously, I received information about what it meant to be black in the world from all sides. From how to speak and dress to the types of lives we “lead” and what we’ll be successful at. I needed to find representation. I needed to unlearn the stereotypes I, myself, held about blackness and black people, while also being true to myself. I needed to find present-day mirrors that reflected me back at me, while I worked to embrace blackness as a whole so not to exclude others.

I found a treasure trove of artists, friends, family, peers, icons, people larger than life and historic figures that transcended generations. I think of Donald Glover who is as creative as it gets. He continues to dive deeper into the work that inspires him, while also addressing issues affecting black communities through shows like Atlanta. I think of Andre 3000 who challenged the notion of black masculinity, while giving us great music and meaningful messages. I think of rap music and all its form. I think of Ava DuVernay who’s given us amazing films and commentary on issues that affect our people generation after generation. I think of Michelle Obama, and the grace and commitment she shows through her health and women’s initiatives. I think of where I was when Barak Obama was first elected. I think (often) of James Baldwin, who shared the feelings of wanting to leave or escape the US, but ultimately felt compelled to come back. (In some places around the world, the grass is actually greener for black people.)

I think of Nikki Giovanni who said “If you don’t understand yourself, you don’t understand anybody else.” I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates who discussed stolen moments created by fear as he explored Paris with a new friend he thought might bring him to harm because of what he experienced growing up in Baltimore. I think of Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega, and Idris Elba as the superheroes I looked for in all my Saturday morning cartoons. I think of my parents, black barbershops, family, laughter, creativity, travel, fellowship, and community.

I found mirror after mirror, all of different shapes and sizes and colors. I was seeing myself in my community. I learned that it’s not how you show up, but rather showing up at all and being authentic. A lesson learned early on, but later forgotten and learned again later, is that people just want you to be real. No two-way glass. No distorted funhouse mirrors. Just a mirror that might hold a reflection from time to time.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #14: Curiosity will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #12: Reflections (i)

I am black. I own my blackness. I love my blackness. I love your blackness. I see my reflection. I see myself in the black community.  I see my blackness as valuable. I see my blackness as worthy and equally as important as all the other parts of me. I see your blackness as worthy and equally as important as all the other parts of you. I am happy. I am proud. I am thankful. I am who I am and that included my blackness. I reflect that into the world.

“I love myself.” – Kendrick Lamar

“I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.” – Ava Duvernay

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #13: Mirrors will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains 10: Resentment

There were tremors. From “creative” spirals (me just procrastinating) to questions from the people who know me best. During one of the creative spirals, I found a poem, by Daniel Beaty, a playwright, poet, and all around talented performer. The poem, Duality Duel, personified how I viewed myself and how I viewed black people. Beaty goes on to have a conversation between two parts of himself – one characterized as scholarly and clean cut, while the other is cold and hardened by life. Beaty held up the mirror. His performance showed me parts of myself that I wanted to suppress or avoid. It showed me my blackness in the context of community.


“Now the time has come for you to pay yo dues. Because these little n*ggas in the street, they need you. But they think they can’t relate because you act all removed. But the TRUTH IS NERD, WHAT THEY ARE IS YOU. Cuz no matter how hard you try to deny the way you think, talk and feel, yo daddy still smoke heroine, yo brother still on crack, ghetto nightmares still haunt your dreams, and ya momma is still black. I ain’t sayin you gotta become me, but this one thing is true. Inside you is a hard ass n*gga you gotta let come through. Cuz this assimilating bullshit will surely beat you down, and if you choke me long enough, my nerd, I will not stick around. Put the strut back in your walk. Say what you really feel. BE ALL OF YOU FOR ALL OF US TO HEAL! The time for lying and denying is through, it’s time nerd journey to the n*gga in you!” – Duality Duel, Daniel Beaty (An excerpt – click the link for the full poem)


I resented myself for having negative feelings and beliefs about the black community. I used to resent the people around me. I’d come to resent myself. How do I back pedal without it being perceived as inauthentic? How can I now be supportive of blackness? How do I fit into the black community? What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be black in different communities? What parts of myself do I still have to uncover? How do I become all of myself?

Slowly but surely the weight of my guilt, my lack of understanding, and desire to change would give way to lessons learned and new perspective. The process to change was honest, painful, uncomfortable, and most of all, NECESSARY. I needed to change. I reached a tipping point. I needed to learn how to move forward.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #11: Tipping Point will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #9: Space & The Escape

Solitude. Reflection. Silence. Empty Space. I crave it. I need it. I can’t operate without it. I attribute this to the way my mind works, but also always having people around as a child. I can’t process information in overstimulating environments. In crowded spaces, I check out. In busy or loud environments, I’m unfocused or hyper-focused on one thing. In moments characterized by loud sounds, lots of people, and conversation, I just take in all the information, noise, and movement around me or I take in none of it. I need empty space to find clarity. Sometimes, I even need to be outside because some spaces aren’t large enough. I need the entire sky to fill my thoughts.

The summer after sophomore year, I got all the solitude and silence I needed, two months worth of it. Not total solitude for two months, but I spent more time alone than I did with people. It may be my favorite summer. It was the perfect time to “restart” my life. I had time to grieve, process, learn, make sense of, and understand all that I had gone through and was going through. I just needed to stop creating distractions. I know myself very well now, but at that time I knew nothing about myself. I saw no reflections. I wasn’t trying to see any.

I learned the most important lesson about myself that summer. I learned how to learn about myself. It was a know thy self type of situation. I needed to learn how to be authentic. I went inward. I learned how to ask myself questions that I needed answers to, but may not have wanted. I learned how to be honest with myself about everything. I recognized myself for the first time and I was just lost. I was a black man (still a teenager at the time) who had grown to outwardly hate and avoid anyone who looked like me, thus hating myself. Feeling guilty and unsure of what to do next, I saw my reflection for the first time.

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When I had the space to think about it, I started to notice my behaviors. My unconscious actions that distanced me from other black people. I noticed that my unresolved frustrations and biases influenced how I built relationships. I spent what felt like all my life separating myself from other black people – intellectually, socially, emotionally, psychologically. I found ways to not see the mirror. The reflections were always present, but I chose not to see them. This was the first time I was seeing myself as a black man. How could I possible come clean about this? Who can I tell? How will they feel? What do I do now? What does it mean to be black? These questions left me wanting, but paralyzed by guilt and uncertainty. Critical reflection started me on a path toward self-love, but I’d need a few earthquakes to shake the path so I would move forward.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #10: Resentment will be up and ready for your reading.

 

Growing Pains #8 – Where Do I Fit?

When I think about my life, I think about moments in time. I call the significant moments pillars in time. Sophomore year was a life defining year, it was a pillar in time that would hold up the Parthenon that is my life. I wrestled with so many emotions – grief, fear, anxiety, success, loneliness, pain heartbreak, joy, excitement, anticipation, shame, calmness, emptiness. My life felt like a Greek Tragedy. I had three family members pass away in just under a year and a half. A cousin. An uncle. A grandfather. I am a first generation student so I was feeling the pressure to succeed. I still wrestled with being black and what that meant. The year was weighing on me. I needed support. I needed community.

I was fortunate enough to be part of two scholarship cohorts. I was automatically part of a community because of the two programs. I was a Leader Advancement Scholar (LAS) and a Multicultural Advancement and Cofer scholar (MAC). Each of these programs were different. They were made up of different people, targeted different communities, and focused on different experiences. In LAS, the cohort was comprised of mostly white students. In MAC, the cohort included various races and ethnicities, but I would say that it was primarily made up of black students.

With all that carried over from K-12 and life before college, I found myself spending more time with LAS than MAC. I lived in Troutman with MAC scholars, but you wouldn’t have known that. I spent nearly every day of the first year in Barnes with LAS kids, and I moved out of Troutman my second year. I sought out to build deeper connections with LAS students because I hadn’t been shown any mirrors. I didn’t see myself in the MAC scholars’ cohort. I saw myself in LAS.

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I was hypercritical of the MAC scholars program. I took every opportunity to shine light on any fault or annoyance that I found with the program. I’d complain with other scholars. The meetings ran long. The AV didn’t work. This event felt like a waste of time. In hindsight, those events were so important, especially as I clarified my values and began to understand what I wanted to do with my life. (I apologize to anyone who had to deal with that). I didn’t realize it in the moment, and by the end of sophomore year, I left the MAC scholars program and almost left Central.

All year long, I suppressed the pressures of life. I finished the year and spent most of the summer alone in Mt. Pleasant. I had time to learn about myself and “deal” with everything that was slowly crushing me. It was meditative and rejuvenating. I had time to think. Time to be still. Time to just figure things out. That was really when things started to change for me. With emptiness all around me, I had time to find the mirrors. I had time to see my reflection with clear eyes. All the stimulation was gone. All the distractions were silenced. I was finding my fit, and it was inside rather than out.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #9: Space will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #7: Bad Genes

Context: The moments shared here are in the past and I hold no ill-will or angst toward people I am writing about, but those moments have served as catalysts for reflection and change. They’ve since apologized and we’ve moved on.


I arrived on campus several days before the semester started. August 15, 2010 – I walked around campus looking up at the sky in awe on how many stars there were. The sky was speckled with little exploding balls of light. I remember feeling an overwhelming calmness with each step. I would find that feeling a few more times before graduation, but more of that will come later.

My first year was exciting – events, meaningful classes, new friendships, shared interests and late-night discussions. With no men’s gymnastics team, I decided to try my hand at cheerleading. Tumbling skills got me on the team because my ability to stunt was very low at the time (sorry Obetts and anyone else I had to practice with during tryouts). College was off to a great start. I still had tumbling as an outlet and I made new friends.

As the fall semester turned into the spring semester, I found myself planning a spring break trip with friends from the team. It was my first spring break trip without family. It was college. We were driving down to Panama City Beach. I didn’t know much about it, but I was going with friends. Six of us piled into my friend’s van and we drove down to Florida.

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Big Sean had blown up a little bit and Chiddy Bang was still popular at the time. Just look up Too-Fake by Big Sean and Chiddy Bang. It was basically our theme song for the entire trip. I remember straddling the border of Alabama and Florida for about two hours. Finally! We made it to PCB and Whenever by Kid Cudi was playing out the speakers. The line “you can sip chardonnay and imma have myself a brew. I’m a country ass n***a baby, you know how I roll” flew out the speakers and time stopped.

One of the women on the trip asked, with no inhibition or signs of skipping the word, “What’s a country ass n***a?” She was white and apparently confused. The rest of the car was mortified and I just became small and silent. My friends explained why she shouldn’t say the “n-word” and she proceeds to say, “well I just want to know what a country ass n***a is.” I chimed in and let her know that it was offensive and that we should move on. After all our trip was just beginning.

In that moment, the mirror appeared and showed me myself for the first time. I was a black man. Reality cracked my shell and slapped me in the face. My black face. There are many moments like this one throughout college – each one slowly chipping away at the facade I built up. Two people crossed the street to walk on the same side as a person in a ski mask. Having someone tell you that you shouldn’t date with the underlying, unstated reason having to do with ethnicity. Someone jokingly telling you that Popeyes is “Black people food” as you drive by it.

What did the mirror show me? It revealed that I didn’t really see myself in the people around me either. It showed me that I’d have to continue searching for my place in the world.

“Fight between my conscious and the skin that’s on my body.” – Lift Me Up, Vince Staples

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #8: Where do I fit? will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #6: Tipping Point

Poverty is a beast!

It was the November 29, 2008, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I was listening to Dear Life by Anthony Hamilton. At 12:06am (I have this weird thing about remembering specific times), we pulled into the driveway after taking Kyle, my brother, back to school in Kentucky. It was his first year of college. It was nearly pitch black out except for a few dimly lit, orange street lights and the light on our porch. I stepped out of the car, followed by my parents.

“Give me the bag. Don’t move” A gun pointed directly at me and two men standing in masks demanding everything we had. There are very few moments that are as memorable as being robbed at gunpoint in your driveway. I was helpless.  In a moment that seemed to last forever, my resentment turned to hate. I hated the person standing in front of me. I was angry that there was nothing I could do. My hate was unfiltered and uninhibited. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

A week later, we received a police report that read like a grocery list. Bread, milk, peanut butter, chips, juice, and a two-liter Red Faygo. Less than two miles away, they bought groceries from a gas station. They lived in my neighborhood. Why would they rob us only to go buy food? Why were they in those circumstances? Was this normal? Why us? Why? Why?

Poverty. Poverty. Poverty. The anger lingered, but it was joined by confusion, compassion, fear, and uncertainty. The next two years floated by in a fog and I just moved on. I left Detroit for college with the intention of never going back. I didn’t have answers or solutions. I couldn’t fix anything. I walked away. Little did I know just how important my blackness and my community would become to me. A shield. A target. A reminder. It was the end of one story and the beginning of another, or so I thought.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #7: Bad Genes will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #4: The Escape (Gymnastics and the Ocean)

Growing Pains #5 – The Escape

You’ve probably reached this point and have thought, “wow this guy’s childhood was rough.” We all have our rough spots, but my life was full of love. It took me some time to see it and appreciate it. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, there are bright spots that I reflect on now. I was a competitive gymnast in traditional gymnastics as well as trampoline and tumbling. (I’ve included links for trampoline and tumbling because people are less familiar with them.) I started at age four and rounded out my competitive journey at 17 before I left for college. Gymnastics gave me freedom. It was my escape.

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First National Competition. First National Championship. (It sounds cooler than it is. It was me and one another kid in the division. I only beat one person lol)

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I could spend hours in the gym. I wouldn’t even have practice and I’d want to be at the gym. It helped that my mom coached and eventually started her own team. There’s a certain level of peace you get from leaving the ground and just being still in the air for a moment. Yes, there’s the rush of trying newer, more difficult skills, but there is nothing like flying through the air detached from everything for a moment.

 

Our family vacations coincided with Nationals or the Junior Olympics. My favorite competitions happened in Florida and Virginia. I was near the ocean. Similar to the feeling of flying through the air detached, there’s nothing like the stillness beneath the waves in the ocean. I felt so much peace in the ocean. My life felt less chaotic, less loud, and less crowed. The ocean gave me rest and it always seemed to come at the perfect time.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #5: Resentment will be up and ready for your reading.

 

Growing Pains #3: Space (The Beechdale House)

The Beechdale house was in my family four three generations. Decades of family history filled the walls. It is a four bedroom house. My favorite part of the house is the French doors that separated the living room from the dining room. Twenty-eight small windows filled each door. Anytime you entered either room, it felt like a grand entrance had to be made. There are seven stairs from the bottom floor to a landing with two windows that let light in halfway up to the top floor, and eight stairs followed upward after a short turn. The living room had three beautiful bay windows, a fireplace, and enough room for everyone. I loved that house. I didn’t love living in it.

There are plenty of happy moments. Like setting up my mom’s old gymnastics mats to have wrestling matches with my brother and our cousins in the living room or playing hide and seek in the dark with 10 people. Even family dinners at my grandmother’s victorian dining room table were very much enjoyed. Those happy moments will always be a prized possession. They also gave way to some of the pressure and anxiety I felt as a child.

I felt like I was suffocating every day. I couldn’t wait to go in my room and shut the door. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted my one space. Everywhere you turned, despite having an immense amount of space, there seemed to be no room for anyone. Throughout my childhood and teenage years someone lived with us –  a cousin, an aunt, a family friend, another cousin… multiple people at the same time. Honestly, the list could go on. I didn’t fully understand the role poverty played in creating these circumstances. I didn’t know people chose between paying rent, buying food, or buying school supplies. I didn’t understand how difficult it must have been to ask for help. I just saw the people taking up space as a burden.

I resented my parents for always welcoming people in. I resented people who seemed to always lean on my parents in a way that took them away from me. At ten years old, I remember breaking down to my dad, the frustration had reached a tipping point. My dad and I sat in our basement for what felt like hours. He asked over and over again, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Help me understand what you’re feeling. What’s wrong?” Each question landing on my ears the way a sledge hammer lands on a wall being knocked down. I searched for an answer with each question. I clawed deeper and deeper to find nothing. Uncontrollably, I responded “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t. I don’t know.” With tears pouring down my face “I DON’T KNOW!” I didn’t have the words to communicate what was crushing me. We left that that moment unresolved and hanging over us like a storm cloud. A few weeks later, I went to a few therapy sessions and it helped a lot. All I wanted was my family. (GET HELP IF YOU NEED IT! THERE IS NO SHAME IN TALKING TO SOMEONE.)

Even to this day, I am very selective of who gets to meet my family. The few people who have met my family have done so because of circumstance. It has absolutely nothing to do with me not wanting people I care about to meet my family. It’s more so about privacy and separation. You see, I love people and I learned that from my parents first. The values my parents demonstrated were love, compassion, humility, and dignity for all. Give as people need. The values communicated by their actions became my core value. People are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances. It took so long for me to learn that.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #4: Resentment will be up and ready for your reading.