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 #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 #5: Resentment

Everywhere I turned, I saw someone to blame. Everywhere I turned, I saw someone who looked like me. Everywhere I turned, I pointed the finger. Everywhere I turned I saw no mirrors. Well, there were mirrors… I just didn’t see myself. I didn’t want to see myself.


*Context*

I saw being black as a detriment. I believed being black was a setback. I saw being white, and even non-black, as better. In school. At home. In the activities I participated in. In life. I saw myself as better because I believed I was “non-black”. I was “50%” this, “20%” that. The last thing I was, and most times by default, was black. I would only claim to be black because it was so obvious that I was. I didn’t want to be associated with blackness. I hated that part of my life. The black experience in the United States was, and still is, defined by struggle and suffering. More than that, it seemed like everyone around me was defined by struggle and suffering. You know how tired I was of hearing about and seeing struggling and suffering. You know the type of hopelessness that creates?! It’s all you see. It’s all you hear. It’s all around you. In not owning my blackness, I felt like I didn’t have to deal with it. I was 10 years old and exhausted from life. How does that happen?

Even now, it’s exhausting to always explain to people what’s going on and things like Black Lives Matter or systemic oppression. It’s exhausting to deal with systems that ruin lives everyday.  Eventually, I saw a way out – getting through middle school and high school as soon as possible. – *exhales after getting that out* (Scroll below for content.)


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*Content*

By the time I was in sixth grade, I changed schools five times. There was a cycle. Start over, make a few connections, change schools, start over, make a few connections, start over. My parents just wanted to find the best education for my brother and I, which meant trying schools out and seeing what happened. I just floated through school.

I was part of another environment that seemed to drain imagination and creativity rather than cultivate it. In sixth grade, I was testing two years higher in all subjects and my teacher brought up the discussion to promote me to the eighth grade. I WAS OVERJOYED. It was happening! I’d get to leave sooner than I thought. You can imagine the pride and joy I felt about having this opportunity.

After thinking about it, my parents declined. “I wasn’t socially ready to be in the classroom with eighth graders.” “I was already young for my grade and I wouldn’t be prepared for the changing environments.” I was devastated. I was defeated. I RESENTED THEM more than I ever had before. I couldn’t make lasting connections anywhere. School was failing me. I was fed up. I was a grudge holder. I was so damn tired. They took away the one chance I had to leave it all behind sooner than I anticipated. That chance was gone before I could even blink.

I shut down. I checked out. I didn’t even try. The same feelings of arrogance and disdain toward my peers came back around. My frustration and anger even reached my brother. Kyle and I would’ve been in the same grade. For the longest time, I thought my parents were trying to protect him. I took every opportunity to bring up being promoted publicly to jab at them and remind them that I was angry. I can never apologize enough for how vindictive I was.

*I want to be a parent some day, but it scares me. I can’t thank my parents enough for how they handled me as a child. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done in this situation. They just loved me through it. In hindsight, they made the absolutely right decision. There are so many things I would’ve missed had I moved on too early.

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 #6: Tipping Point 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.

 

Growing Pains #2: Where Do I Fit?

“It comes as a great shock around the age of five or six or seven to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.” – James Baldwin, novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

Quiet hallways. Cinderblock walls painted white with deep brown stripe painted to divide the top from the bottom. A sea of brown faces. No Mirrors.

I started to notice differences immediately. I couldn’t see myself in the people around me. At St. Mike’s, I couldn’t tell you the ethnic make-up of the class because it didn’t matter. I mean I didn’t know it mattered to me. When I arrived at Thomas Gist, there was a pronounced feeling of difference. I was different. I didn’t see myself as black. I saw everyone around me as black. I was the exception, which is why I was ahead of everyone else. Unconsciously, I thought myself better than others because I was different, and at the time different meant better to me.

I understood this difference to be “black people are less capable of achieving,” which is absolutely not the case. However, there was something more significant that was influencing my perspective – social class. At both St. Mike’s and Thomas Gist, messages of success, brilliance, and imagination were espoused weekly, if not daily. Each teacher communicated that we were all capable students and that we’d one day succeed in reaching our dreams. There was only one difference, a subtle one to a six year old – less resources. Without similar resources and support, I recognized the difference as being the result of the people and not the system around the people.

In unconsciously blaming the people around me, I struggled to make connections with students who were “so different” than me. I didn’t fit. I didn’t know how to build new relationships with other black kids. Martez was my only friend, which was probably a result of him looking like my cousin Josh. For those years, I was very much an outsider and very much alone. I became more introspective and unwilling to interact with others. A quiet second and third grader found himself trying to understand why he felt so alone.

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Martez is in the front row and to the right of me.  He is wearing a gray shirt, black pants, and black/white tie.

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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 #3: Space will be up and ready for your reading.

HUMAN – A Reflection on the Film

With a vision to truly capture the essence of what humans experience, Yann Arthus-Bertrand spent three years taking photos, recording stories, and creating a deeply personal and effortlessly human film that allows people to be vulnerable, authentic, honest, and free to share parts of themselves that we can all find in our own lives. (Yann Arthus-Bertrand is a French photographer, journalist, reporter and environmentalist.)

HUMAN the movie (Link to VOL. 1) strips away the complexity of human life to date and shares it with viewers who can immediately empathize or connect with the people who are sharing their stories. Universal themes are at the center of the film – disappointment, love, hate, pain, happiness, sorrow, frustration, change, isolation, difference, belonging, anguish, trust, kindness, and uncertainty.

Many have said, and will continue to say, that technology has isolated us. My usual response to statements and situations when it comes to human interaction, belief systems, and how we treat each other is “It’s more complicated than that.” HUMAN makes the perfect case for that. In the wake of seeing how it has divided us, Arthus-Bertrand demonstrates how technology can be used to bring people closer together.

Right now in the United States, we are publicly seeing people treat others an inhuman. We are desensitized to the reality that we are all people first who have lives, emotions, experiences, needs, desires, ambitions, love, pain, worries, fears, and people that we care about. We are being crushed by adding layer upon layer as to why we are so different from one another, why we have disdain for people, and why we could never even be in the same room as some people. Whether you are liberal or conservative or neither. Black or white or multi-racial. Gay or Straight or Neither. Even if you fit into not of those categories, you are a person first. I am a person first. Though our beliefs may differ, we are people first. Though our ideologies may differ, we are people first.

I understand that how we come together is much more complex than that. There must be acknowledgement and reconciliation from past and current injustices. There must be progress made in achieving equal rights and human rights, as well as in the enactment of those rights. Poverty must be addressed. Decades of work or harm must be undone in order to create a more peaceful world, a world that thrives through collaboration, mutual trust and respect, and honesty.

Even as insurmountable as it may seem to build a better world, it starts with taking a deeply honest look inside to say, who do I see as not worth of life, support, love, opportunity, friendship, happiness, joy, rights? Why do I feel this way? What has brought me to this mindset? How can I get out of the way of others? How can I change the minds of people close to me? Do I see others as human beings? If so, I know what it means to feel pain, be forgotten, and unloved. But I also know what life is like when I feel joy, connected, loved, and appreciated.

When we can acknowledge one another’s humanity, we will be able to have better conversations about our differences and gain understanding about one another’s lives. Even if we do not agree, even if we do not reach a place of true consensus, we have taken the time to acknowledge one another’s humanity and treat each other with dignity.

I’ve included the trailer for a short introduction and a link to VOL. 1 of Human The Movie near the start of the blog.