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.

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Growing Pains #1: Bad Genes

Context:

For the past five years, I’ve been reconciling all the hate for myself that compounded over my short lifetime of 24 years. At that point, I was 19 and just starting my journey. Leading up to the middle of Black History Month (February 2017), I found the freedom to tell the story you’re about to begin (There was a long Facebook post). Growing Pains is be a blog series that reflects my personal journey and the semi-universal feelings that came from it. Pain, disappointment, frustration, loneliness, confusion, honesty, compassion, hope, curiosity, love, and peace of mind. My hope is solely to uncover my wounds so that others may see how to heal their own. In sharing this, I aspire to be vulnerable, authentic, humorous, creative, and instructive. Please journey with me from Self-Hate to Self-Love that extends back into a community that has given and still gives me so much joy. I love myself and I love my blackness.

Bad Genes

Bad jeans – I mean bad genes. Sixteen and wishing for color contacts to have the ocean blue eyes like the porcelain skinned girl I had a crush on in the first grade. Five years old, white oxford shirt, smirk, pressed blue pants, Reebok sneakers, Detroit Lions backpack, Hercules folder. I was ready for the first day of first grade at St. Michael’s School, a private school in Southfield, MI. Didn’t even know I was Black. I was a kid trying to figure out which one of the eighth graders was going to push me on the swing set during recess. I was a kid trying to figure out how the Gingerbread Man got from room to room. My mind was bursting open as if the sun was exploding and my imagination was a deep and as wide as the ocean. Day after day there was a new adventure to be had and a new lesson to be learned.

Decades before Arthur memes, I was dressed in a yellow sweater vest and jeans with the fake round glasses on for Arthur Day. We were paleontologists wearing 13-pocket vests looking for fossils in the dirt on Paleontologist Day. We made wax candles on Valentine’s Day after receiving a valentine from every person in the class. On Saturdays, I sat in a rocking chair with a blanket over my legs next to my brother, who sat in a power ranger chair, to watch Saturday morning cartoons while eating a mini bagel with cream cheese and drinking apple juice. I was 85 in a six-year old’s body, assuming that 85 year-olds sit in rocking chairs. Life was good. Life was amazing in fact.

First grade came and went. It was an exciting year full of first crushes, field day, elementary school birthday parties, and the Scholastic Book Fair. Second grade rolled around and I found myself at a new school, Thomas Gist in Inkster, MI. I went from a private school that was predominantly white to a charter school that was predominantly black. My world shook and I didn’t know how to handle it. Making friends at that age was challenging enough, but to change school and communities made it even more difficult. My second-grade head was spinning. I was alone in a new place. I imagine I am introverted by nature, but the next few years reinforced that feeling. I didn’t spend much time in the second-grade class though, because what I had learned in first grade at St. Mike’s, they were just teaching in second grade at Thomas Gist. So, I was placed in Ms. Murphy’s third grade class about a month into the school year. Change after change.

This is where my 6-year-old brain started to rationalize what was going on in my life. I mean rationalize as a process, not as being rational about the situation. I had to make sense of the world around me. My best interpretation was “if this school is predominantly black and I’m a year ahead in every subject, then that must mean that white kids are smarter and because I was around them, I was smarter. I wasn’t very rational at 6-years-old, and I was upset because I missed my old friends and teachers. I wanted things to go back the way they were. I just wanted to go back to St. Mike’s.

First Grad Vince

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 #2: Where Do I Fit? will be up and ready for your reading.

 

You May Not See Me, but I am Here.

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I’ve decided to be honest. I’ve gained some clarity that has allowed me to express what I’ve felt for many years. It took leaving the US three times to find the words and it’s taken seeing the photo and caption below to find the courage and clarity to express what you are about to read. I feel unsettled here in the US. I feel anxious. I contemplate leaving often. The more I travel the more I feel compelled to leave for good. For now, I plan to live and work abroad by the start of 2018. This is lengthy and there isn’t a short summation at the end or bullet points to recap, but this is quite possibly the most honest reflection I’ve been able to share. The more I discover about myself, the better I am at articulating who I am.

To begin, I want to acknowledge that I don’t hate the United States, nor its people. I’m often frustrated and angered by it, but I don’t hate it. The words you will read hold some generalizations and may or may not apply to you. Whether it does or does not is not for me to say. That is something you must discover for yourself through experience and reflection. As a country, my existence as a black person has been contextualized by violence, oppression, poverty, systemic and interpersonal racism and injustice, self-hate that extended beyond self and into my community, and so many other things. All of which occur at varying degrees of severity. I’m saying this is what has contextualized black experience. I am black, thus making the aforementioned part of my lived experience.

Constantly trying to explain to yourself and people who look like you that you have value, significance, and are a contributor to your community and country while daily messages, physical surroundings, and broken systems communicate otherwise is painfully exhausting. It’s like habitually lying to yourself and those you love to give some peace of mind or paint a less grim picture. The pervasive barrage of messages influences everyone in some capacity. This place… this country taught me to hate myself and my people, while causing me to see them as less valuable or significant. It taught me to see context rather than person and I believe much of our society sees the same thing. The caption says, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surrounds, themselves, or a figment of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”

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Damn if that ain’t a sad reality. Even as part of this community, I see us that way. I’m not speaking about friends, family, or colleagues who have taken time to build strong, interpersonal relationships, but maybe they see other black people that way. Either way, it’s the reality of my lived experience. I’m talking about immediate misconceptions and assumptions, preconceived notions, and avoidance. I’m talking about inherent fear, distrust and mistrust, hate, and distance that has been instilled in generations, in friends, and in me.

In American society, I am invisible. In every instance during my time abroad, I have felt seen, heard, validated, and valued. I was able to be deeply authentic, embracing all of my identity. Black, Native American, Scottish, and many other parts of my identity that aren’t confined to ethnicity.  I’m stifled here. Something is keeping me from being open to learning and I believe it has to do with what I’ve held inside for so long. So I’ll leave for some time to learn, change, and find ways to create change. For several years now, I’ve been undoing the damage from how I’ve felt and what I’ve experienced. As an institution and country, this place never loved me and most of all it made me hate myself and people like me. Coming to these realizations enraged me. As my anger subsided, I found awareness and understanding. I am now searching for my place in the world while learning new ways to give back to others. One day it will help me give back here in the US. I am reconciling past transgressions against myself and others, while restoring my wholeness.

What’s next? I’ll be finishing up my grad program in May 2017, traveling around the world for three months to advocate and fundraise for those with multiple sclerosis, and then I’ll try to find a job in South Africa, Italy, or with the Peace Corps/an NGO. I understand the responsibility and urgency to rally for and fight alongside minority communities. Some may even say that I am shirking these responsibilities by moving away. Whatever criticisms and critiques you may have of my thoughts and decisions are perfectly acceptable. I’m sure they are informed by your lived experiences, which I will not question, but seek to understand. I invite you to send me a personal message so we can create understanding for one another.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. You’ve honored me by trying to understand me more and for that I will always be grateful.

*Photos Taken at the Art Institute of Chicago – The Invisible Man exhibit