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.
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.