I’ve started this letter about a dozen times; it’s been in the making for over a month. I wrote a draft, ripped it up, and started another – all mentally – because well, what’s that line about perfection being the enemy of good?
So here goes nothing.
I wanted to write a letter to my White friends. To offer information putting the recent, tragic murders of Black folk in historical context; to convey the emotional and the psychological toll that the murders of Black and Brown people (as well as America’s collective response) is taking on me, as your friend; also to dispel some myths – you know, like, the racist idea that George Floyd caused his own death. Can we all agree that Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were all murdered? The same with Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, as well as the likes of Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, and the icon we all love to quote on race relations, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their lives were not merely taken away as some might suggest. There is no nice to way say it — they were all murdered. Some were murdered for working against racism; others murdered for merely existing.
But you already know that. At least, I hope you do. Still, I struggled to write this letter because I acknowledge you, as my White friend, are not in the same place — on the spectrum of working towards anti-racism — as my other White friends. I acknowledge some are working, daily, to acknowledge their privileges, finding ways to denounce racism, and working towards anti-racism. Some are just learning. While others may still be in denial, or, at least, unaware of the impact of devastating impact of racism.
So in many ways, offering a single letter to my White friends would never be nuanced enough, without becoming a 300+ page book. And maybe I’ll write that book one day. For now, though, I also struggled writing this letter because I lean on certain teachers to guide me as it relates to understanding racism, and anything I have to offer would pale in comparison to the guidance given by Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the rawness in the autobiography of Frederick Douglas. Or the compelling, poetic brilliance of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Or any of the fictional masterpieces by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison. And more contemporarily, the riveting, informative lectures delivered gives by Tim Wise or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their words are far too insightful. They all convey the devastating impact of racism in far more eloquent words than I can muster. They approach the Black experience in far more nuanced ways than me. They don’t have typos in their blog posts. They speak of anti-racism with such enlightenment, they are catapulted into super heroic stratospheres. Which is why I started to write this piece several times and then stopped. Then I came back to it, embracing perfection should not be the enemy of good. But also realizing I had something inside that needed to get out.
I’m not sure if you know or not, but if I’ve ever come to visit you, I looked at the photos on your walls. I like seeing the memories and moments in time forever captured through still images. Secretly, though, I look to see how many Black faces are in those picture frames and my mind always runs adrift to: am I your only Black friend. On the one hand, pictures from your wedding day, vacations you’ve taken, or family gatherings cannot even begin to answer that question. Intellectually, I get that. On the other hand, though, in my heart, the question remains. If I am your only Black friend, to me, this means you could (probably) go an entire day, maybe a week, hell, perhaps even a month, without interacting with someone (in a meaningful way) who is Black. Damn! That says something. And (for me, at least) it does not say that you necessarily have consciously chosen to insulate yourself from Black folks. Oh no, it’s much bigger than that. To me, it says that America has allowed you to insulate yourself — through policies and policing; education and social services — from Black folk. We’ll come back to this. Just know, I don’t judge you if I am your only Black friend, but it does say something if I am.
If I am your only Black friend, please know it is a ton of weight being Black in America: grounding myself when my mind races, thinking that I could be the next Ahmaud Arbery; finding the strength to continually point out racism; practicing self-care; striving to be a good husband and father; working (at work, and in my personal life) on committees, working groups, and other initiatives to center Black voices; continually measuring myself by my successes of my Black ancestors (see those aforementioned); beating myself up over whether I responded to that not-quite racist, but certainly racial comment. The list goes on.
Also know, my sheer existence is threatening to the large White America. When I was about twelve, I was riding in the backseat of my grandmother’s car, returning from choir rehearsal. It was somewhere around eight or nine o’clock in the evening. In the backseat of my grandmother’s Cadillac, taking in the world around me, my eyes went adrift. Stopped at a red light, another car pulled up alongside us. The driver was a White lady. When her eyes met mine, she locked the door to her car and looked the other way. I guess she thought I would have the gumption to hop out of my grandmother’s car, and rob her. This felt like the biggest irony. Just coming from singing the Lord’s praises, I was the person least likely to inflict harm on another. But she didn’t see that — she only saw my Black skin, my maleness, and, putting those together, treated me like a threat. Did I mention I was only twelve? The day a 12-year-old is a threat is the day we ought to be asking a much different question. But, putting that aside for a minute, fast forward thirty years later, when I laugh too loudly, when I speak too passionately, I am still a threat. Don’t believe me, think about the case of Christian Cooper, who had the police called on him while bird watching. Or Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot to death for playing with a toy gun. I can’t count the number of ways that I try to downplay my Black-maleness so as to not project intimidation. (Brent Staples wrote a wonderful essay on this!) I hate it, and I often hate myself for it. But, in those moments, it feels like all that I can do to simply exist: how to make White people feel comfortable, so as to not be deemed a threat, and thus become the recipient of violence. When I’m quiet in all-White settings, which is often — especially around people I have only recently just met (on the sidelines as my son’s baseball games, for instance) — I am usually, and uncustomary quiet, pondering this very idea — how can I keep White people comfortable. Perhaps you are saying to yourself, it shouldn’t be this way. But it is. Because White supremacy allows it; and on that note…
On a much broader level, your individual Whiteness is not problematic. Let’s get that off the table. Nor are the individual ways in which your privilege manifests itself. (And I’m sure some people will come after me for that point — so bring it.) Teachings from Black ancestors illustrate the real problem — White supremacy. That is the culprit. That is what allows for violence against Black and Brown bodies; against the LGBTQ+ community; and against Jewish, Muslim, and different non-Christian religious communities as well. It’s one thing to have love for your cultural backgrounds (my Italian friends love being Italian, and that is wonderful!). If it simply ended there, we could live harmoniously, celebrating each other’s cultures. But, White supremacy is more than that; it says we have love in the White race AND we are better and superior over other races. If it simply ended there, we could co-exist, at the very least, engaging in conversations about racial differences and similarities, until we debunked the myth of racial superiority. But, White supremacy is more than that; it says that we also harbor hatred for other races. If it simply ended there, perhaps we could not live amongst each other, but in our respective communities, but we would all be able to live, freely and harmoniously. But, White supremacy is more than that; it goes on to say we have hatred for other racial groups, and hatred is so steep that we will enact violence against those racial groups. This is where the problem begins and ends. Violence in the form of slavery and lynchings. But violence also in the form of discriminatory housing policies, denying Black folk of VA loans following wars, as well as Stop and Frisk policing strategies. Violence in the form of White men with guns, looking to intimate, being celebrated and hailed as heroes. Violence also in the form of elected officials, caring very little about the plight of Black folk and putting forth laws to continue the subjugation of Black folk. Violence in the form of assassinations against those working towards anti-racism. Violence in the form of school segregation. Violence also in the form of condoned physical beatings of Black people for wanting to integrate schools, lunch counters, and residential communities. Violence in the form of killing a Black teenager simply because he looked threatening. (If I had been walking home from choir rehearsal that day instead of driving, perhaps my fate would have been different.) Violence in the form of so many other ways, too, because White supremacy is violence that is approved. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Emmitt Till. All murdered because White supremacy allowed for it. So, I need you to know that your individual Whiteness is not the problem. It is White supremacy. And I need you to go after White supremacy and help us tear the shit down.
I also need you to start a GoFundMe page for me, now. Don’t wait until it’s too late. See, I was named: James Abdul Staten. Which means my parents were in the lanes of Christianity as well as Islam. Praying to God and waiting for salvation; but also wearing Blackness with pride and standing up to the aggressors of injustices. So, when (not if) my children face racism, if you’re my friend, and you care about me, you’re going to have to come for me. I’ll write the eloquent letter; but when that doesn’t work, I’m coming for White supremacy and the White supremacists. When the figurative shit hits the fan, which is already is,I’m standing up for my children, my family, and myself. And White supremacy doesn’t like that. White supremacy says N—– stay in your place…accept this violence…our race is better/more valuable/more worthy of life than yours. So when I show up, agitated and ready to stand up for my family, White supremacy will attack me. That’s how it works. You get to be the angry mamma bear, ready to unleash hell if your child is treated unfairly. I will be the angry Black man, threatening and untamable, ready to do anything for my child; but I’m sure I’ll be met with a different response. White supremacy does not like accountability, especially from Black folk. So it will happen, one of these days, and I ask: if you’re my friend, what will your response be?
I’ve heard from so many of my White friends over the past month, which has been uplifting. If you ever wanted to reach out to me because you are moved by the recent deaths, or because you want to show support but don’t know what to say, or because you’re thinking about me, or because (let’s just be real) I am your only Black friend, that’s okay. Moreover, if you’re guilty for another of these same reasons, here is my advice for you (and I hate giving unsolicited advice) — don’t be. Don’t let guilt or shame prevent you from reaching out; whether it is to me or another friend who is Black. In speaking for myself, I’ll let you know if or when, you’ve crossed the line of tokenizing me. I can accept a friend reaching out because they feel compelled or a sense of urgency. What I cannot accept is someone not doing something, simply because they is it far more convenient. White supremacy likes convenience.
On my Facebook feed, several of my White friends have asked the same question, of varying degrees, What can I do to help? In the wake of all that’s going on in our country, with the general devaluing of Black lives, what can I do to help. While I’m not sure if the question is meant for me, personally, or the broader society in which we live, the question feels as intimidating as it does opportune. Intimidating because I certainly don’t have all of the answers. And our leaders who had the answers, who were guiding us towards viable solutions were (for the most part) gunned down (more about this, later). What’s more, I’m sure any answer I put forth will not be nuanced enough for some; will not be academic enough for others. But also intimidating because no platform will allow me to truly articulate my thoughts to the very complicated question, what can I do to help. (Again with that book idea.) But, ahhhhh, fuck it. I’m from the school where you try something, and if it doesn’t work, you go back and tweak it, and then try it again. And if that doesn’t work, you try something different until you find a solution.
So with that, I take to this figurative pen and pad, and try answering the question.
Allow me to start with the obligatory: There is no one-size-fits-all model. Nor is what I will offer meant to be exhaustive list. This will have to become a journey. Not something that you commit yourself to for the season, or a semester but your commitment will need to be for the remainder of your life. There will be no certificate or participation medal waiting for you on the other end. This will be a constant, continual, cyclical journey — where you’re always learning, aspiring to be better than you were the day before. All that said, let’s go to work.
You start with you. (to be continued)
When was the last time you asked a man in your life – any man that you know well – how he feels? Not what he thinks. Not what he should or should not do. Not even what he expects what will happen, next. But, how he feels.
To hear some people tell it, men lack emotion. And, in some cases, this is absolutely true! In studying perpetrators of violence, I am reminded of this constantly. In other cases, I see that men’s emotions have not been nurtured, going all the way back to boyhood, and therein lies the prevailing issue.
Not in the same way that women’s emotions were nurtured during their adolescent years. Even now, as a parent, I hear parents telling their sons to shake it off. AKA: Don’t allow yourself to feel (insert an emotion here); instead, son, act like it never happened. Or maybe the phrase, act like a man resonates more. Maybe even toughen up. No matter the phrase, though, the end result is typically the same – do not show emotion.
Unless it’s happiness, then, yeah, men can experience those good feelings. Anger, yes. Frustration’s okay.
Anything else is met with shake it off.
So we end up actually having three prevailing issues. First, men are taught to turn off emotions, save for just a few. Men can experience the joy and jubilation of winning a game, match, or landing an internship. Similarly, when men are frustrated by that same game, match, or internship (for any reasons), that’s also okay. Anything else in between is not. It’s not nurtured and not discussed.
Which brings me to the second issue: Because we teach men to not express emotion, we rob men of the language to communicate their emotional states. Language is important. It’s one thing to not feel loneliness, for instance. It’s another thing to feel lonely, and not know how to label it.
Sadly, for many men, given those two dynamics, emotional expressions other than happiness and frustration often expresses as frustration and anger (point #3). If I’m happy, it express as happy. If I am lonely, not only do I not know the language to convey how I feel, that feeling expresses as frustration and anger. So unless I’m happy, I’m angry…even when I’m not.
For many of us, this is not new. So let’s fast forward into adulthood and how this manifests itself. Imagine a husband has a significant other who is unable to conceive. Are we asking how he feels? How he’s coping with things? How he is taking care of himself? Sure, we’ll almost demand that he take care of his significant other – and for good reason! But what about his emotional welfare? When does/should/is that allowed to come into play for him?
When the couple has the baby, we laugh as the man jokes about buying a shotgun, now that he has a daughter. But what are the emotions behind that façade? Are we asking him to identify them? The joy and happiness. The insecurities. The guilt or shame. The overwhelming feeling of parenthood.
Let’s say that men loses his job — in addition to asking how many applications he’s completed on any particular day, are we asking how he’s feeling? Like a failure, unable to do the one thing he’s been working towards for years? Perhaps relieved that he can spend time finding his passion?
When a different joyous moment occurs – a promotion, coming out, buying a car for the first time – are we, as friends and family members, helping him to nurture the myriad of emotions? As confusing as they may be. Untangle the web. Help him to make sense out of it all.
Now, certainly I don’t expect other people to take responsibility for men or men’s actions. When a man expresses anger by throwing a video game controller, that is his issue to sort through. Not yours or the video game’s.
And yet, the phrase Yes, And comes to mind.
Yes, I’m not asking my family and friends to do the work for men. And at the same time, I am asking my family and friends to show the same amount of interest in the emotional welfare of the men in your lives as you show for the women.
Two things – seemingly opposite – can both be true, and both have their places in the world. Just as we nurture girl’s emotions – enabling them to grow and become emotionally intelligent and emotionally available beings, so too can we nurture boys’.
We want men to show compassion and empathy and warmth, now, as their adult selves. So the next time you’re speaking with a man in your life, ask how they feel. And don’t stop when they answer what they think. Certainly this isn’t to suggest that we do more for men, or do this for men. Instead, just as we ask women how they feel, so too can we ask men how they feel.
This is an open-letter to my friends and family, about men and emotions. Maybe yours are different. I hope that is the case. I want the lineage of displaced anger to end with me; and not get passed onto my sons.
The music reverberated through her entire body, beating as her heart beat, moving as her arms moved, and singing as her voice sang. The singer shouted through the small speakers on the computer, an enraged voice filled the room like she was giving a one-person concert. Ashleigh sat on her bed – in one hand, she held the teddy bear she had gotten from her mother some years ago, when she was twelve and gotten her tonsils removed. The bear was still in good condition –all of its limbs were intact, and it had even survived a trip through the washer; from the one time Ashleigh’s mom decided the bear’s fur was matted from drool that it needed a deep cleansing.
Ashleigh was angry with her mother for nearly a month afterwards. That was the last time, and the only time, the bear had been cleaned. Now, the bear’s face was stained with tiny drops of blood. The drops were noticeable, but rather indescribable. Who would think drops of blood would ever find their way on a teddy bear? Maybe paint or even spaghetti sauce, but not blood. It seemed too dirty, too guilty. Still, the blood stood out on the bear like freckles on a person with fair-skin. They simply became part of the bear’s appearance, of what made him who he was.
In Ashleigh’s other hand, she held a razorblade. She toyed with the razor, the way she twirled pens with her fingers while teachers reviewed handout of upcoming tests.
The music had become angry. The boom, boom, boom of the drums and loud rips of the guitar spoke to the girl, telling it to let it all out. The part of her that felt like yelling and screaming Fuck you. The part of her that felt like scratching, clawing, and hitting something. The part of her that felt like releasing the misery had been keeping bottled up. She told herself she’d never do it again. But, as she sat on her bed – tears running down her face, while beaming that beautiful smile she was known for – she let the music fill that part of her that was void of feeling.
The singer belted out a high-pitched note, a voice bouncing off the walls of Ashleigh’s bedroom. Ashleigh screamed too – a rather chilling shriek – as tiny drops of blood flung onto the teddy bear’s face.
I sat in a hotel conference room listening to a speaker present on the importance of prevention. Not intervention, mind you, but prevention. The act of preventing a problem before it has even happened. The chairs, with their metal legs and upholstered backing, were stiff. The temperature had a slight chill. The atmosphere felt very familiar, like I had seen it all before. I tried my best to remain engaged in, single, word that was being spoken, and as the facilitator recalled the “River Story”, which I’d heard numerous times, I couldn’t hold on any longer and my mind went adrift.
Do men care about this work, really, I thought. I looked around the room and the scarcity of men felt as tangible as it was telling.
In the time that I have done this work, I have found that, usually, men will not dare say – publicly, at least – that sexual violence is unimportant. (which includes domestic, dating, and stalking violence) I saw this, firsthand, when facilitating workshops on consent, bystander intervention, and healthy relationships in high schools. After an engaging, and often humorous, exercise on consent, I would pose three key questions to the students: First – By a show of hands, who thinks, feels, or agrees that rape is wrong. Everyone’s hand would shoot in the air. There was only one instance where someone did not raise their hand. Even after his classmates challenged him – I remember hearing scuttles of, dude, seriously, raise your hand – this particular guy, in his Army fatigue jacket, did not budge. I made a joke about it, and moved on. (I subscribed to the notion that, professionally, laughter keeps (me) from crying.)
But, by and large, typically, men will agree that sexual, dating, domestic, and stalking violence are all wrong, hurtful, harmful, or at the very least, not good. (I’ll save those other key questions for another time.)
So as I sat through the prevention session at this conference, I could not help but ponder: Do men really, truly care about sexual violence? And if we do, at what levels do we care? Thoughts raced through my mind like cars zipping around a racetrack.
Is it important enough to challenge the ways in which we (as men) teach our sons about sports and sports-person-ship?
Is it important enough that we will donate to local sexual and/or domestic violence agencies? Will we give of our time and run in 5Ks for those same agencies?
Is it important enough that we will elect officials who will see to it that sexual and domestic violence agencies receive state and federal dollars? (Which helps with sustainability and growth.)
Although no person is free from fault, are we willing to draw the line, and not vote for the politician who engages or perpetuates sexual or domestic violent behavior?
Similarly, while acknowledging that no artist is perfect, are we willing to take stands and not support the art of entertainers or the athletic accomplishments of sports figures who engage in sexual or domestic violent behavior?
Will we attend events on victimization?
Do we, as men, care enough to, say, call out another man for their sexist behavior?
Or care to the point that we’ll look at perpetrators and pick apart, and find fault with, every one of their actions. (Instead of doing this to survivors.)
The weight of those questions hung over me like a rain cloud.
Back at that conference I found myself at another equally-ambiguous impasse: If men cared, they’d be at the (figurative) table, right? Right?
Well perhaps if the table was an inviting one.
And by inviting one, I mean: Are we – the people who are the work of discussing, addressing, and leading prevention and education efforts of sexual violence – providing space for men to be at the table. Not in the same room. Not at the kiddie table, next to the adult table. Not even at the table, with mouths covered, so as to be rendered voiceless. But, at, the, table.
Now I get it, this is the space women have occupied for countless years. So one question we must come to terms with is – Is there room at the table for those of all gender identities?
We say, and talk up, this idea of engaging men – but, even as I sat at that training, one of the speakers made a stereotypical comment about men, that was intended for humor’s sake. I let it roll off – time and place, right? But I included the comment in my evaluation of the conference.
The audience gave a collective laugh, but my response was more, are you (bleeping) kidding me?! Talk about incongruity – we cannot sincerely speak of engaging men, and then, without even blinking, simultaneously create spaces where men are not welcomed. And when men are welcomed, they must be comfortable with and able to sustain (what feels like) attacks and put-downs. It’s one thing to speak of men’s violence against women (and indeed, most of this work is preventing men’s violence against and other men); it’s another to suggest you hate men.
As I think deeper on this idea of welcoming men at the table — more than simply asking men to recognize their male privilege, those of us in this work have landed at a place where we wish men would join the table, but only so that we can ridicule. I can almost hear my friends: Let me get this right – you want me to come to one of these events just so I can endure man-bashing?
While we, as men, have a heavy gauntlet laid before us, in how we will rise to the challenge of preventing sexual, dating, domestic, and stalking violence, this one – on creating comfortable space at the table – lies at the footsteps of us doing the work. As preventionists, social workers, care takers, clinicians, and advocates, we can do better.
But back to men…A month or so removed from that conference, I saw a glimmer of hope. Just as I saw the many decisions men have to make in order to show that we, collectively, care about preventing sexual violence, I also see a multitude of avenues for contribution, intervention, and prevention whether talking to your son or nephew about what it means to be a man; calling out your buddy; donating; running 5Ks; thinking twice about buying concert tickets to that artist, and then removing them him from your playlist altogether.
It’s also okay to be a work in progress. A mentor recently shared with me that her training is a work in progress, and I was almost floored! With gobs of experience in this field, I just assumed everything she touched would turn to gold. That there was no part of the work in which was hadn’t already received a gold star, and was working towards platinum. But as I put my own judgments and expectations, I find the line, work in progress, does not undermine or take away from the successes and accomplishments she’d had. That we’re all allowed to be a work in progress in some area or another.
So men, be committed to being that work in progress as long as you stay the course, to borrow another phrase. Remain committed to unlearning all of those stereotypical masculine ways in which we were all raised and acquire new behaviors. Push your gym buddy to get in that extra rep, but without the tint of homophobia. Poke fun of your friends, but without sexist language that disparages girls in the process. Lean away from that urge to rage when setbacks arise, and instead, lean into your poetry or favorite movie or Woosah. And when you falter, own in, apologize (mean it!), and get back on course. Through it all, commit to being a better man and stay the course.
Like you, I am a work in progress. And that progress is not something that will manifest into a finished product overnight (or even, ever). I have learned to accept this. I want so desperately to be that finished product now, but alas, I cannot. Sexual violence is not static and in order to truly care about this issue, neither can we afford to be.
I wrote this poem some years ago, while contemplating what is success. It still feels relevant.
I Cry each Time I Sit here and Scribble Another Couple of Lines
The stale air feels heavy inside my mouth,
And I feel a sudden sadness permeating from the pores of my skin.
A dreariness rather, that has no name,
But a name I know all too well.
Life may as well have me already defeated –
For, I feel a downpour of rain each time a friend asks about my 401K plan,
As I shudder to think saving for retirement has become life’s next feat;
Could we all be already dead?
Steadily stashing money away for the rainy days of tomorrow,
Yet, forgetting to soak up the sun that’s still shining today.
I think I can hear the four horsemen trotting nearer;
Or is that my fear of failing becoming clearer?
I must be equating the two again,
The way I often confuse receiving a rejection letter with receiving the kiss of death,
On those dark, damp, desolate days,
When the greyest clouds fill the skies,
And trees bow in exhaustion,
And the sun concedes defeat,
And dreariness thunders, and rattles the earth.
I wipe away a single tear just before it rolls down my face.
Could that droplet have held the cure for cancer
And healed the tumor that has grown upon my soul?
Thoughts abound as I ache for nourishment;
My throat is closing up,
And that stale air is now sitting at the back of my windpipe, stirring.
My heart can barely pump
And I wonder will this day be my last,
When it was my poor mother’s,
When the wickedness of cancer stole her;
So I lie in bed, wondering,
Steadily wiping away tears.
But, death doesn’t frighten me,
Words terrify my soul (the way the bogey-man once did) –
Those rhythmical, descriptive, addictive words that simply roll off your tongue,
That gives life to your emotions,
And helps you feel those feelings that you have never felt before.
So I wonder if I will ever be able to capture these feelings exactly how they appear in my imagination where
The strong, vibrant sun,
And cool, gentle breeze rescues me from another day in a melancholic world;
The bright blue sky becomes my canvass, and…
A buzz of my cell phone signals another stream of consciousness interrupted
As I leap to see who’s sent a text message,
And I mash the buttons for a quick reply,
Or so I tell myself,
Before playing text-tag until my inspiration wanes.
No wonder writing hates me now –
I’ve neglected her over the years,
I’m but a fool,
Too late to realize that writing is now pushing back;
Much like those days when I stuffed my craft into the dark, damp, desolate corners of my spiritual closet,
Though hoping it would somehow blossom like the flowers sitting outside my doorstep.
And with another passing thought, I shed another tear,
And yet another tear that could have held the cure for my cancerous adverse for writing.
My taste buds salivate from the garlicy aroma brewing on the stove,
What has come of success?
Late days, followed by late dinners, and no time for writing?
Yet, steady shoving money into a 401K plan!
Could success even be real?
It feels like the wind that briskly blows by, but stands still when I turn to stare him in the eye.
Success must be real, alright!
Because failure has a kick like Jack Daniels,
And cuts like the sharp, thin edges of freshly cut paper.
Does success hate me so?
And keeps me crying for my mother’s touch…just once more;
I shed a another tear each time I sit here and scribble another couple of lines;
For, success seems to know everyone,
But success doesn’t know me.
With one eye toward my next book, I wanted to take some time to look back on how far I’ve come as an author. Here is the first essay I had published; it was adopted from a research paper for a graduate course I took many years ago. For authenticity’s sake, I kept this piece exactly as it was all those years ago – worts and all. Peace
Our society would have us believe that interracial relationships are becoming more accepted. The racial landscape of America has changed drastically within the past forty years – the Civil Rights Movement helped repudiate laws and overt practices which barred Blacks from receiving rights and being treated equal to Whites; the Women’s Movement overturned laws and social practices which hindered women from making choices regarding their physical appearances, termination of pregnancies, and display of sexualities. Yet, interracial relationships are still taboo. The following are obstacles are inevitable for interracial couples. Overcoming these obstacles, however, will require moving beyond historical racial conflicts and unlearning the lessons on race relations that society continues to erroneously teach. And though our society discourages us from dating outside of our race, the benefits of engaging in interracial relationships have proved to be profound.
One of the first factors to consider when engaging in an interracial relationship are those persons – both strangers and loved ones – who are adamant about showing their disapproval for your partner. For multiple reasons, whether it’s ignorance or the historical conflict of the races, there will be people who will frown upon your choice of dating someone of a racial background different than your own. They will grit their teeth and turn up their noses, give your partner cold stares and scowl when the two of you hold hands, and will practically ignore you whenever you bring your significant other in their midst – treating your partner as if he or she is nonexistent. Such behavior may be expected from strangers. But, your friends and family members may also act so disgustingly. And thus, be especially sensitive when lover complains that one of your friends or family members made a rude comment or scowled their way. Comfort your lover. Promise your lover you will confront the person who has offended him or her, and do so. Do not be afraid to hold friends and family members accountable for their actions. Inviting that friend or relative out to dinner with your partner may seem like a novel idea. But that encounter may end in disaster, with your mate offended and angry, and your friend or relative reaffirming his or her bigoted thoughts. On the same note, offering explanations about whom you chose to date is inconsequential. If your brother truly loves you, he will also love the person you bring home. Depending on your parents’ upbringing and social circle, bringing your mate home to meet your parents for the first time can be a grueling task or a pleasant encounter.
It is also imperative to be conscious of social scenes at the early stages of your interracial relationship. Your lover could end up being the minority in a particular setting, and before you are aware, stares and comments will already have ensued. If your lover begins to feel shunned and left out of conversations, he or she may grow resentful; deducing your actions – which may suggest, unbeknownst to you, contentment with the biased behaviors – as wanting to act as a couple when the two of you are alone; that is, in social scenes you prefer not be “seen” with him or her. To avoid such confusion, properly introduce your partner as such, and fear not demonstrating the public displays of affection the two of you have agreed upon. Include your partner in conversations you are having and try not to leave your mate alone with people s/he are unfamiliar with for long periods of time. Your partner will find comfort knowing you have no reservations about your relationship.
Another lesson to be learned is to cherish the diversity of your partner’s heritage rather than spitefully complaining about the difference between your cultures. The first time you bring your partner home for Thanksgiving, for instance, he or she may be confused to find there are no collard greens, sweet corn bread, or homemade gravy. But just as families of different religious affiliations celebrate holidays uniquely, so too do families of different racial backgrounds. Embedded within each racial group are ethnicities that have cultures and identities all their own – including a distinct cuisine, music, and other characteristics which that group contribute to our society. Germans eat candy out of their shoes on Christmas Eve. A little eccentric you may think at first, but that is exactly what makes our society so wonderful.
Should you feel unable to fully grasp the nuances of your partner’s heritage, try to make a conscious effort to educate yourself about those nuances. Consider reading books by authors who are of the same racial background as your mate, then discuss the readings with your lover. Not only will you and your partner surface upon spiritual elation, but also the barriers of communication will come crumbling down more easily.
Interracial couples may need to work more arduous to break communication barriers than intraracial couples. When communicating with someone from our own racial group, we take for granted therein lies a similar vernacular. Thus, not inquiring about your partner’s true intentions when confused will become frustrating when you’re stuck trying to decipher your partner’s phrases instead of spending quality time together. That which is “All set” to some is “Straight” to others. Italian-Americans know that gravy is not the brown lumpy stuff that goes on turkey; it is the red sauce that goes on pasta. As with any relationship, listen to your partner, rather than just hearing the words flow from their mouths; and when confused, ask questions.
It takes a great deal of patience to remain happy in an interracial relationship. Be patient with your partner, and especially with yourself. When people engage in interracial relationships for the first time, it is not uncommon for them to be anxious – for example, showing their partner affection in public. Try not to be discouraged if initially your boyfriend does not seem to want to hold hands when walking through the mall. Rather, open the doors of communication, and speak with your lover to find out if either of you are intimidated by showing affection publicly.
Another immanent issue in interracial relationships is trust. If the relationship is to thrive, both partners should make conscious efforts to trust their partner enough to take risks. Your lover may offer you a dish that you have never heard of, never mind tasted, like chitlings. Try not to be put off by the aroma. If you trust your partner – and why would you engage in a relationship with someone if you do not trust them – you should trust him or her enough to experience something which may have seemed foreign to you previously. One of the primary benefits to being in an interracial relationship is the opportunity to learn about another culture. Embrace the offers made by your partner. Have a few slices of proscuitto or go to that Alanis Morissette concert. You may just enjoy yourself.
As with any relationship, follow your heart. If you are indulging yourself in an interracial relationship because you are curious about having sex with the other person, do not expect much romance to blossom. An interracial relationship is an excellent opportunity to learn about another culture, and at the same time find someone who may complete you.
All in all, engaging in interracial relationships can be a vast learning experience, especially more so than intraracial relationships. As a result, interracial relationships have the potential to stay fresh longer because the partners are constantly learning – not only about the person whom they are dating, but also about their family traditions and ethnic customs. Furthermore, when involved in an interracial relationship, you will not only be subjecting yourself to the unfortunate prejudices from opposing racial groups, but also to prejudices from your own racial group – which is, sadly enough, where you will truly experience just how close-minded others are.
Interracial couples also bring the world one step closer to acceptance, understanding, appreciation, and embracing of cultures other than those that dominate our society. Not everyone can engage in interracial relationships, however. For then, we would lose our individually rich heritages.
When you finally find love and he or she happens to be of a racial background different than your own, you would be quite foolish to turn away that person just because their skin color different than yours – a practice our parents instilled in us when our society was far less Civil.
This was someone whose footsteps I always wanted to follow. We were RAs together and after graduating, she went into higher education. A year later, after graduating, I found myself going into higher education. She ventured into student leadership and development, and I went into student leadership and development. She made the jump into the corporate world, and I wanted to make that same move. All though her journey, I had no idea that her some of jobs were just as UNFILFILLING as my own. Upon interviewing her for the webinar I facilitated last week on the elusive dream job, I uncovered this nugget of wisdom from my friend, Jen, which is just as fitting for recent college graduates as it is for seasoned professionals:
“Get a side hustle! If your job isn’t filling you up, then find something that will – something you can do alongside what’s (currently) paying the bills. It could be working on a book you always wanted to write, or volunteering at an organization. For me, it was DJing. I totally stumbled into it. I basically taught myself. And in the beginning, I would work all week at my full-time job and be miserable and mentally exhausted by Friday. But then I would hit the boards at a club on a Friday night and the dance floor would be PACKED and people we having a great time and I was like “I did that!” And it just lit me up. And I was instantly hooked. I would only make a couple hundred dollars per gig, but it was not about the money – it was about doing something that felt like I was applying my talents to bring joy to people. And now, here I am, five years later, turning down gigs because I’m too busy!”
Still on a high from the webinar I facilitated for my alma mater!!!! The topic: the elusive dream job. To prepare for the webinar, I interviewed several friends with whom I graduated about how they have been able to attain their dream jobs AND what lessons they learned along the way. From my preparations, I learned (fortified, really) that the dream job – or the very idea of it, anyway – is, indeed, elusive.
Before I get there, I had done some prior research into friends’ pursuit of the dream job, that, I think, will provide a framework here. Some years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who admitted he was in a rut. He was in his mid-twenties, he had a great career (a lawyer, for god sakes!), lived on his own, was single and ready to mingle, and was your typical bachelor. But, still, he felt stuck in a rut.
He wasn’t the only friend who professed this to me. Another friend lives in Boston (well, just outside of Boston, really, like most people who live in Boston) and is ready to party as soon as his phone starts to buzz. At the time, he was a manager at his job and by all means was successful. Yet, he also felt stuck.
Another one of my friends lives in Connecticut also felt their pain. She was unhappy but not miserable at work – which only means she didn’t really like her job, and it’s not what she wanted to do (although at the time, she did not really know what she actually wanted to do); but her job was not terrible enough to make her quit. Beyond work, she was out partying every Saturday, at Happy Hour every Friday, and had Girls Nights about once a month. She vacationed with her girlfriends and had heart-to-hearts anytime she needed them. Despite that, something was missing.
If that wasn’t enough, another friend from New Hampshire, who is married, has two children, and makes six figures (which makes my puny paycheck look like crap!), wishes he could go back. He loves his life now — his wife, his children, dog, white-picket fence, and all that nuclear family jazz – but every now and then, he talks about the way things used to be.
And then there was me. Stuck.
We were all afflicted by it.
But what if the issue was not with us as much as it was with how we were all taught to view the idea of a career? More specifically, the dream job.
Our brains are still forming until our mid-20s, most teenagers are still unsure of themselves in high school, yet we expect people to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. First problem.
I liken this to the way we are socialized to view women in the media. Pick any magazine cover with featuring a woman and you will undoubtedly see flawless skin. Eyes that pop. Pouty lips. Long, flowy hair. Impeccable physiques.
This image is dated, I’ll admit that. But, I used it on the webinar because it was tame (relative to the others from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition) AND features a notable celebrity.
See, we adore these images (and our female celebrities) because in our eyes, at least how we have been taught to view them, these women are perfect examples of beauty. But it is almost as if we pay no attention to the editing, enhancements, and Photoshoping that has taken place to deliver to us the image of (in this case) the perfect woman. For many of us, those adjustments to the image do not matter – all that does matter is what we see: flawless skin. Eyes that pop. Pouty lips. Long, flowy hair. Impeccable physiques. Because this image has been enhanced and adjusted, it becomes an illusion.
And this illusion begins to color how we respond to women in the media (they become sex objects, which is another lesson, for another day) and impacts how we treat women in our everyday lives.
The reality is we are given perfected images of what a beautiful woman looks like, and gone unchecked, the images become our standards for beauty. Standards based on illusions.
How we have come to see career is similar. Something that, for most of us, can feel both real yet unachievable at the same time. We learn that our careers should provide financial wealth, allow us to afford a home, go on vacation, and ultimately become a boss! Rarely do we hear about those things we may not attain through our career such as family or a sense of belonging, and how those values impact our professional selves.
So what I encourage students, and new graduates to do, is reframe that way in which they see career, the amount of value they place on a career, and how much influence they allow a career to have over them. Not easy, by any means. But this mindset can be adjusted by working on self-reflection, developing and working towards both a personal mission and goals, as well as working to achieve work-life balance.
Our problem is we have already frolicked through the fields of heaven (that was our college experience), so the circumstances we’re going through now simply feel like purgatory. We’re all wishing we could somehow fuse our lives now with our lives from back then. We all wish we could return to a life that was.
Here is a piece that I had started right after graduating from college, hoping to tap into the darkness with which Edgar Allen Poe wrote.
Bane of an Existence
I will forever remember this night all the days of my existence; it will forever be cemented within my memory as the day in which I lost all that I love – for I no longer love myself after this disastrous deed.
Somewhere buried under all the knowledge we think we have obtained, the wisdom we think we possess, and the experiences we think we are grateful to have, lie disastrous deeds, unfortunate incidents, and grotesque images that we only wish we can forget about.
I was only to blame. And yet blame was the one descriptor that no one, not even officers of the law, dared associate with me.
Whenever I was overcome with sadness, I frequented the priest who presided over the parish I attended during my adolescent years. Yet, he did absolutely no good in helping me to reveal my inner-most thoughts. I became lethargic, confused, and sullen. And while I do not entirely remember the happenings of that night, I do remember particular events, either because they have been embedded within my memory from their intensity or simply because my drunken stupor will only allow me to recall these specific events. It is my sister, however, who has pieced together the incidents I could not and made them as clear as a morning’s day.
On this horrific day, my sister recalls haven spoken to me on my cellular phone after I left my place of work, and after speaking with some of my co-workers, she uncovered how I had been sitting in a bar for quite some time, when an acquaintance, whom she will call Tyson, began trying to cajole me, with incessant chants, to accompany him into becoming nothing more than a grotesquely inebriated monstrosity: “You won’t do it! (clap, clap, clap clap clap)…You won’t do it (clap, clap, clap clap clap),” I can still hear him shouting, with nearly all of the other patrons in the tavern joining in, as the bartender poured a shot of Banana Schnapps (100 proof alcohol) in front of me. Before the bartender could change the bills which Tyson handed him for the drink, I had picked up the miniature glass, and chugged, not sipped!, the alcohol until the other drunkards congratulated me with a round of applause. Somehow I impressed Tyson by finishing the shot more quickly than he had envisioned, though I am told I only sipped the liquor, that he ordered two additional shots as the bartender was exchanging moneys with the cash register. The bawled up expression the Banana Schnapps left upon my face was an indication of my tongue’s utter disgust, my stomach’s anger, and the burn raging within my chest.
As the bartender poured the next two shots, I began shaking my head in refusal, seeking solace from the burn. “Chase it with this,” Tyson suggested, sliding his beer in front of me. “C’mon, Ed! Stop looking at it and drink the fuckin’ thing,” he yelled something to the effect. Indeed, I do recall how the alcohol seemed to send me into a daze; my actions were beginning to feel mechanical and I felt no longer in control. Tyson began chanting again, triggering additional voices, and together they blasted away any chance of reason, second thoughts, or denial. Unable to further resist the compelling forces, the bartender informed my sister how I picked one of up the miniature glasses and threw the alcohol inside my mouth, swallowing almost with ease. And before I could place the glass back onto the bar, there were more incessant screams and the regulars began to pat me on the back; I vividly recall their hands slamming upon my shoulders as if I were being chastising rather than congratulated. Tyson yelled and handed me the next miniature glass and I quickly gulped down that shot and again the incessant chants arose.
And I will be the first to admit that the wrongdoing on my part began at that moment, in that bar, when I refused the alcohol being poured in front my person. I do remember, albeit vaguely, Tyson’s antics being so dreadfully annoying that I wanted do whatever it would have taken to subside his chants. And it is that same lack of conscious control that has now led me to repudiate physical pain, thus my fingernails being bitten off almost completely, the section of my scalp which bares no hair, and the broken bones in both my hands. I will admit that I am not the same sane and conscious fellow I once was because of the deed of which I am speaking.
After the three fiery gulps of alcohol I could stand no more. And as I rose to my feet, the bartender did attest, I found out that I could also stand no more. But, he informed my sister how I stumbled my way out of the door, with no goodbyes or thank yous; for how could I thank those heathens for helping me to inebriate myself when I only wanted a refuge from the maddening occurrences of my household – my daughter, in her third year, was running amuck, and my wife, could hardly restrain the adolescent girl; but to my wife’s credit, she had been pregnant with our second child and was expected to deliver any day. But the chants at the bar did not penetrate nearly as deep as did the frantic behavior by both women: I could no longer stand the wining, “Mommy, I can’t tie my shoe again,” my daughter would sing whenever she yearned for attention; “Oh Ed, I can’t bend down to pick up Maggie’s shoes,” my wife would call out. I could no longer take the tantrums of my daughter, running over my bare feet; I had worked laying brick and my work boots always left my feet swollen until the next morning. She’d barely escape her mother’s outstretched arm, but the scolding was inescapable, at least for me, as she fled with tears in her eyes and another cookie in her hands. And I could no longer deal with my wife, pregnant and all, asking me to help her out of the bathtub, out of bed, out of a chair, out of anything she could get herself into. That being said, will you concur that I was not mad at the time, but simply overstressed?
It seemed that each day of the week I am speaking, my wife and I rushed to the hospital, and each time we were informed that her prenatal pains were a false alarm. And on this particular day of which I am speaking, I remember hoping that her prenatal pains would not ensue until I arrived home for the night. My sister somehow traced the calls of my cellular phone and uncovered that I received a call from my home number, where she only assumes that just as I stumbled into my car, my wife alerted me that her pains were beginning again and that I should meet her at the hospital.
How I managed to insert the key into the ignition and drive the car in the direction of the hospital is beyond my comprehension. I can attest that while I was on the road the cars in the opposing lanes all seemed to be darting towards me, as if we were transfixed in a demolition match. I must have grown annoyed at the passing automobiles, for I recall incessant honks of my horn. It is possible that I veered both left and right in hopes of avoiding the on-comers, but I somehow swerved away from one vehicle, and another steered right into me!
I never lost consciousness, though I always wish I had; for I know the memory of the accident is the Lord’s punishment for my tortured soul. And at this point, I am afforded, or cursed with, my full memory of the proceeding events:
My eyes were closed and when I reopened them, smoke filled the air and a large white pillowy-sac-like object was in my forefront. At this point, the inebriated dizziness I felt only seconds beforehand had vanished and a new dizziness had overtaken my senses. My head and shoulders were resting upon the driver side door, which had detached from the car’s body and was lying on the ground. My lower back and hips were upon the driver’s seat, barely, and my feet hung still in the air. I snaked my lower appendages onto the ground and pushed myself onto my hands and knees, for I had not enough strength to completely rise to my feet; the glass that shattered upon the ground burrowed into the palms of my hands and into my knees as well. I crawled towards the vehicle I’d collided with; it looked as if my own. The crash was so intense that I was thrown from my car and into and out of the other, I began to think. I felt alive but thought of myself as deceased. I was a rejected soul trapped in purgatory!
I soon heard sirens blaring and lights flashing. Blood had been smeared all across the windshield of my car. Incomprehensible voices began to penetrate the air and they prompted me to halt. I was not dead! I was immediately carted off to the hospital where, during my overnight stay, I learned that there were three passengers in the other vehicle involved in the collision, and all had died.
I did not sleep much that night, as I lay awake worrying what explanation I would offer to my wife. I was so dazed from the accident that I could hardly discern any one voice from another. Soon after the stitches were sewn into my neck, back, and shoulders and staples placed into my scalp, I received visitation from the doctor who had performed the bloody tasks asking if I had a next of kin to notify. I spoke the name of my wife and my home telephone number and moments later was told she was on the phone. I lifted the receiver to my ear, when before I could complete the greeting of “Hello,” I heard screams of joy. She informed me that she would be in to see me immediately. Hours passed, and I found both refuge and recuperation in sleep. Upon my awakening, I found my sister sitting in a chair beside to me. She grabbed my hand and kissed it and tears began to run down her face. She delivered to me the most astonishing and disastrous news I do ever remember hearing, or reading, or receiving in any medium for that matter.
When the doctor called my home and asked for Mrs. Johnston, she, my sister, answered in the affirmative, not realizing herself that she would be considered a Ms. Johnston seeing as though she has never married. My sister later helped me to piece together the incidents. With her help, I recalled how I drank myself into a great stupor. Somehow I found myself driving towards the hospital, which I later realized was in the direction opposite of which I had been traveling. But as I drove, I crashed my car into my own. My wife and daughter were the occupants and were on their way to the hospital, where my wife was to give birth to my second child, the third passenger. And the only reason my daughter was permitted to accompany her mother is because she hadn’t seen me all day and was throwing another tantrum and my wife hadn’t the strength to discipline one child when she was in labor with another. My sister was house-sitting, as she has done each time that week, until my wife and I were to return home from the hospital.
I killed my wife and two children! But, I could not be charged and tried and imprisoned for such offenses because the police officers did not check my blood-alcohol levels. Their primary purpose, at the time of the accident, was to check the victims into a hospital, where they could be seen by surgeons. They searched for my identification, and identification of my wife, and before long, realized we were married. And I only assume that the officers made the assumptions that both my wife and I had been driving along in my car, or the car in which my wife and children were driving, when we, rather they, were struck by an oncoming automobile; definitely plausible, since, upon the officer’s arrival, I had made my way towards the passenger door. I later realized how oblivious I had been in thinking I was thrown from one vehicle and into and out of another, as such a predicament is feasible certainly not. Without proof I had been driving drunk, besides my own confessions which I tried offering numerous times but was told since my memory did not permit me to recall each event of that night, my story would not be considered genuine or credible, I could not be tried for the crime.
Duly, I have become the bane of my own existence, thus, the countless attempts at taking my own life; and I am left in this white jacket with my arms strapped underneath.