Boy did I need a fix today. The white canvass of a blank screen is my drug. Seeing blank print on this screen is like my high – it takes me far away to a magical place where I have no worries (or at least they don’t worry me as much), where positive vibes are the only sensation running through my body, where I can feel, completely and utterly, safe. Safe to just be. Safe to be me. Years ago, in a distant world, it would have been a notepad and a pen. Now it’s a computer screen, providing me a fix.
We all need something to help us cope with the stressors. Nothing is absolute, so maybe not everyone needs something; but I sure as hell do. My father-in-law would say you need something to take the edge off. I guess he’s right…sort of. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of my family members, and my friends’ family members, hooked on drugs that I could never understand turning to a substance to ease the pain. I remember my uncle getting into heated arguments with my grandmother, past midnight, walking up the whole block. Shouting, cursing. Talking about what she better not do, spitting off about when he is going to do. He was a high as he wanted to be. Probably off hair-ron…or as it is classically known, heroin. Those memories are burned within my conscious, the way an animal would be branded by its owner.
Still, taking the edge off isn’t what it’s like for me. Neither is it as described in New Jack City, when Pookie cried out, “but that shit just be callin’ me man, it be callin’ me.” That which gets my high isn’t calling me, I’m calling it. Feeling all sorts of mixed up inside, with an irritating itch, and only thing can scratch it. To be taken away from this world, even for a brief period of time. To let go of the inner strife – the frustrations and anger and disappointment – if but for a moment. To feel safe enough to just be, and just be me.
So right now, I don’t need a shot or a drink or a glass of wine. That would only make me resent the amount of time I’d have to work out, to work off the calories. No, I just need the white canvass and the blank print. Because what happened today, was some bullshit.
I attended a powerful student event, yesterday. A group of students organized a rally, of sorts. Whereby all members of the campus community where invited to a forum, where students shared their experiences of discrimination or discomfort, feelings of shame and self-hatred, as related to being a part of the campus community. One student shared an experienced he’d had where a faculty member questioned him, to his face, as to whether he was an engineering major. As if students in the engineering program couldn’t be black. Another student shared her feelings of not belonging – for, although she identifies as Korean, she does not identify with the culture and experiences and expectations of other Korean students. How she has no place to call home. How she doesn’t even know who she is.
These stories resonated with me, loud and clear. Bringing me back to my college experience. I had decided to join the Black Student Union after attending the first meeting where one of the members shared an ugly experience where a fellow student had called her a nigger. It was then that I made it my personal mission to stamp out every discriminatory act I encountered. More than that, I made up my mind that this was my fight. Fighting for equal treatment of those who were marginalized, although I wouldn’t have used that term at the time. I probably would have said second-class citizens. Because that’s what it felt like – all the students of a certain race, or sexual orientation, or religion were of first class, and here we were, the second class. Three-fifths of a person. Looked over, like we were not even there sometimes. Not treated with respect. Not not because we were different – the guy with the tattoo and the girl with the Boston accent were different – but because we were them, those people, their kind, the Others.
And I thought back to friends I’d made in college. Most of whom were surface-level. Non-threatening conversations such as I’m having a party toorrow, you should come by. Then there were a few that were deep and meaningful friendships, where we shared experiences shared of abusive fathers, tumultuous families, even cancer. The drug addictions that rocked my family, being broke as a joke (when it seemed that everyone around me had money to burn), raised by a single mom. With my closest of friends whenever we discussed these matters, I remember feeling comforted knowing that even though my friends who were White didn’t know what it was like to be black, and thus, marginalized or second-class, they never downplayed my experiences. That even if they were ignorant about certain matters dealing with unequal treatment of Black and Brown people, at the very least, they were willing to listen and learn about those experiences. Even though I could not connect with most of my friends on a racial level, I connected with them over shared experiences of feeling like an outcast (for different reasons). I remember my friends allowing me to be myself: “I talk like I walk, with a fucked up pivot”, a line from a song I’d listened to a thousand times describes it pretty well.
But probably the one sentiment that stuck with me the most from that student event, is the sense of not being able to put down my weight not for any kind of brief reprieve, not even for a second. I can’t undo the color of my skin, nor would I want to. I can’t undo the unjust treatment of my ancestors, no matter how much I wish I could. Similarly, I can’t stop myself from thinking, breathing, and seeing the world through a lens that tells me I am an Other, no matter how clearly the Declaration of Independence reads all men are treated equal.
From a pragmatic perspective, this means I can’t not help but feel the stares and glares I receive in certain communities, when I’m just trying to buy a pack of gum. I can’t not express frustration over the senseless killing of Black and Brown folks, not only by police officers, but also by other Black and Brown folk. I can’t not speak up about president candidates who fail to recognize the systematic discriminatory treatment of people of color, women, and our LGBT brothers and sisters, and how their slogans may as well be, Working for a Whiter America. I can’t not do all of those things, and countless others, because I live them, on a daily basis. See, every day I’m reminding that I’m black, and that I don’t quite belong, and that is part of the pressure, or weight, that I feel.
So I thank my college friends for letting me be me, and listening to my stories and for sharing their journeys with me. For accepting and celebrating my plight, just I accepted and celebrated theirs. For standing by me (and even sticking up for me when necessary), and all of my Blackness, just as I stood beside them.
But like a game of tennis, I can’t help but go back and forth. I can’t help think how I might react if some punk assaults my daughter. Rage. Or how I might respond if some coward with a gun shoots my son, for no other reason than being a Black man. Fire. Or how I might spiral out of control if some cop throws my daughter across a classroom. Wrath.
I wish I didn’t think about these things, but I do. The reality is… no, my reality is these instances could happen to me because of the color of my skin. But, they may not happen to someone else for that same reason. Which, on the one hand, is great. It’s utterly fantastic and progressive that someone can go to school, be disobedient, and even disrespectful, and not have to worry about being Tased, or thrown, or killed. On the other than, as a responsible parent, I have to have those conversations with my children. About how the mere color of their skin will determine the unjust treatment they receive.
No, I don’t want to think about how I might react if someone harms my children, or my wife, or my family simply because they are one of the Others. But I do. It’s become part of my weight. That which fills my conscious, casting aside happier thoughts I could have about vacationing in Hawaii, on a beach, under the blue skies, on a perfect day.
It’s my weight, and it means when I speak with my realtor about finding a place to live, we have to talk about diversity. While I can’t protect my family from all the evils of life, I’ll be damned if I live in a community where neighbors bear, wave, or otherwise celebrate the Confederate flag. My weight also means nurturing those friendships that are deep and meaningful, and include tough conversations like one I had with my best friend – the double whammy I felt years ago when I was jobless. Being Black AND unemployed. All the rhetoric of country says that you should be able to get a job. But, for the life of me, for a six month period of time, I could not. The rhetoric also says that Black folks who can’t find work are lazy parasites, mooching of the system. No matter how hard I tried to shake those thoughts, I could not. They reminded me daily that I was a failure.
But that’s my weight, and I accept it. Like the students who organized the event, I am not searching for someone with a magic pill to take the weight away, or even shoulder it from me while I catch my breath. Instead, I’m hoping that when I struggle from the weight of the weight, that my friends will ask how I’m doing, and not demand that I just need to catch up. Because it’s my weight. And if we’re going to be friends, I need more from you.
There’s nothing wrong with having Facebook friends – those people you rarely see, and even when you do, it’s surface level, how are you, knowing you really don’t want to know. But for my friends who want to really be friends with me – that is, a deep, meaningful connection – you can’t be scared to conversations simply because they are tough. Whether it’s about my drug-dealing step-father who was murdered, the terror and anger I feel every time another Black man is killed by a White cop, or even about how I am struggling, on a daily basis, to become more aware of my own male privileges. No, we must have those conversations if we are to be friends. Those are the thoughts running through my mind. I’m not asking that you agree with them. But, what I am asking, is that you learn to understand why it rocks me on my heels and shakes me to my core whenever another black man if killed by a White cop, or another teenage girl is sent home from the prom because her dress is too distracting, or another presidential candidate talks about deportation, or the woman who wouldn’t grant marriage licenses to LGBT couples. These are my realities. They’re weight that I cannot put down. Not even for a moment.
If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t walk, our friendship would mean sitting on your couch. If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t drink alcohol, our friendship would center around diet cokes and limes. Similarly, if we’re going to be friends, and I hope that we will be, I want you to know that you have to become comfortable letting my Blackness play out in whatever way that feels organic to me, comfortable discussing things that most people don’t want to talk about, and comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because that’s what I live, on a daily basis.
I still find the college life enchanting. All these years later, when people ask if you could go back to any time in your life, what would you choose?
My response – almost automatic at this point – is my college years.
You see, I both adore and appreciate what the college experience has to offer, what my college experience offered.
Adore in the sense of infatuation. The way I was completely infatuated with a girl during my senior year, and never told her. She was cute, sassy, and sexy. I always wanted to ask her out, but never summoned up the gumption. I adore the college experience for the surface-level, superficial reasons: Having had the freedom to stay up until 12am, 2am, even 4am, with no recursions – either academically or physically. When I’d go to the gym, I lived there; working out for at least an hour, most times 1.5 – 2 hours. Never living with regret, knowing there was always tomorrow. Like many college students, I felt invincible!
At the same time, I appreciate the college experience, similar to (but on a much scaled-down version of) the way I appreciate my wife (my senior-year crush!) for being a mother of two, working all sorts of crazy hours, cooking and cleaning on her days off from work, walking our dog when I’m stuck late at work, baking birthday cakes for our children, working out, being a fabulous sister/aunt/friend/daughter, and still being ultra sexy! (Take that Hollywood actress, songstress, celebrity, reality TV star who needs a personal chef, trainer, caregiver – and sometimes plastic surgery – to be sexy!)
But a recent trip to the Adirondacks helped me appreciate the college experience in a way I had never considered before. Unlike adulthood, the college experience encourages, hell almost forces, students to take vacations.
When it comes to vacationing, adulthood says all of the right things. Four Personal Days per year, to use as you wish. Twelve Vacation Days per year, merely requiring your supervisor’s approval. Sick days, bereavement days. When you first start a job, the new-hire meeting can make it sound as if the agency/institution/company will practically beg you to use the time off you’re entitled to.
But in adulthood, vacationing comes at a price.
Unless you’re with the right company (and how many of us are with the right company), taking vacation days can almost feel dirty or shameful. Something to feel guilty about – as in, because you’re vacationing, and your colleagues are working, you ought to check in with a phone call, or respond to just a few emails, or send a quick text to see how the office is holding up. I had a former co-worker who was replying and responding to emails while she was vacationing on her honeymoon! As if we shouldn’t have boundaries between our work and personal lives, and if we do, we should feel ashamed.
Adulthood also make vacations feel as if it’s for the weak-minded. As in, hard workers don’t need a reprieve or a break from the daily grind. How many of us stay in the office well past quitting time, not wanting to leave because our supervisors are still working, because we want to be like them (that is, in their roles, one day). We see our supervisors as the pinnacle of hard work, so we work longer hours, more hours, just to to show the same level of commitment.
When you’re an adult, vacationing feels like something you have to work for, not something you’re entitled to. As in, you have to work your ass off, until you’re damn near burned out, before you can take a vacation. Or, as another former co-worker wrote me as to why she couldn’t attend a meeting I was scheduling: I’m taking a much needed vacation. It felt as if, she felt she had to justify using her time off. As if she wasn’t supposed to take a vacation, unless there was a good, damn, reason. And working like a dog for twelve months straight, had constituted that good reason.
So, what’s the point? Of course we know adults are overworked, while the college experience has ample opportunities for respite. Well, since vacationing in adulthood is not as free as it was in college, as professionals, it’s time that we redefine vacationing.
Instead of using time off to take care of household chores and errands, how about vacationing to accomplish your goals and aspirations? Take time off from work to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, join a reading group, or cross off something on your bucket list. Use your vacation time to accomplish all those things you tell yourself you don’t have time for; not necessarily the stuff you have to do, more the things you want to do. I was working on a book, and it felt like I was never going to finish. After work, I had to take care of the kids, walk the dog, help tidy up the house, spend time with my wife, and then find me time to relax from my day. I was usually in bed by 10pm. When I did make time to work on my book, it was 30 or 40 minutes; just enough time to get a groove going, then I’d have to stop and get ready for the next day. With my wife’s support, I decided to use a couple of vacation days to work on my book. Having 8 hours of freedom to read, write, and edit allowed me to finish my book. Not only in a shorter timeframe, but also a less stressful one too. I wasn’t writing in short bursts, I was pacing myself, so I was able to give more of myself (my creativity and ingenuity) to my book, which ultimately, left me more satisfied. That’s what vacationing should do, leave us feeling satisfied.
We could also use vacation time strategically. When do you fill your car with gas? When you’re running on empty and your car is cruising on fumes? Or do you fill up when you have ¼ tank left? Maybe it’s just before you get on the highway, before a long trip. Or on Wednesday mornings, because you pass a gas station that always has the least expensive fuel. Hopefully, you fill up at strategic times, taking control of when you put gas into your car. Similar, you have the ability (in some cases) to take control of your vacation time. Don’t wait until the end of the calendar year to use your vacation, simply because you’ve received an email from human resources that you are going to lose your PTO days if you don’t use them. Decide when you’ll vacation, instead of letting it be the other way around. If not, you might be left with two weeks off, chauffeuring relatives back and forth to the airport, for their Christmas-Kwanzaa-Hanukkah visits! Nothing wrong with it, but hardly does it feel like a vacation.
Redefine vacation too, as something that actually makes you feel relaxed. Sure, the yearly family trip to Disney is enjoyable, in a certain kind of way. But those kinds of vacations often leave us needing a vacation, from our vacation. On the other hand, using a personal day for an impromptu day at the beach can leave you feeling as refreshed as you’ve been in months. Vacationing doesn’t have to be the contrived, the stale, the things you always do, just because. That’s what makes a vacation feel like work, and not a vacation. I introduced my wife to spontaneous days. I’m not sure where I got the idea. But somehow I got the idea of a one-day reprieve – call out of work, and do something completely random. Something that was never planned. One day we went to the casino. Another day we took a trip to a breach town. It was fun. Being on vacation, enjoying the beautiful weather. People watching. My wife even got a facial. It wasn’t what we did; rather, that we were spending time together, in ways that weren’t forced or contrived. Doing things that helped us feel relaxed, and able to tackle the grind of our jobs, the next day.
Just like we learn from the college experience, change can start with just one person, who performs a single act, that is but one ripple in a sea of monotony. College students get to choose how they’ll spend their time. If they want to take more classes, that’s supported. If they choose to work and save money, that’s commended. And if they decide to sit on the beach all summer, that’s applauded all the same. No pressures or obligations. College allows students to live life on their terms. Like taking the necessary time off to recharge their batteries and de-stress from the grueling workload. It’s time vacationing in adulthood to mean the same.
A few days ago, I sat on a panel that discussed the idea of masculinity, and how the idea of masculinity is hindering adolescent boys from blossoming into their authentic, non-violent, non-misogynistic, non-abusive selves. Anyone who doesn’t see how masculinity, or hyper-masculinity, is harming our adolescent boys, they ought to watch the trailer for “The Mask You Live In”. Or, consider data out of New Jersey, that 75% of domestic violence incidents are perpetrated by men. Or that most of the school shootings are carried out by men. Or that, from another study, 99% of people who purchased sex, were men. Or how nearly all sexual assaults are perpetrated by, you guessed it, men.
So, what we have in our society is not only a problem with violence, but it’s a problem with men using violence to abuse, stalk, rape, exploit, demean, force, and purchase women, girls, and, other (presumably, weaker), men. How can I say that? Women are brought up our country, but women don’t have nearly the same infatuation with aggression and violence. Women aren’t carrying guns and doing drive by shootings. Women aren’t lighting up schools with bullets, out of some misguided vengeance.
But, simply looking at the boys and young men of today, and waving a finger, as if to say, what’s your problem, isn’t taking into account the full scope of the issue. Sure, boys and young men are committing some of these horrific acts. But where are they learning these behaviors? We can’t simply say society, because you, me, we all make up society. Nor can we simply say, that’s the way it is, because we make it the way it is. Just like we use our voting power to put a president into office, or our financial power to drive up a company’s profits, we use our social power to instill in boys and young men certain traits that we deem valuable. Like using violence against women.
So this idea of masculinity that so desperately needs changing stands at the footsteps of men. Adult men, more so than teenage boys learning how to become men. When we, as men, demean and hurt the women in our lives, our sons are watching. When we make comments about how a girl put herself in that situation – referring to sexual assault – our young men are listening. When we criticize men for not being man enough, our boys are paying attention.
We can tell our boys all the reasons to step outside of the man box, but when boys see (adult) men being praised and worshipped, earning street cred, or at the very least, not being held accountable for their abusive actions, why would adolescent boys dare step outside of the man box? What’s their incentive?
This issue – of helping the younger generation of boys and young men – redefine masculinity is complex. There is no singular answer that will solve the entirety of this dilemma. But one area that we must look at, that we must hold accountable for its influence, is adult men, and how we give adult men a pass when they reinforce violent, misogynistic, and stereotypical definitions of masculinity.
When we turn a blind eye to Chris Brown and his violent outbursts towards his then girlfriend, we send one message. When we demonize Jay-Z for his attempts to de-escalate and remove himself from a physical encounter with his sister-in-law, we send a supporting message. A message that says It’s okay to abuse a woman if she gets out of line, and that real men don’t take shit from women. That she, somehow, deserved or warranted it. That message is real. It’s one that adolescent boys and young men are trying to unlearn. But, it’s us, the adult men that keep reinforcing it, every time we demand that boys man up. In both our words, and in our actions.
Certainly, I don’t absolve teenage boys and young men from the violence and aggression they enact in our world. But, let’s not kid ourselves, and pretend boys aren’t learning those behaviors. It’s men, who need to change if we ever care to see the young men of future generations dare to step outside of the confines of the man box.
It was an epiphany, if I ever had one. I was in a bar, recently, with a bunch of college friends, most of whom not seen each other in over ten years. As I was catching up with one such friend, it hit me out of nowhere. The ever-elusive definition of career, or, what most people think of, when they attempt to answer the question, what do you want to be when you grow up.
See, I had thought I had a definition. As a teenager, I’d had an interest in art – writing and film, specifically – and I wanted to be a screen writer, so I went to school and studied Communications – video editing and production. During my college career, I had gotten a taste of counseling – helping my peers through their problems. Boyfriend issues, homesickness, problems with roommates. So I redefined career, and set out on a new path, pursuing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. I worked on college campuses – counseling, supervising, and motivating students – and loved it. But the counseling part of things was just okay, as I soon learned that I preferred working with groups of people educating them in classroom settings, instead of in one-on-one environments. So I took that newfound interest and began searching for jobs that would allow me to train and educate. After landing a job in the training and development field, jettisoning the college environment for the corporate world, I found myself, six months later…
I would go on, but I think you get the idea. I had defined, and then redefined my definition of career, not once, or twice, or even three times. I had set out on several different career paths, thinking that with each one, I had found the elusive element I was looking for – the career that completed me.
In graduate school, I read about a career development expert, Donald Super, who theorized that any combination of qualities – passion, interest, skill, ability, family background, etc. – would lead one to a career. I thought Super’s theory was the best thing I had ever heard. Reflecting on passion and interest had worked for me, that was one way to define career.
When I taught freshman seminar at a community college, I had convinced my students they would find a career that fit them by trying different possibilities. Taking classes from different disciplines, volunteering, talking to professors, learning from professionals in the workforce. Essentially, taking an active approach to their career. That was another way to define career.
During my time as a counselor, the colleagues I had worked with were big into career inventories (like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), which are essentially career personality tests – Read several scenarios. Fill in bubbles. A list of careers emerge. I thought those inventories were too limiting, but the students I taught loved them. Still yet, another way to define career.
So there I had been, with two degrees, a vast amount of education, counseling and teaching students, but still with relatively no idea of what I wanted to do, when I grew up.
Until the reunion.
My friend Sarah and I had been catching up. The music was so loud that her words were barely audible. But I felt everything she was saying. Sarah and I were in the same place. Like me, Sarah had two degrees. Like me, Sarah had well-laid out career paths, just knowing that when she got there, she would be happy. Like me, Sarah was stuck.
Career had evaded us both.
The more Sarah and I spoke about our careers – jobs we’d had, career interests that’d changed, the frustration from it all – the more career felt within our grasps.
What I discovered, with Sarah’s help, is that career isn’t the most important thing in my life. My family is. My wife, son, daughter, and even our pet dog. And since family is the apex of my world, my career should be something that allows me to maximize my time and energy with my family, instead of serving as a distraction from my family. This isn’t to suggest that I should consider working part-time, or not at all. Or not having career-related goals and interests. Rather, instead of worrying myself with finding a career to complete me, it dawned on me – in that bar, music blaring, basking in the smiles and laughter of friends I hadn’t seen in forever – that perhaps my preoccupation should be with, what Sarah referred to as, work-life balance.
In generations past, adults worked long, grueling hours, saving money to allow them to do things with their families. Overworked, fatigued, and much too stressed. On a never-ending quest for personal fulfill. Spending all of one’s time working, yet not being able to live. That lifestyle isn’t for me. I want to be present at my children’s games, matches, and rehearsals, and be there when they look into the audience, seeing I’m their biggest cheerleader. I want to teach my daughter how to ride a bike, and be there for her when she falls and scrapes her knee. I want to show my son how to throw ball and mow the lawn, yet instill in him that these are not necessarily men’s roles or jobs, that women can do anything men can, sometimes even better. I want to take my wife on all those vacations we swore we’d take, before we had kids and life became chaotic.
After chatting with Sarah, I made a promise to myself – to not worry myself sick, trying desperately to find a career to complete me. For the college student, this isn’t to suggest that you cannot, or should not, have, and seek to develop, career goals. My wife was introduced to occupational therapy as a teenager. She went to college to study occupational therapy. And she has been an OT for several years. In all likelihood, occupational therapy will be the career she has for the remainder of her life.
What this does suggest, however, is that changing majors, or switching career goals, or not being satisfied with a current occupation does not define who you are. You define who you are. A career doesn’t have to feel like the boogey man, making you afraid or ashamed to admit you don’t have your dream job. Nor does it have to feel like another person’s lofty accomplishments that you are always trying to measure yourself against, and failing miserably.
Work-life balance. For many of today’s students, that’s what career will mean. No longer is a career a place where you have to spend all of your time and energies, trying to make as money as you can, just hoping to get through the day. Where it feels like your job owns you, and you can never quite get out from under its grasp. That definition of career is outdated and passé. Like the tyrant sports coach, who yells and shouts, and berates his players in hopes of getting them to play harder.
Just as there’s a different way of coaching today’s athletes, there’s a different, better, more holistic way today’s employees are approaching career. An approach that says – As long as my job provides the financial means that allows me to travel, or has a generous PTO package that allows me to spend time writing my novel, or offers flexible hours that allows me to be there for my kids, whenever they need, and allows me to do something that makes me happy and satisfied on some level, that is the career for me. No longer do today’s students need to feel like prisoners to the idea of having a career. For many of today’s students, career isn’t going to be what makes them feel alive, work-life balance is.
That night in that bar, I said good-bye to the antiquated definition of career, and I took back the power I once gave it. No longer will I allow the idea of having a career to control and dictate my life. After all, career doesn’t define me. Rather, it’s just one of the many parts, that is me. Should I decide to change careers, it won’t make me any less of a person, less educated, or less talented. I’ve reframed my thinking. Putting my family in the center of my life – where they belong – and placing career on the perimeter, as supplemental tool that will allow me to do what I love most, spend time with my family. Because, in the end, the only entity that will ever give me ultimate fulfillment, in the way I am seeking, is my family.
Take that career.
I’ve been lucky enough to keep in contact with a few students that I used to teach. This is part of a letter I wrote to a former student, recently. I wanted to share it, as college students prepare for the Spring semester, and look towards post-college days. As professionals, many of us have the idea of “work” wrong. We sometimes can be more productive, by taking better care of ourselves. If we can pass this message on to college students, perhaps they’ll learn to practice better self-care and become more productive employees.
I tell ya, the working world never ends! I read this article today about work and the need for leisure time…and it’s completely opposite of how the workforce operates. Take your time in college…hell, even stay for a 5th year (if you keep up being debt free!!!) and take advantage of the myriad of opportunities, which I know that you will. You can spend a semester, sipping wine in Italy or eating croissants in France or perfecting your Espanol in Costa Rica.
And you’d get college credit for it!
Now if I can only find a similar deal, in Hawaii! I can dream!
As I pull into a parking space, I remind myself to smile. Smile? Yes, smile. Smile as though you’re already having the best day of your life. Smile as though you’re happy to be working this job that’s already become stale and monotonous. Smile as though you’re not on the verge of screaming.
That’s what nice people do, right? They smile. They walk outside and smile. They drive to work and smile. They go through their days, and smile. And no matter how strenuous things become, they find it in themselves to smile.
So I remind myself to smile.
Smile as though the woman riding the elevator with you didn’t subtly grab her purse when she saw you step through the doors. Smile as though the guy at the front door didn’t call you Mohammed for the tenth time. Smile as though you didn’t overhear a coworker talking about a Black politician, and how he’s a credit to his race.
That’s what non-threatening people do, right? They smile. At least they’re told to myself, such that they will appear less threatening. So I smile.
My caramel skin stands out against the varying shades of my coworkers’ fair complexions. But, that doesn’t bother me. The only time I notice it is when I look at the holiday picture from our department, and I’m drawn to the contrast of my skin color and my coworkers’.
The other time I notice it is when the people I work with (outside of my department) or the students whom we serve speak about me.
The Black one.
Whenever someone describes me, I’m referred to as the Black one.
Not the young guy. Not the dude with swag or who dresses nicely. Not guy who’s always smiling, and starts every counseling session by asking students where would you like to be in five years?
I’m constantly reminded that, that’s not how people see me.
When someone can’t remember my name, they describe me. Inevitably, they just end up saying, You know, the Black one. What was that about not being judged by your color of their skin, but by the content of your character?
Every day, I’m reminded that I’m Black. That’s okay with me. I love who I am. I love being Black. But, it does sting that every day, I’m reminded that the only thing people see about me is that I’m Black, as though it’s important to establish that I’m Black in order to interact with me.
I should be used to this by now, I lie to myself. It has never gotten an easier.
A poem I wrote some years ago, during a time when I was felt torn between what is, and what could be. Between what I saw everyday, and what I had never seen. Between two different paths, that would never cross. As I sit here now, I am just as torn as I had been, some years ago…although I find comfort in knowing that more good can come out of the process of choosing, as would come out of the outcome or end result. I hope you enjoy this piece, for all those times you might feel torn.
“The Leaves Waved Hello to me Again Today”
The leaves waved hello to me today;
They were unmoved by the snobbish grin masking my thoughts of being amongst the crashing waves.
The leaves simply waved an outstretched hand as I passed her by.
Her limbs were full of vibrant colors – greens, and yellows, and oranges
Contrasting brilliantly against the bright blue sky;
She did not ask where I was traveling to,
But simply wished me well along my way.
She greeted me with a smile that is as warm as a mother’s touch –
Like a-glass-of-warm-milk comforting or put-your-fears-to-rest soothing.
I felt abandoned
As I looked about.
Where were the blue waters that brought such tranquility?
And the sparkling stars that allowed me to dream?
The leaves saw anxiety dancing in my eyes,
And heard me sigh over the sand I could feel slipping through my finger tips.
She made promises that braches bearing the ripest apples and perkiest peaches
Would hang so low they would tickle my taste buds;
Of winds so gentle they would ruffle the curls in my lover’s hair;
And of the sun luminously setting behind the mountains, coloring the pale blue sky yellow, orange, and red.
I could not ask the leaves why she adored me so,
And wanted to make me the prince of her colorful town.
I stared at her invitation,
How could I not feel relaxed while sitting on her cottony blades of grass?
How could I not find solace in watching the chameleonic clouds floating in her skies?
And how could I not yearn to live in a vibrant world where smiles are warm and welcoming, and not cold and contrived;
As I sped along the highway, she continued waving,
I waved back.
Perhaps I will open the door to the town of the leaves,
And leave the sand and water for another.
I smiled, sending back her invitation with a maybe;
Well, a definite maybe –
I think I can get used to a life amongst the leaves.