When I say I, I hope you see the you in it.
I’m only just now able to tell you how gorgeous you are.
He gathered a small group of us around at recess and revealed the gun tucked in his waistband. I don’t know why I was there. It had to have been by accident. This was back when they said I talked white, all the kids wore black, and they banned colors.
I often wonder if what I’m looking at is real.
I regained consciousness sometime in the day; the clanging of plates and glasses harmonizing over the collective hum of customer chitter chatter. I woke up in a restaurant sporting a collared shirt with a skinny tie double-windsored around it and my creased slacks hovering neatly over a pair of jet black dress shoes. In an instant I was a twenty-something with thoughts of forever and ambitions stretching beyond my work uniform. It all finally made sense. It hadn’t for a while. I’m only just now able to tell you how I feel and now that I can, I’m not even sure if words are the best way. For one to say what they really mean and be who they really are takes a level of openness I haven’t felt since I smiled all the time, my backpack was heavy, and I told my mom I’d never change. That was when my favorite color was blue.
My favorite color is yellow now.
I remember when it was blue. I remember when I was me; how when something was funny I would laugh or when something was painful I would cry. Blue was my favorite color back when if I felt something, I could put it into words. I remember those days. I remember when my eyes were as wide as my buck-toothed smile, my nose was periodically buried in books, and if I found you gorgeous I would tell you. I’m not sure why my favorite color changes. I read somewhere that after seven years every cell in my body will have died and been replaced so, with that in mind, I’m quite literally not that boy anymore; favorite color and all. I remember him though. I remember being on the playground after school and hearing whispers about the [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL] kids from up the hill. That was back in elementary school. Dressed in black, groups of them would travel down to our playground; the energy they gave off almost palpable. In my young life I’ve learned that over time the spaces we find ourselves in become us and shape the way we view the world. When [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL] was both the middle school I was assigned to and one of the spaces I’d find myself in, I wasn’t privy to this fact of life. Some things just can’t be read about. Dressed in black, those kids would travel down to our playground exuding an animosity I had yet to be introduced to; my buck-toothed smile still green and free of care. I wonder if we lose ourselves the way we lose our cells. I was who I was when my favorite color was blue; still unaware of the ground I walked on, the people who walked it before me, and the missteps I was due to inherent simply by being born.
I’ve been reading a lot about Black boys getting murdered lately.
I don’t know what you see when you see me. There’s an old white man who regularly eats at the restaurant I work at. Mild and soft-spoken, he always greets me with a smile, asks how I’ve been, then makes his way to the bar. His routine starts and ends the same way every time. Other customers who I share a similar routine of pearly-white blah-blah’s and prepackaged pleasantries with trickle in and about an hour or two later, he gets up to leave. But not before approaching the host stand one last time. Liquor back stroking in his system, he usually pays me some sort of compliment, says I’m a sweet kid, and lets it be known he isn’t flirting with me. He’s gay. Amused by this old queen mumbling whiskey-sponsored nonsense, I always laugh it off and wish him well. Then one day when making his usual exit, he broke that routine to tell me he was confronted by a group of black teenagers on his way to the restaurant. A little tick went off in my head.
Know the gap between what someone says and what they mean.
It’s as wide as those hips of yours I’m in awe of. Maybe it was the way he said it. That little tick was something my mom taught me to develop because she knew well the ground I walked on. However, this was a man who thought highly of me and who I’d talked to for months. Surely he couldn’t be what my mom warned me about. So I swiftly muted said tick and maintained my composure. Being both on the job and a decent human being concerned for this elderly man’s well-being, I asked him to explain what happened. After all, he hadn’t actually said anything to trip off of. He simply gave me a description. But it didn’t stop there.
“Black teenagers are terrorizing this mall!” he finally barked.
These days I’m much more interested in what doesn’t get put into words. You want to see me again. You say you had a good time the other night. You’re like me, I imagine; a twenty-something who thinks about forever too much and doesn’t yet know who they are or what they’re becoming. Did I get that right? My favorite color is yellow now and sprawled all around my apartment are various fabrics. I make clothes. All I know is that I make clothes and until I figure it all out, I have this day job that keeps me un-homeless. Words are a trip because really they’re just our best attempt; this hacky impersonation of something as extraordinary and pure as a feeling. Sometimes I feel like I’ll die having never got my point across. Words have their limits. I can only imagine how much never gets said. I can only imagine what we don’t have words for. That’s what’s so cool about clothes. They are their own dialect. They can tap into that same feeling without anything being said. There’s a role these things we wear play in communicating what’s inside of us. There’s a function they serve in telling the world who we are and how we feel that words just can’t articulate and these days I’m much more interested in what doesn’t get put into words. I’m more interested in the idea that when I walk into a room, my appearance will speak to people before I’ve even opened my mouth. A couple of decades ago I had a gun to my face and my best guess says that was why.
“But you…you’re not like them. You don’t have to identify as Black,” he concluded.
My mom would drive me to school in a beat up Mitsubishi when blue was my favorite color; my buck-toothed smile still free of care. She needed to warm the engine up for 10 minutes every morning and part of her worried one day it would just stop somewhere in the middle of the freeway. Patches of chipped away paint and rust littering the exterior, we called the car Lil’ Putt Putt. Before it, we took the bus everywhere. She told me to never forget where I come from. I remember my mom, with the British-English hue that colors her accent, saying this world wouldn’t allow my innocence to last. I didn’t understand it at the time, telling her I loved her and I’d never change. I may as well have told her those cells in my body would never die and my favorite color would always be blue.
“You’re African. Remember that,” she’d tell me.
What a difference 10 minutes makes. The engine finally warm, we’d skrt off and pull up a few blocks down from [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL]. I’d hop out of Lil’ Putt Putt confused why my mom got so serious out of nowhere and make my way up the hill. Everyday I’d pass by an old Black crossing guard who always sang my praise and an old Black lady who always sang along. I didn’t understand why they got so ecstatic about the belt touching my waistline, the fact that I spoke the way I spoke, and the books my backpack was clearly filled to the tee with. It always felt like there was something none of them were telling me. I was just me. I didn’t get it. I must not at all have been what they were used to the way they talked about me and the way they talked about me, I must not at all have been what the kids in that classroom were used to. I don’t know if words are the best way to describe this so humor me.
Imagine a room made of orange stripes.
Inside of this room are kids made of orange stripes, speaking orange stripes, and a boy walking into frame made of and speaking blue polka dots. Does that makes sense? My apartment is sprawling with fabric, I apologize. I spend all of my time in it so these days colors and patterns are part of the way I think. Maybe your home looks different. Maybe you don’t think the same way I do and all of what I just said was just gibberish, I don’t know. To put it plainly, though the kids who gave me the hardest time shared my same skin tone, something about me stuck out and they felt it. To my frustration, I had no words to describe this at the time. It was just a feeling. Like those clashing colors and patterns, I was hard to ignore. There was one kid in particular named [YOUNG BLACK MALE]. Cornrows running parallel along his scalp, a chain dangling over his jersey, denim hanging below his waistline, and a crisp pair of Jordans cradling his feet, [YOUNG BLACK MALE] made it a mission for me to feel out of place and ensured every kid in the room knew it. The school at the top of that hill housed a bubbling animosity waiting for any and every reason to burst. When it did, that bubble manifested itself in a number of alarming ways. Often times [YOUNG BLACK MALE] would be its host and I the target, but understand that energy was circulating everywhere. I saw a lot pop off in a short span of time. Fights were a daily thing. I think from time to time about how when one broke out, this swarm of black clothes would travel as a unit toward one corner of the playground in order to get a good view. I think about one of my schoolmates breaking an umbrella and slashing another kid with it. I think about how many kids carried knives on them, the class I had that cycled through eleven teachers who all folded under the pressure, or the day at recess when that kid showed us his gun.
It was the second time I’d seen one up close.
The other day I accepted the fact that today I could die for being alive. I’m told I’d make a great server. The clanging of plates and glasses harmonized over the collective hum of customer chitter chatter. My manager wants me to memorize the menu. She says I’ll start training soon. I don’t know how to describe wines to customers. This uniform isn’t me. It’s hard to think about food while I’m thinking about clothes; about how our appearance speaks to people before we even open our mouths. Color has a lot to do with that. I read somewhere that we associate colors with our experiences. That’s why we have favorites. Mine is yellow. What that means is it might remind me of the color my tassel was when my family flew out for my college graduation. It might remind me of the coat I saw another Black boy wearing; his clothes fitted in a way I didn’t know we were allowed to confidently rock. Or maybe it reminds me of the color the sky was at Dolores Park when I first started hanging out with the group of Black boys I now call friends and finally felt like I belonged. I don’t know what you see when you see the color yellow. That’s what I’m afraid of. What I mean is I read somewhere that you and I could look at the exact same color but experience it two completely different ways; that you don’t feel the same things I feel and don’t experience the world the same way that I do. Your full lips curl upward as you run your hand through your hair. You get genuinely excited when you talk. I really do think you’re gorgeous and I guess what I’m saying is I’m afraid you might not feel what I feel. You might not see what I see. I don’t know what you see when you see me. I think about things like that sometimes. I think about the things you might think but not say. That old white man said I’m a sweet kid. In retrospect maybe he wasn’t hitting on me after all. I kind of wish he was because he had a lot of positive things to say about me and judging by the note we left on, he didn’t associate positive things with blackness. I kind of wish he was hitting on me because now I realize his compliments were coming from a more unsettling place; where being a sweet kid and being Black are two separate ideas that by definition can’t coexist. When he said I don’t have to identify as Black, what he meant is blackness is something vulgar; something someone like me should want to disassociate with entirely. These days I’m much more interested in what doesn’t get put into words and for a split second he strung together a few that, after knowing him all that time beforehand, gave me a peak into everything he hadn’t been saying. Clearly there’s so much more below the surface. He didn’t look like the type though. Mild mannered, soft spoken, and chock full of kind words on every other day before this, he caught me completely off guard. My mom always tried to explain things like this to me. I don’t know if words are the best way. The Black experience is almost as hard to describe as color itself. What I mean is if you’d never seen color before and I had to explain yellow to you, with all of my gab and diction, I would draw a blank. My mom tried her best, telling me to never forget where I come from.
She taught me English with a British hue in her accent.
Twenty-something years ago I was born in our nation’s capitol. Back then they called it Chocolate City. I don’t know if they still do. The way I imagine it, I was one in a sea of black newborns sleeping in that hospital room; just outside of it an animosity all of us had yet to be introduced to. An aggressive war on drugs, a flourishing crack epidemic and the ensuing surge in crime, they went on to call this Chocolate City the murder capital and babies like us super-predators. The way they told it, Black teenagers were terrorizing the city. Outside of that hospital room was an entire history of issues propagated by those that came before us; issues we would have no choice but to be subject to. All of us slept in that room, as I imagine, unaware of the ground we were getting ready to walk on and the missteps we were due to inherit; blank canvases ready to be colored in by a world we knew nothing about. My mom taught me English with a British hue in her accent and our apartment was colored with shelves. Those shelves were colored with a hefty stockpile of books and I was just that: a blank canvas. She insisted I speak “properly” and was very quick to correct if I ever spoke otherwise; adamant that I raise my hand in class and work twice as hard as any of the other kids. She made it a point for me to excel in school, telling me this country left us little room for error. Her television happened to be absent of any sort of sports and the music wafting from room to room was void of any sort of Hip Hop. She hated Hip Hop for its violence, a refugee forced from her country by way of violence, while Soul, Funk, R&B, and Reggae were on a constant loop. All of these attributes collectively formed the feeling of my mom’s apartment which was the original space to become me. It’s hard to describe that feeling much like its hard to describe color but that said, I’d like to think it felt blue. It was my favorite after all.
Everybody could feel it. When I set foot in that [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL] classroom, little did I know everything about me exuded that blueness. I barely had to say a word. It’s weird how that works. It makes me wonder how you feel about me. I’m only just now able to tell you how I feel about you. You have a way about you that I can’t put my finger on. It’s as if you see right through me. I wonder why it is we feel a connection with certain people. I wonder why it is we don’t. Sometimes I feel like all we are are our experiences disguised as people. We feel it when we meet someone we match with or someone we clash with and whatever it is you have beneath your disguise feels familiar to me; like you’ve been in some of the spaces I have. The night we went out I came dressed as best as I could. I understand clothes now. They speak just like we do. Words are a trip because really they’re just our best attempt; this hacky impersonation of something as extraordinary and pure as a feeling. Words have their limits while clothes can tap into that same feeling without anything being said. They are their own dialect. I’m happy to say the way I dress these days attracts compliments. That’s such a trip because when I was a kid, the way I dressed was liable to send an entire class into an uproar of laughter. Clothes were just clothes back then, I was who I was, and in both cases you could say I was just working off of what my mom gave me. She had an infatuation with “on sale” signs and the latest fashions were barely an after-thought. So when I walked into that classroom draped in her findings, the class went in on everything from my kitchen-scissor haircut right down to my clunky, brown, Payless shoes. [YOUNG BLACK MALE] always got the first word in. I was just me. I didn’t get it. Until that moment I hadn’t thought much about my appearance. It’s funny. I have to say, I’m starting to get more embarrassed the more I think about this. I was actually pretty goofy looking, it just hit me. Those shoes were actually bammer. My mom actually cut my hair with some kitchen scissors and I guess the uproar of laughter in response to all of that was typical kid shit one should expect from kids. I wouldn’t take any of it back, looking back on it. Without that laughter, I feel like these days I wouldn’t feel compelled to dress a way that attracts compliments. I probably wouldn’t have all that fabric in my apartment and I probably wouldn’t make clothes. It’s funny how that works. There’s some things in life you just have to chalk up to the game. But it didn’t stop there. Eventually that kid shit became something else entirely; something I absolutely would take back because without it, I wouldn’t have inherited one of the many missteps available to me on this ground I walk on nor would I have subsequently lost myself the way I did. My backpack was filled to the tee with books, I got good grades, I raised my hand in class, I did my homework and when my classmates talked about things like Tupac or ball games I had no idea what they were talking about. All of that in mind and the added fact that I spoke “properly” really drove home a point to some of the kids; [YOUNG BLACK MALE] being the first to put it into words. When he told me I wasn’t Black, it was the first time anyone ever extracted me from my blackness. Before that moment, not once did I think of my blackness as something I acted as or spoke like. It was never a costume that I had the option of putting on, taking off, or getting taken off for me. It was always something I simply was and it took quite a bit of time before I returned to that feeling; before I felt comfortable just existing. Little did I know this was the moment I learned simply existing is a privilege awarded to few. In that classroom every last piece of my identity, what I genuinely was and couldn’t help being, was attacked at every corner all the way down to that beat up Mitsubishi my mom drove.
“You’re African. Remember that,” she’d tell me.
What a difference 10 minutes makes. The engine finally warm, we’d peel off and pull up a few blocks down from [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL]. I’d hop out of Lil’ Putt Putt still confused why my mom got all serious out of nowhere. It was starting to get to me. I was just me. I didn’t get it. Making my way up the hill, I’d pass by the old black crossing guard who always sang my praise and the old black lady who always sang along. It always felt like there was something none of them were telling me. I started feeling like everybody’s little science project. I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time but, slowly and passively, my life started to feel less and less about me the individual and my every move became a representation of millions. And all of them had something to say about how I was representing them. That old couple loved the fact that my pants were pulled up, I spoke the way I spoke, and my backpack was filled with books. In one of those books I read that after seven years every cell in my body will have died and been replaced. Each of those times I walked that hill I wonder how much of me was left. Because at one point I stopped being me. At one point I started associating what I wore, the way I spoke, and the books in my backpack with whiteness and suddenly I had a choice between remaining the way I was or being Black. The crossing guard went on to say I was a good kid, the lady said I had a kind smile, and all of a sudden I resented them for it. Words like “good” and “kind” started to sound more like “soft.” And if I hoped to be Black, I couldn’t be soft. All of a sudden I resented my mom for it because I was this thing that I couldn’t help being and she made me that way. That boy didn’t know much at the time but he knew each of those qualities brought him nothing but grief in that classroom he was on his way to. “Me” wasn’t good enough. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to feel your identity is at stake. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to think who you are is something that can be taken away from you. Or maybe you don’t think the same way I do. Maybe I come from a space you don’t come from and none of this is making sense to you.
I’ve been reading a lot about Black boys getting murdered lately.
I woke up in that restaurant sporting a collared shirt with a skinny tie double-windsored around it, my creased slacks hovering neatly over a pair of jet black dress shoes, and an old White man blessing me out of my blackness. I’m told I’d make a great server. I want you to understand that uniform I just described. It comes with a code of conduct, a certain manner of speaking, as well as a set of expectations that binds everybody wearing it to this one shared experience. We each know things only our small circle knows and unfortunately I can only explain them to you with words. You would have to be there to really understand. There are inside jokes. That old White man isn’t the only regular. There’s a handful of them; a lot of whom probably deserve their own stories. There’s the lady with yellow teeth and no kids who always asks for crayons with her menu. Rumor has it she eats them. There’s the man who comes dressed in a coke-white three-piece suit to match his coke-white gators, to match his coke-white gloves, which firmly clutch his black briefcase. On arrival, he kisses each hostess on the hand, speaks vaguely about his business, and tips everyone one dollar on his way out. He works in porn, my pregnant coworker deduced after he handed her a business card and said “we could use a woman like you.” Then there’s the big, burly woman who comes in and hardly speaks a word. She was born a man. Dressed head-to-toe in women’s business attire, she identifies as female and always gives off the vibe that she thinks a world’s worth of thoughts though rarely ever lets a sound escape her mouth. She requests the same server and the same table every time and I know both who and what that is off-hand. We know what certain customers order, where they want to sit, what time of day they come in, and all of the eccentricities we can expect from them. There’s a reason why new hires need to be trained. There’s a way we think, a way we speak, and a way we move that ensures that food gets on the table. Only those of us wearing the uniform know the inner workings of that restaurant, the colorful cast of characters that frequent it, and how at the end of the day things all come together. And I want you to understand that uniform could never tell the story of who’s inside of it.
Included are college students with words like units, financial aid, and Aderall perpetually rolling off of their tongues. Next to them are teachers talking lesson plans and the inherent flaws within the school system. In one ear I’ve had a coworker describe to me in detail their recent trip to jail and in the other ear I’ve had a coworker explain to me in detail their recent trip to Europe. I share the same uniform with photographers, weight-lifters, models, actors, the sexually deviant, the deeply religious, kids fresh out of high school, parents fresh out of the delivery room, immigrants, conservatives, liberals, people who have other jobs by day, guys who dress in drag by night, fashionistas, entrepreneurs, and accents from nearly every continent. This uniform isn’t me. I don’t yet know who I am or what I’m becoming. All I know is I’m this kid who writes words, has a band, and makes clothing. A lot of my co-workers have some sort of a side hustle, something they’re working towards, or something they want to become. All of us have a set of street clothes for when we clock out but as far as anyone visiting this restaurant knows, we are simply cooks, hosts, runners, bussers, servers, or whatever else our uniform suggests. We have wildly different personalities, backgrounds, and accents and this is one experience we all relate to each other by. We are the ones that get food on the table. However, what I want you to understand is that uniform could never tell the story of who’s inside of it.
I’ve been reading a lot about Black boys getting murdered lately.
I’ve been hearing a lot about what happened to my old schoolmates. I remember one kid. He gathered a small group of us around at recess. This was around the time our school banned colors. Lifting his shirt up quicker than I could process exactly what was going on, he revealed the gun tucked in his waistband; the second time I’d seen one up close. He probably wanted to show it off. It really had to have been by accident that I was there. I don’t remember much else. I remember our vice principal going into each classroom at some point in the school year, pulling out any student dressed in blue or red, and making them change into their gym clothes. I happened to be one of those students, my favorite color being what it was; the same color that kid happened to claim and half of what prompted the school to take such action. He got locked up recently, I hear. I’ve been hearing a lot about what happened to my old schoolmates. One of them wound up being one of my coworkers. Unsure of the exact details pertaining to that one kid, he made up for it by word-vomiting a handful of other stories in an almost overwhelming amount of detail. Plenty of our old classmates turned out fine but those aren’t the stories he told me. These stories more often than not followed the rhythm of so-and-so getting killed, so-and-so killing someone, or so-and-so killing themselves; among other unpretty occurrences. They rarely missed a beat. Then one day he brought up a name that put me in a stand-still: [YOUNG BLACK MALE]. At that moment I wondered if the story that followed would follow that pre-established rhythm. If I can be honest with you, when I heard what happened to him, I had no idea my heart would drop the way it immediately did, my eyes would water up the way they eventually did, or that I’d end the night with [YOUNG BLACK MALE], now a grown man, staring at me from my computer screen.
“Why don’t you talk anymore?” my mom asked.
What a difference 10 minutes makes. The engine finally warm, we peeled off and pulled up a few blocks down from [SFUSD PUCLIC SCHOOL]. I hopped out of Lil’ Putt Putt; confused about the question. She’d been asking that a lot lately. I didn’t get it. Making my way up the hill, I passed by that old black couple. This particular time, however, I heard no singing. There were no praises. Neither of them said anything. As I continued on, the two of them behind me, the lady finally managed to liberate three words that B-lined their way toward my adolescent ears. Blue wasn’t my favorite color anymore. I didn’t have a favorite color.
“That’s a shame,” the lady said softly but just loud enough for me to hear.
The other day I accepted the fact that today I could just be a body. I could go limp. My eyes could turn vacant. Who I was could not even matter. Before I open my mouth, someone might already decide who I am and I could die for it. That lady saw my pants sagging and those words she so deliberately chose spoke an entire story I hadn’t been told yet. What I mean is working at the restaurant, I’ve picked up on a lot. We dress formally, for one. My uniform is supposed to communicate to customers the tier of service they are about to experience. That collared shirt with the skinny tie double-windsored around it, those creased slacks, and the jet black dress shoes they neatly hover over speak respectability. People greet me with pearly white smiles when they walk in. They say nice things about me to my face. They write nice things about me in comment cards. And somehow I’m the same guy in street clothes when he clocks out; who people cross the street to avoid at night, who gets discreetly followed around stores, and who teachers automatically expected less out of. When I made my way up that hill far enough and outside of my mom’s view all those years ago, I loosened my belt until my denim fell below my waistline. That old lady saw my pants sagging as I walked by, and “that’s a shame” were the words she strung together. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t sting a little. I’d be lying if I said all that time it hadn’t felt good to make them proud but clothes are their own dialect and I got tired of not speaking the same language as kids that looked like me. I got tired of standing out and all I wanted to do was blend in. Blame it on my age maybe. I started growing my hair out with plans to cornrow it. I found a chain that I hoped to one day buy and a jersey that caught my eye. I started wearing more black and, when it came time for the fight of the day, I became part of that swarm moving to one corner of the playground to get a good view of It. A couple of times I was it. Hell, there might be someone somewhere right now with a story about me. I stopped reading. I stopped speaking. My mom taught me to speak English the way she taught me because it communicates to society the tier of person I am. Diction, cadence, and annunciation speak respectability. Teachers greeted me with pearly white smiles when I walked in. They said nice things about me to my face. They wrote nice things about me in report cards. Some of them said with surprised tones that I spoke so well. I started to feel like street clothes; as if who I was didn’t inherently speak respectability to people. I stopped raising my hand in class. I stopped saying what was on my mind. I started hating the way I spoke. I stopped speaking almost all together. I couldn’t let another blue polka dot leave my mouth. It got exhausting. My mom looked at me crazy when she saw my pants sagging, when the letters in my report card started changing, and when I told her I wanted some hundred dollar shoes; failing to see the issue in the ones she bought me. After all, those clunky, brown, Payless shoes touched ground a lot of my peers only read about. And some things just can’t be read.
That day at recess was the second time I’d seen a gun up close.
I’d traveled the world by the time I set foot in that classroom. The car we pulled up in was littered with rust. The clothes I walked in wearing weren’t fly. But if shoes could speak, mine could’ve told you stories about half of the world’s continents. “You’re African,” my mom made it a point to repeat; her infatuation with on sale signs being, in actuality, her constantly saving up to fly us somewhere foreign. She didn’t want America, this space, to become me and insisted we travel. We eventually made our way to a quiet neighborhood in San Francisco. I eventually made my way to that [SFUSD PUCLIC SCHOOL] classroom and whenever I talked about my experiences, it felt as if my words came out in the shape of polka dots only to fall on ears accustomed to hearing stripes. Throw that blue of mine into the mix and maybe now it makes sense. My mom was a journalist before we touched down in SF. That probably explains a lot. In 1995 she earned a fellowship to write about the refugee population in South Africa. Seeing this as an opportunity to take me to our home-continent for the first time, we lived in Johannesburg for one year. That was the year after apartheid ended and for the first time in the country’s history, Blacks and Whites were equal. By equal, I mean equal by law. They weren’t so much equal by culture and there is a difference. The two move at different speeds. With law, there’s a documented date it starts and a documented date it ends, both of which essentially happen overnight. With culture, to change it is to uproot generations’ worth of ingrained beliefs and behaviors; which doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. I read somewhere that after seven years every cell in my body will have died and been replaced and I’m starting to feel like what goes on in a person isn’t that different from what goes on in a people. Does that make sense? What I mean is, at what point do I stop being me and start being something else? It takes time, so says science. And at what point does the toxic culture within a people stop and become something else? My mom and I wound up in an all white neighborhood. She says the lady that rented the house to us probably wanted to piss them all off. There was a pregnant Black housekeeper already living there with her son when we arrived. She gave birth sometime during our stay and named her newborn daughter after my mom; having always gone on about how nice she was, like the Whites. The friendly neighbors expressed similar sentiments, saying she wasn’t like any of the Blacks. They probably thought they were progressive. They probably thought they were the good guys. Out there, what they said was a compliment. Out there, to my face, my blackness was referred to as dirty. Though segregation was something we could no longer see or touch, it was still a way of thinking and relating to one another. It was an entirely different world. The other neighbors kept to themselves mostly. I remember one of them shooting pigeons in their back yard one day. I heard the shots before I saw the shooters. They were a man and a boy. I watched from a hole in the fence that separated us only to, quicker than I could process exactly what was going on, find myself staring deep into the barrel end of a gun. The boy behind it was black. The boy behind it looked just like me. What a difference a year makes.
I blinked and in an instant was a twenty-something with a restaurant job.
Customers trickled in as stories from every corner of the country lit up my news feed. Periodically I had to put my phone down, fashion up a smile and engage in that routine of pearly-white blah-blah’s and prepackaged pleasantries. People that look like me are being hunted right now. My manager wants me to memorize the menu. She says I’ll start training soon. I don’t know how to describe wines to customers. This uniform isn’t me. It could never tell the story of this man inside of it and I don’t yet know who that man is. I don’t know what I’m becoming. I don’t know what you see when you see me. To be as young as I am, I feel I think too often about whether or not people will remember me when I die. When I’m just a body, limp and absent of all of these experiences, how will you sum me up? What words will you use? Will you even find the right words? Do you even know me? Twenty-something years ago, my mom held me for the first time in that hospital room in Chocolate City. She was fully aware of what was going on outside and knew well the ground I was getting ready to walk on. She knew my identity would already be decided for me. She knew I was never supposed to be an individual and that I was always supposed to be a category. I was never supposed to own myself, be seen as myself, or see myself for myself and she knew because of that, part of my fate would always be outside of my hands. I could be whoever anybody anywhere decides I am at any moment and I have no control over that fact. I was just me and she knew that “me” wasn’t good enough. If you’d never seen it before and I had to explain the Black experience to you, I would draw a blank. Or it might come off as gibberish, I don’t know. It’s almost as hard to describe as color itself. My mom tried her best and now I realize why she got so serious during those car rides. I finally understand why that old Black couple always smiled at me.
It always felt like there was something none of them were telling me.
I’ve been reading a lot about Timothy Thomas lately. My mom looked at me crazy when she saw me with my pants sagging. It didn’t look proper. It didn’t look respectable. In 2001, 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot to death by police in Cincinatti, Ohio when they mistook him pulling up his pants for him pulling out a gun. She told me to keep my pants at my waistline like how 20 year old University of Virginia student Martese Johnson wore his. I’ve been reading a lot about him too. He attempted to enter a bar underage and when his ID got rejected, Alcohol Beverage Control rushed in and swiftly beat him until blood literally poured from his face and onto the pavement. She didn’t want me to give them a reason. She told me never to commit even the most minor of crimes like 20 year old Wendell Allen of New Orleans, Louisiana. His house was the subject of a warranted marijuana bust in 2012. It ended with him, unarmed and shirtless, being shot dead by police. If I haven’t committed a crime and police approach me, she told me not to resist. I’ve been reading about 19 year old Kendrec McDade of Pasadena, California who ran from police in 2012 when they suspected him of being involved in a nearby robbery he had nothing to do with and shot him dead. She told me to instead comply and follow orders like 24 year old Jamar Clark of Minneapolis, Minnesota did in 2015. Police arrived in his neighborhood due to a domestic dispute, wrongfully arrested and handcuffed him, threw him to the ground, put a knee to his chest, then shot him in the head. One of the hardest things for a mother to explain to her child must be that even with all of this precaution they still might not be safe. I don’t think my mom ever had the heart to put it in those words. I’m only just now realizing how hard it must’ve been to raise a Black boy in America and now I understand why she looked at me so crazy when she saw my pants sagging. It was the same crazy look she gave me whenever I didn’t speak “properly” or when my grades started dropping and now I understand why that old black couple always smiled at me. It was all for the same reason: because, as my mom told me all those years ago, in America we’re left little room for error. I resented her for making me the way I was, for all of those rules of hers I had to follow, and now I understand they were never her rules to begin with. This isn’t our game. There’s an animosity bubbling in this country and it looks for any and every reason to burst. She looked at me crazy not because my clothes would give that animosity a reason, but because the reason was already there and my clothes were just decoration. The way I talk is just decoration. How educated I am is just decoration. The reason was there the moment I was born in that hospital room in Chocolate City; unclothed and undecorated. I’m only just now realizing that all that time my mom was trying to raise the kind of black child that is least likely to get killed.
She held me for the first time that night, aware that outside was an entire history of issues propagated by those that came before us; issues we would have no choice but to be subject to.
Imagine a mother having to explain to her son that simply existing can be met with consequence. She had the task of making me feel confident and secure while at the same time reminding me that just the fact that I’m alive will rub some people the wrong way. And we have no control over who those people turn out to be or when they appear. Take 24 year old Florida A&M University student Jonathan Ferrell, for example. In 2012 he crashed his car and approached a nearby house for help. After knocking on their door, the startled homeowners called the police, who on arrival shot and killed him. Or how about 32 year old DeOntre Dorsey of Indian Head, Maryland who in 2015 suffered a seizure while behind the wheel and ran his car off of the road. Police showed up shortly after and when Dorsey wouldn’t respond to their orders, because he was having a seizure, they tasered him into a vegetative state which ended in his death nine months later. Even 45 year old Larry Jackson, an off-duty NYPD officer, wasn’t immune. In 2010 he called the police about a gunman who appeared at his daughter’s birthday party and when they arrived not only did they not search for said gunman, they attempted to arrest Jackson despite him identifying himself as an officer; proceeding to kick, punch, and strike him with a baton multiple times. Then there’s 68 year old retired marine Kenneth Chamberlain whose LifeAid necklace went off in 2011. Police showed up to his White Plains, New York home and when he refused to let them in for over an hour, saying they were mistaken and he wasn’t having a medical emergency, they broke down the door and shot him twice in the chest. LifeAid’s recording of the incident reveals the officers calling him a nigger before finally breaking in and entering his home. Imagine that.
How do you describe something like that to a child?
I was brand new to this all; my eyes still as wide as my buck-toothed smile. How was my mom supposed to explain that there were people in this world who hated me already? In that first apartment of ours she had the task of teaching me ideas that made sense logically like the ABC’s or how to count to ten all while explaining something as illogical as the hatred of a color. I didn’t get it. She told me this hate would present itself in one of two ways. On one hand, there’s the brand of hate that knocks on your door and announces itself. This hate is proud. This hate is outward. This hate knows it’s hate. This hate looks like the kind of hate 28 year old Orlando Barlow was met with in 2003 when he encountered a group of Las Vegas, Nevada police officers who referred to themselves as the “Baby Daddy Removal Team.” They even had this self-proclamation printed on T-Shirts and when they came face-to-face with a surrendering Barlow, they shot and killed him without missing a beat. This hate looks a lot like what 26 year old Frank Jude of Milwaukee, Wisconsin was greeted with in 2004 when he and his friends attended a party full of off-duty police officers. Beginning to feel uncomfortable, they decided to leave when one of the officers accused Jude of stealing his badge. Ten of them then stepped up and confronted him about it only to beat him to the ground. While the rest of them kicked and punched him, one of the officers sliced his face open with a knife and another stabbed both of his ear canals with a pen; prompting one of Jude’s friend to call 911. Responding to the call, another officer showed up to the scene only to, when he learned about the badge situation, join in and stomp Jude’s head until his skull began to crack. They cut his clothes and left him naked in the street. Another officer put a gun to his head. “Nigger, we can kill you” were his words. They never found a badge.
But then there’s the kind of hate that doesn’t knock, my mom explained.
It doesn’t even make a sound. This hate isn’t proud. This hate chooses it’s words carefully. This hate doesn’t believe it’s hate. This hate looks a lot like the officers who followed 18 year old Ramarley Graham to his Bronx apartment in 2012 solely because he “looked suspicious.” They kicked down his door, entered his home without a warrant, and shot him dead in his bathroom out of self defense, they said. Somehow he was the suspicious one and somehow they were defending themselves with arms from an unarmed man in a home they legally shouldn’t have been inside of in the first place. This hate looks like the kind 22 year old John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio encountered in 2014 when he picked up a BB gun on sale at Walmart. An employee felt “threatened” as Crawford continued shopping, toy in hand, and called the police who literally shot and killed him within one second of their arrival, surveillance shows. Somehow he was the threatening one. This hate looks like the kind 17 year old Jordan Davis was met with in 2012 when he and his friends parked in a Jacksonville, Florida gas station. Another customer complained about the “thug music” rattling from their car then, claiming Davis had a gun, pulled out his own and shot the teenager dead. Because he was the thug. This hate promises it doesn’t hate you; because hate wears things like white hoods and uses words like “nigger.” No, this hate uses politically correct words like “looked suspicious”, “felt threatened”, “thug”, or “tolerate.” It tolerates you; because you are a disturbance to what was the preferred state of order and out of the options it has the power to exercise, it chooses to let you exist. It tolerates you: a term reserved for things like a throbbing pain in one’s back that you just have to sort of endure. This hate will never say it hates you but if you exist the wrong way it will show it hates you.
My mom tried to explain to me how San Francisco, a notoriously liberal city, is home to this subtle flavor of hate. It might be the scarier hate because often it doesn’t get put into words. If you’re lucky, it does. If you’re lucky, the only option it has is to come out of the mouth of a teacher who is shocked that you speak so well, or a close friend that tells you you’re not regular black, or a soft spoken old man who for months said the kindest things about you only to say you don’t have to identify as the vile thing that you are. This hate dehumanizes you just like the other hate. This hate devalues you just like the other hate. What this hate thinks and what it means is different from what it so carefully says. Because people that look like you don’t speak well. Because people that look like you are all the same. Because you’ve transcended the burden people that look like you are cursed with and now have permission to rid yourself of it. This hate doesn’t realize the language it uses, the culture it originates from, or the speed at which culture moves. Because there are people still alive today whose grandparents were treated as disposable objects, were mentally and physically broken to the level of a farm animal, and according to United States law were 3/5ths the value of a human being. Their lives, in the most literal way possible, did not matter and culture moves at a crawl. This hate might not realize it actually is the other hate just dressed more formally and if you’re not lucky, it has the option of coming out of the barrel of a gun. If you’re not lucky you might wind up in a list of names like Kenneth Harding who police shot dead in 2012 when he didn’t pay his bus fare, or Mario Woods who 8 officers cornered and shot execution-style in broad daylight, or Oscar Grant who was handcuffed and subdued on the ground when police shot him in the back. A lot was said to justify each of those incidents but it’s so plain what they meant. Not one of those living, breathing, human beings must have had value in the eyes of those that killed them for them to have so casually killed them and some people can’t see that. I wonder if our nice neighbors in South Africa, the ones who told my mom she wasn’t like the Blacks, thought they were being progressive. I wonder if they thought they were living in a free society or if they realized their society was only free in comparison to the society it used to be. I wonder if it ever dawned on them that they had never actually seen true freedom a day in their lives. It’s pretty easy to see that now. I wonder what isn’t easy to see. No, this hate doesn’t knock. This hate is your friend. This hate is your coworker. This hate is your significant other. It waved hi to you this morning. It poured your coffee. It had a laugh with you on the way to work. Found in your day-to-day sporting a friendly smile and a bouquet of pleasant verbiage, this is the kind of hate that doesn’t reveal itself until it hears protest about how each of those lives I just mentioned were valuable and curiously gets offended. It hears the phrase “Black lives matter” and meets it with furious objection; never stopping to think what their objection suggests. The other day I accepted the fact that today who I am could be decided for me, I could pay for it with my life, and no one would care.
I often wonder if what I’m looking at is real.
What I mean is my apartment is sprawling with fabric and these days I think in colors and patterns. Does that make sense? I mean when my mom and I lived in South Africa it was a place sprawling not with fabric, but with ideas like kindness being synonymous with Whiteness and antonymous with Blackness. It was a Black woman who told my mom she was kind like the Whites, a Black boy who told me my skin is black because I’m dirty, and what I mean is I wonder how my view would differ had we stayed in a space like that. I wonder how I would think if I grew up in a place furnished with such a hatred of others, a hatred of self, and a population that knew nothing outside of the fishbowl they grew up in; to the point where they couldn’t see how bizarre and backwards they truly were.
No, instead I grew up in America: where just last year 1,134 young black men were murdered by law enforcement and I’ve had to argue with people about why that’s wrong.
Instead I grew up in America and because of that I can’t help but question if something inside of me is part of the problem. I often wonder if what I’m looking at is real or if I can trust that what I’m thinking and speaking is true because it was a fellow Black boy who walked up to me and told me I’m not Black. My mom explained how in this country people that don’t look like me will hate me before I’ve opened my mouth, then she told me about something even harder to put into words. It came out sounding like gibberish when she told me that same animosity coming from the outside would also come from the inside. I didn’t get it. I’d travelled the world by the time I set foot in that [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL] classroom. The Black community is actually one of the most diverse communities in America. Included are Guyanese and Jamaicans like 16 year old Kimani Gray who was followed by police in 2013 because they say he looked suspicious, claimed he had a gun, and subsequently shot him dead. It includes Afro-Latinos like 20 year old Reynaldo Cuevas who in 2012 ran out of the corner store he was getting robbed at gunpoint inside of only to collide with bullets coming from police docked out front. It includes Haitians like 30 year old Abner Louima who in 1997 was handcuffed as officers believed him to be someone he wasn’t, as they beat him on the ride to the station, as they tortured him on arrival, and as they sodomized him with a broomstick. My mom tried to explain how one day I would walk into a room full of people that look like me and be treated like the other. “You’re African,” she always reminded me; like 23 year old Amadou Diallo who in 1999 was murdered by 19 of the 41 bullets police fired when they mistook him pulling out his wallet for him pulling out a gun, or 43 year old Osumane Zongo who police shot and killed in 2003 while raiding a bootlegging ring he had nothing to do with, or 21 year old Matthew Ajibade who in 2015 was bound to a restraining chair as police tasered his testicles long enough for him to lose consciousness and die.
I would walk into a room, she told me, and they would swear I was different.
I didn’t grow up in South Africa with a population so warped by colonization that they could look at their own Black skin and see what those that hated them taught them to see; where their view of the world was so fundamentally distorted that a lot of them literally lived their lives from beginning to end having never actually lived real life. It was a Black woman told my mom she was kind like the Whites. No, I grew up in America: where you can’t simply exist in your Black skin without someone saying you should be ashamed of yourself. Growing up I saw Black people from overseas (like David Felix was) talk down on and be talked down on by Black Americans (like Sean Bell was) because you can’t be from somewhere and have black skin. You can’t be a poor person with black skin (like Musa Fudge is) because growing up I heard people say they make us look bad and you can’t be a rich person with black skin (like Dr. Marcia Bowden is) because growing up I heard people call them sell outs. You can’t be a straight man with black skin because growing up I heard Black women (like Sandra Bland was) refer to Black men (like Eric Garner was) as no good. You can’t be a straight woman with black skin because I heard Black men (like Freddie Gray was) call dark-skinned Black women (like Natasha McKenna was) ugly compared to light skinned Black women (like Sara Reed was) if they weren’t throwing Black women as a whole under the bus. You can’t be LGBTQ and have black skin because I heard both Black men and Black women say all sorts of foul things about Black gays (like Taj Patterson is), Black lesbians (like India Beaty was) and Black members of the trans community (like Duanna Johnson was). You can’t be religious with black skin because growing up I saw Black Christians (like Reverend Catherine Brown is) look down on Black Muslims like (Ahmed Mohamed is), Black Muslims (like Mohamedtaha Omar was) look down on Black Christians (like his brother Adam Mekki was), and both sides look down on anybody pairing their Blackness with any other faith. You can’t not do what you’re supposed to do in school and have black skin (like they say Trayvon Martin did) because you’ll look like a stereotype and you can’t do everything you’re supposed to do in school and have black skin (like Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. does) because growing up I heard people call educated, well-read Black people White. Somehow our black skin, when paired with anything we do, attracts some form of shame and I mention these names because, despite each of them being from different corners of the Black community in all of its eclecticness, they were all met with the same fate. They were all either falsely arrested, subject to unprovoked violence, murdered, or all of the above and all at the hands of those outside of the community. They weren’t treated any differently from each other despite being so different from each other. No matter who they were or how much or how little they placated to the respectability politics this country demands we follow, their black skin attracted the same animosity. And somehow, for some reason, within the community it’s hard for a Black person to simply exist in their Black skin without that same animosity; without someone, somewhere saying they should be ashamed of themselves. I was in middle school when I first learned that I should be ashamed of myself for existing. I didn’t grow up in South Africa, no: where its Black population’s view of itself was so fundamentally garbled that it couldn’t distinguish the difference between all things good and constructive from whiteness or all things bad and destructive from blackness. No, instead I grew up in America: where both an old White man and a young Black boy came to the same conclusion that I am not Black. I don’t know what’s more unsettling: that this old man held beliefs comparable to this young boy or that this young Black boy held beliefs comparable to this old White man, I don’t know.
What unsettles me more than anything is that I believed that boy.
I woke up in that restaurant a twenty-something and so far from who I used to be it’s biological. My favorite color is yellow now. Fabrics litter my apartment. I’m not sure what I am or what I’m becoming. I always wondered what [YOUNG BLACK MALE] became. He disappeared after that school year and I hadn’t heard about him since so when my coworker mentioned his name, my ears immediately perked up. Then when he told me what happened to him, it took time before I could put it into words. It was just a feeling at first. [YOUNG BLACK MALE] and I were 12 years old when he and I first encountered each other in that [SFUSD PUBLIC SCHOOL] classroom. That’s the same age Tamir Rice was in 2014 when police found him in a park playing with a toy pistol and, as video surveillance shows, within 10 seconds of their arrival shot him dead. When we were in South Africa, a boy told me my skin is black because I’m dirty, and I had to argue with him about why he was wrong. Those cops murdered Tamir Rice, a child, without hesitation and I’ve had to calmly argue with people I know and interact with on a daily basis about why that’s wrong. He was too young to even know what all of this was. We were too young to know what all of this is. The night I heard about what happened to [YOUNG BLACK MALE] I found myself staring at him, now a grown man, from my computer screen. He stared back. Gone were the cornrows running parallel along his scalp, the chain dangling over his jersey, the denim hanging below his waistline, and the Jordans cradling his feet. Now dressed in orange, he peered at me from a photo I found online and eerily enough he still looked like the boy I remember. I didn’t know my heart would drop the way it did when my coworker told me that boy wound up getting locked up for armed robbery and had 11 murders attached to his sentence. I didn’t know my eyes would water up the way they did until I found an article online that told me that boy was given an amount of years so great that by the time he got out he wouldn’t be anywhere near the same person. I didn’t know I felt that way; not over someone who put so much effort into making my life hell that I carried that animosity with me for years after the fact. It all caught me off guard. It started as a feeling and I didn’t have the words to explain it until a mild, soft-spoken, old white man told me he was confronted by a group of Black teenagers.
“But you…you’re not like them, you don’t have to identify as Black.”
When he said what he said, this entire story instantly pulsated through my person but I didn’t have the words for it until just now. I had gone years believing my blackness could be compromised; that it could dictate how I could or couldn’t be and what I could or couldn’t do. I was finally comfortable in my own skin and furious at myself for not having the words for him in the moment. I was just a young man with a restaurant job keeping me un-homeless; going about my day-to-day simply being me and all of a sudden “me” wasn’t good enough. I made the mistake of letting my guard down and simply existing. All of a sudden I needed to be able to defend myself from ghosts of the past still lingering here on earth; hovering on this ground I’ve found myself walking on. At the snap of a finger I had to explain color to someone who’d never seen it before and I drew a blank. It was too much to process in the moment so I simply told him to leave. For months I was angry at myself for not saying more. Coincidentally we hadn’t crossed paths for all that time and I kept up my routine void of his presence until one day I finally saw him in the distance slowly approaching the restaurant. Mild and soft-spoken, he greeted me with a smile and asked how I’d been as if nothing had happened. Before he could make his way to the bar I swiftly pierced through his routine, saying I could no longer speak to him. Completely thrown off and stumbling over his words, he asked me why. I was sporting that collared shirt with that skinny tie double-windsored around it and those creased slacks hovering neatly over those jet black dress shoes. There was only so much time. I had a job to do and other customers were trickling in. Wanting to pack this entire story into just a few words, I calmly and articulately told him how offensive what he said was and how distorted his view of blackness is. But before I could go into detail, he butted in like a robot malfunctioning. My coworkers stepped in and helped seat the customers trickling in. He didn’t understand what was going on. In the middle of short circuiting he assumed I was offended because he called me Black. Not only did he completely shut out what I was trying to explain to him, he didn’t understand how that assumption was even more offensive and conducive to my point. I had the task of letting him know what this all is. I am Black. I am 100% Black. I told him I am as Black as they come. I am Black and proud. I cannot escape my blackness nor would I ever want to. I’ve been on this planet for twenty-something years and every step of the way my experience has been thoroughly and unmistakably Black. I managed to tell him how I felt and I was only just then able to. But he didn’t want to hear any of it. And I finally understood what this all is. I hadn’t for a while.
What I mean is the other day I was taught how to describe wines to customers.
I’m told I’d make a great server. My manager wants me to to memorize the menu and she says I’ll start training soon. She told me that when she sat me down to talk about the position. I told her I have the menu pretty much down but I’m a little shaky with the wines when a nearby server overheard us and chimed in. “You can pretty much tell them anything and that’s what they’ll taste,” he said. He didn’t mean to do it, but that idea blew my mind. Because I wasn’t thinking about food. Customers will accept whatever we say because we’re supposed to know what we’re talking about. It made me think about how at one point that old man was a baby born in a hospital room just like any of us; a blank canvas wide-eyed and new to the world. Outside of that room was a history of issues propagated by those that came before him that he would have no choice but to be subject to. People who were supposed to know what they were talking about taught him logical things like the ABC’s or how to count to ten at the same time they taught him about blackness. And just like how I didn’t know how to describe wines to customers, they didn’t know how to describe blackness to a child. They could’ve pretty much told him anything and that’s the way he’d see it. And that’s exactly what happened. He was taught something as illogical as the hatred of a color then went off into a society that at least failed to challenge these teachings, at most encouraged them, and was free to built more complex ideas from them. From his ABC’s he learned how to spell words, how to form sentences, and how to articulate thoughts at the same time he learned how to count beyond ten, how to add, how to subtract, and so on. His entire life was built on top of these ideas and here I was this young man telling him that Z came before A and 2 plus 2 equals 5. He reacted like a robot malfunctioning. In the middle of short circuiting he thought I was offended because he called me Black. Because on a very fundamental level, I guess he believes blackness to be something offensive. Because I guess that was the space he grew up in and what became him. He didn’t retain anything I told him that night and didn’t even make an attempt to entertain it in the first place. Because I guess it was such an otherworldly idea to him that within the Black community there could more than one pattern and more than one color; oranges, blues, stripes and polka dots aren’t even the half. And doesn’t that quilt in all of it’s diversity look gorgeous? I also guess he didn’t see how his brand of arrogance and his use of language was an example of him following tradition. While he didn’t realize blackness could house my character, I didn’t realize his sexual orientation, as a member of another oppressed group, could house a racist. But I’ve come to learn that, unlike blackness, racism is less a thing you are and more so a thing you speak or do. It is the overarching culture that houses us all. In all actuality, I probably had more in common with and could better understand those teenagers he encountered than I could him. We wear the same uniform, after all. Though that uniform can’t tell the story of who’s inside of it, we know things only those of us wearing it know. I understand the ground they walk on, the issues that existed before them they are subject to, and how they are made to view the world. Those were the words I didn’t have as my eyes watered up reading about [YOUNG BLACK MALE]. I wish I could’ve explained all of this to that old man but I didn’t have the time and words have their limits. He left that restaurant having not learned a thing and I can’t help but wonder what it is you see when you see me. To be as young as I am, I feel I think too often about who will remember me when I die. Because who I am can be decided by anyone, anywhere, at any moment and these days its hard not to wonder that. The other day I accepted the fact that today I could die for being alive. And when I’m just a body, limp and absent of all of these experiences, how will you sum me up? What words will you use? Will you even find the right words? Do you even know me?
My favorite color is yellow.
It reminds me of the time my family flew out for my graduation, the time I learned there’s no such thing as being allowed to dress any kind of way, and that moment in Dolores Park when I finally felt like I belonged. You might see otherwise. You might look at that exact same color and have an entirely different set of experiences attached to it. Maybe when you look at the color yellow, you don’t see what I see. If we walked into a yellow room, the exact same room at the exact same time, we would react to it in two ways completely independent of one another so says science. We would have two separate experiences. I say that to say that old man and I grew up in two separate Americas. Him at one point in time being a baby taught what he was taught, and me, at one point in time being a baby taught what I was taught, could talk about the exact same color but understand it two completely different ways. He thought I was offended because he called me Black. I hear the phrase “all lives matter” get thrown in the air because there are people who hear “black lives matter” and get offended. There are people that get offended by a group of people acknowledging their own worth, oblivious to the notion that their logic got them from point A to point B because they grew up in a space where declarations of self-love imply hatred to others. And if your knee-jerk response to self-love is objection, this is a symptom of the fact that you grew up in such a space: a fundamentally racist space. Because that isn’t real life. This isn’t actually a competition, yet it’s engrained in the way we think. There are average, ordinary people who didn’t stop to think that no one once said “black lives matter more.” There are people that have the privilege of not knowing about any of the names I mentioned. There are people that have the privilege of not knowing there is more than one type of hate and that they think and speak it fluently. I imagine they get really uncomfortable entertaining that thought. Because in actuality, they’re victims of circumstance. They aren’t guilty of anything except being babies colored in by a world they knew nothing about. They get uncomfortable, I think, because in those moments they have to briefly entertain the idea that they were never living real life. Z comes before A, 2 plus 2 equals 5, and Eurocentricity is an illusion. In real life the phrase “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean we matter more, it means we matter at all. It means, despite what old white regulars at restaurants imply, there is nothing shameful about our black skin. It means those 1,137 Black lives lost last year mattered despite all of the murder and court rulings that suggest otherwise. Through all of the assassination attempts on our bodies as well as our characters, we want you to know that we matter and you acknowledging this and seeing real life for real life is the only thing that will save us all. Because you and I are simply the latest to be born into this system, we will die in it. No matter the time period or the players are involved we keep seeing the same events play out not because of the people. The people will die and be replaced. It is because of ideas. That old man wasn’t an isolated case. I’ve had to make an entire lifestyle out of those kinds of interactions and it’s not him that scares me the most nor is it someone like him wielding a gun. What scares me the most is that same type of person wielding a position of power. It makes me uneasy thinking about the names I listed, and even more uneasy thinking about how the majority of their murderers saw no consequence. They moved through the legal system without obstruction, safely returning to their jobs and home lives. What scares me the most is one time, in the middle of his routine, that old man told me he’s a retired teacher and when I was in school it was a Black boy who told me I wasn’t Black.
I think you’re gorgeous.
I’m only just now able to tell you how I feel and there was a time when I couldn’t. There was a time when I didn’t know what all of this was and “me” wasn’t good enough. I didn’t know who I was and I spent a good chunk of my life looking for approval from people only to find that no matter what I do I’m going to get looked down on. These are such interesting times you and I found ourselves in the middle of, aren’t they? We’re dying for being ourselves. These days saying what we really mean and being who we really are is a revolutionary act. Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act. And that’s how I choose to be. I don’t know what you see when you see me. I was on the phone with my mom the other day and we were talking about our accents. She told me stories about the family being exiled and fleeing our country. They wound up in Ghana, Kenya, Germany, and planted roots in England before my mom made it to the States and settled down in a 1980’s Washington D.C. You can hear it all in the way she speaks. It’s hard to nail it down to one origin. Her accent is a roadmap of the places life took her and today I can see the same thing in myself. Growing up she always insisted I speak “properly” and at one point I was made to feel embarrassed for it. They said I talked White. Then when I’d come home speaking Black American vernacular, my mom was quick to correct and again I was made to feel embarrassed. Today you can hear it all in the way I speak and I’ve grown to love myself for it. I love that about me. You can see it in the way I dress. You’re liable to find me wearing a jersey with a pair of dress shoes. You might find me with my pants pulled up rocking a pair of Jordans and don’t be surprised if there’s a chain dangling from my neck. I read books and listen to Tupac religiously. I can talk to you a little about those ball games and a lot about the world. I don’t yet know who I am or what I’m becoming but I do know I love myself. I’m starting to think that’s the whole point. You want to see me again. You say you had a good time the other night. You have a way about you that I can’t put my finger on and I want to get to know you. I don’t know if you feel the same way. The other day I accepted the idea that there’s a chance no one will remember me when I die. This story I just told you might never have even mattered. My life may have never mattered and in the end I may just be a number. What a feeling that is. I’m starting to think it helps me more clearly see the little beauties in life. I really do think you’re gorgeous. You give me this feeling that I can’t yet perfectly put into words. I don’t know if you feel the same way. I don’t know what you see when you see me. Shit, you don’t even know me.
And some things just can’t be read about.
The Boy Scout