My Young Black Life

Let me first say that this unapologetically black piece will make you a bit uncomfortable. My white friends will read this and think…hell, I don’t know what they’ll think. Nor do I care, really. It’s not something I talk about with them. I’m scared it’ll make them uncomfortable and alter our friendship in some profound way. But, and I’m just thinking out loud here, if we really are friends shouldn’t they, despite their own comfort or lack thereof, try to meet me in the middle and be understanding of my feelings?

Well, yeah, of course they should. Anyway.

My journey as a young black male in America, in the South, was marked with a few events that did well to foretell what life would be like as I move through this white world.

In kindergarten, my best friend, Jon O’Hara, a pale-faced kid with long blonde hair cut into a bowl, would take his hand and sweep the hair from his face with every lull in a conversation. A movement I apparently envied, because I remember mimicking his gestures completely unaware my short, usually nappy hair, was different and had not, nor will it ever, need to be swept from my face.

Four years later, I realized what it meant to be black. It was February, and the necessary Black History media was being displayed for us by our teacher, Ms. Williams, a black, middle-aged woman. The protests, both silent and violent, the brutality of the subsequent punishments, were all on exhibit for our malleable minds.

But it wasn’t until the video of MLK’s speech, when he so eloquently expressed his truths and his hopes for this country, did I realize he was talking about me. Putting two and two together (I was never one to slack in math class) the facade that blanketed my world fell with like a magician’s big reveal. My eyes left the screen, darted around, and for the very first time, saw the division of color. At the moment, the innocence we’re supposed to harness as children left my body. I saw the world for what I thought it was.

A year after that was the first time I got called a nigger. Nothing really prepares you for that. The weight of that word in the just the right context is enough to uproot the thoughts and feelings you’ve, until then, accepted as truth. I remember everything about that moment like it happened yesterday. I remember the who, what, when, where but not necessarily the ‘why’. I don’t think I was meant to understand the last one. You could chalk it up to kids being kids, but the malice with which it was said debunks that notion.

You start to wonder that if this guy, Chris Cheeks, has the gall to actually say the word, how many to their better judgement, are just thinking it? After that, the poignant ingredient of skepticism was then mixed in with the ever-present intelligence and curiosity I’d already possessed.

From there the prejudice concealed itself a little better. The being followed in stores, the dull “click” of locking doors as I passed, the ever-popular crossing of the street or clutching of the purse as I drew near. I became aware of it all. The narrow-minded that still considered me a threat, no thanks to the media, despite how well I dressed, can’t or won’t distinguish me from any of the other black guys roaming the street. (Yes, this still happens.)

But I grew up nicely. You know, in the burbs. Back when the burbs were more like utopias for white people and the cities remained un-gentrified and much less “cool”. My city, anyway.

“We gentrified, we victimized, we fighting for survival…” — Vince Staples ain’t never lied.

My first black friend didn’t come till around middle school. I was raised in white spaces. Popular black culture wasn’t something I’d been accustomed to. My first lessons came late into elementary school. The guys on the traveling basketball teams I’d been a part of were my teachers. They presented the landscape of rap and hip-hop, its’ culture, many nuances and debated the differences between the two. I was enthralled. The dances, the attire, the swagger, all became part of my arsenal. I left those transformative years with the ability to adapt my mannerisms and behaviors to “fit the room”.

My middle and high school years were spent hanging with a rotating cast of characters, sharpening my skills as a chameleon along the way. From the privileged, well-adjusted team captain of the lacrosse team to a friend that wound up begging on the corner.

When it was time for college, I ended up choosing a local HBCU. It wasn’t my first choice. It was the only choice that was feasible at the time due to a series of unfortunate events. During this time, I lived at home, insulated by the false comfort of that largely-white suburb, not privy to the unique campus culture I would later revere. If I were honest with myself, at the time I thought of myself as better than the people I shared classrooms with. My comfortable home life and perceived intelligence made me “better than”. I needed to believe that to keep the insecurities at bay.

The internships in which I chose to participate were in white spaces with well-meaning white people. The black buoy in a sea of white is where I thought I wanted and needed to be. I see now that I could’ve taken a different route. Could have done so much more for the community I once resided. I was young and didn’t have all the information. I now try to make up for lost time, and recover lost opportunities. I look around in my Brooklyn neighborhood and quietly wonder what I missed out on by not immersing myself in the black college culture that was right under my nose for all those years. I wonder constantly if there’s more I could do.

As 30 looms, I seek blackness more than any other time in my life. It’s more essential I be around people that look like me. I don’t know why.

I have to constantly remind myself that every aspect of my life is just as valid and relevant as my white counterparts. That being said, I’m careful where I go, when I go, what aisles I traverse at the grocery store, who’s there, not to make sudden movements, what I wear, to always smile, to try and dull the sharpness of the black, bearded, tattooed body I find myself in every morning. I have an irrational fear of police. They react, move and make decisions off instinct. So do I, but I’m not so naive to think I’m given the same leeway as they, so I’m careful to tread on this earth lightly, though a little less so as I age.

James Jackson