Last summer I found myself huddled next to a 35-year-old man in his tiny bathroom as he sobbed. We had just spent the last hour discussing his lack of belief in systemic racism and my response to him calling the Black Lives Matter movement “too disruptive.” This man was white and experiencing a panic attack. I was black, 21 years old, living in Montana, and decided to be patient with him.
Commence the panic attack as I sat on his toilet, rubbed his back, and told him that it was okay through the whiskey haze. I pulled the bottle from him as he also revealed that he’d had a drinking problem the summer before. I left the room when he fell asleep in his bed.
Montana was filled with moments that reminded me of my own fragility, my invisibility in the world.
I consider myself a radical. The wall in my room in Seattle is plastered with images of black resistance; my favorite of them being a grade school photo of Malcolm X. It humanizes him in a way that gives me hope beyond the feeling in my gut as I read the description of his murder at the end of his autobiography.
I was made to always understand that a vibrant black life didn’t matter as much black death.
Without these images and moments of struggle, how are we to know who we are beyond how the world defines us? A world that is built on the spines of the marginalized; Nicaraguans taking a break from picking coffee beans with their children, the wild haired woman mumbling to herself at the bus stop yesterday, or Tamir Rice’s face taped to thousands of posters.
I once took a trip with a good friend who is white. Throughout our travels he made jokes about me being shot by police for laughing too loudly in public, an obvious reference to the murder of John Crawford in Beavercreek, OH. His jokes hurt me deeply because he had seen me begin to awaken as a black man. That hurt allowed me to feel safety in my silence. I’d been taught to do it my whole life.
My sexuality had haunted me throughout the later years of my childhood. I remembered sitting in a car with my aunt and uncle when I was fifteen. They both grimaced at the sight of a genderqueer person waiting for the bus.
“Is that a faggot?” my uncle said.
“What’s the difference?”my aunt responded.
They both laughed and I shrank inside myself.
The oppression of the world around us weighs us down.
What I have also learned is that our love for normalcy and peace can convince us that staying apathetic is what’s best.
And that’s what I did until I was forced to come out a few months after those homophobic comments from my family. Wading through through my self-judgement wasn’t easy. I was at the intersection of so many struggles: masculinity, homosexuality, second generation immigrant, black boy, tender hearted. I have learned the lessons in every one, every jagged crook. If I’m walking behind a white woman too long, I cross the sidewalk and don’t make eye contact. My heaviest memories of masculinity are of being violently shoved under water at the age of seven by my uncles as a joke and almost drowning. My freshman year roommate tried to make a move by saying he wanted to see a black guy’s penis. While dating, no one cared to realize that I was really just a lost boy with a murdered father. Would finding myself have been easier if the world didn’t attempt to take so much?
I’m not sure, but I know that the way to overcome these oppressive sociopolitical structures is to seek my own liberation. Despite being 21 years old and black in a world so racist and violent, I find myself trying to understand the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates when he is writing to his son in Between the World and Me, “What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.”
Maybe there is no one answer to how we seek to define ourselves past the lines have been drawn for us.
We must understand that we are born into a history that we did not choose, but one that we can change. That night in Montana, I watched the man slump over in his bathroom as I told him the only truth I had left. We can be more than our worst moments, even if we get better at the pace of a slow crawl. The whiskey had taken him over and he dozed off to sleep. Maybe he would wake up the next morning to a headache and no recollection of what this young black person had said to him—an amnesia that America still hasn’t fully crawled out of.
As I left his room late at night, I stared out at the Montana dark. It was a wash of green mountains, dark shadows and white stars for miles. I decided that my invisibility to others was only real if I allowed it to be. I had to be the one to find the answers to those difficult questions. Who am I? What do I want? How do we live past these moments of trauma, whether big, small, or in between? I took a swig from the man’s whiskey bottle and walked home.