We’re not going anywhere – A young black man’s view of growing up in the South

In Front Page, Special Ones, The Breakdown by Aaron West5 Comments

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I started to write and delete this post more times than I would like to admit to myself. The weight of what I’m trying to convey and the nuances of the sentiments seemed a task beyond my skills with a virtual pen. I read great writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Dennis on a regular basis, and my self-doubt triples when I consider attempting to convey my thoughts to a broader audience in the shadow of their brilliance.

With skies still dark and sleep still rendering my eyelids heavy, I woke up this morning shaking uncontrollably as tears streamed down my face from the nightmare from which I’d just been released. As a child I suffered from vivid and terrifying dreams about a variety of wild scenarios, but this one was too painfully real and plausible for me to be immediately calmed upon waking. Without going into graphic detail, my family had been under attack by white supremacists at my maternal grandmother’s home, with predictably terrifying and devastating results.

The past few days, weeks, and months has been a hodgepodge of mixed emotions for me. Every waking moment I’m reminded more and more of what it means to be black in this country. The Michael Brown verdict hurt me in ways more than I care to admit. I’ve been black in the United States of America for 28 years. But 28 years isn’t nearly long enough to insulate oneself from the pain being black in America causes.

I consider myself patriotic. I love my country. I love the people in it. I love that I can call myself American, and I love that I can call myself a successful American. But the fact that many of my fellow Americans hate me simply for existing is a weight that presses upon me every moment of this existence.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as the son of two pastors. I’ve loved people since I can remember them existing. When I was 5 years old my mom nicknamed me the “welcome wagon” for my propensity to sprint outside my house and greet anyone walking down the street.

My best friend in the world between the ages of 3-10 was a towheaded blond boy. Alongside him, I fought many a battle against the Sheriff of Nottingham (alternating as Robin Hood and Little John, of course), launched pine cone wars against our brothers, built tree houses, shot bows and arrows and rode mountain bikes up and down the hills from which Chapel Hill takes its name. The extent of our racial acknowledgement stemmed from our mutual love of each other’s hair. Mine for his impossibly light and silky locks, and his for my beautifully coiffed curls, maintained impeccably by my mother. After retiring from hours of quarterstaff sparring, bike riding and archery practice, from time to time we would simply run a hand through each other’s hair to marvel at how two peas in a pod could have such differences.

I was introduced to soccer by my best friend’s family. I watched my first Ajax highlight tape in their living room. After requesting the Ajax-Juventus Champions League final showing for the umpteenth time, my best friend’s mother insisted I take it home to keep for myself.  And for that, I will forever be grateful.

As kids do, my best friend and I drifted apart as I descended further down the rabbit hole of my eternal love for soccer, but we always had that bond. And we always will.

As a child, I trusted people so implicitly my mother had to sit me down to talk about not revealing too much of myself and my family to outsiders. Not understanding the reasons, I asked her why. In very plain terms, my mother told me: “because they don’t need to know.”

As I got older, I looked back on those talks and realized how much my mother was preparing me for the future. And preparation is the only weapon a young black man has in his arsenal in America.

My parents, as do just about all American black parents, gave us incredibly detailed and specific “rules of engagement” for being black in this country. Speak well. Don’t hide your face. Keep your pants around your waist. Don’t run in public for fear of being viewed as a robber. If pulled over by an officer, move slowly, deliberately and, and above all, ALWAYS be respectful to anyone you come across. That is the Cliff notes version, augmented by hours of discussion, illustration and more than a couple spankings.

Growing up in the South, spankings were a way of life. My parents never used a switch on us, but in our bathroom there sat a wooden paddle. My mother is 5’0″, 100 lbs in work boots and the most intimidating woman in the world. But she was raising a black boy in America. 10 firm strikes to the buttocks would put the fear of God into me, and snap me out of whatever tomfoolery I had gotten myself into.

As I grew older, I started to see how my parents’ admonitions were true. This place really is different for us. It’s one thing to hear about folks being followed in a department store, it’s another to actively experience it. And then experience it again. And then do tests with white friends to see if I was paranoid.

Through all of it, however, I remained optimistic. My entire life has been a postcard for black optimism. I went to a tiny school called Davidson College at the age of 17 years old, full of aspirations to be a professional soccer player, and if that failed, the greatest veterinarian in the world. Neither of those aspirations came to fruition, but I still graduated in four years from that wonderful institution with even more of a love for knowledge and a greater appreciation for the diversity this world offers.

I did, however, go to Davidson with the admonitions of my parents in my ears. “Find yourself a wife, but if you can, find yourself a black one. You’re in the South, young men before you have died over this.” Every girlfriend I had at Davidson was black. Mainly simply because I thought every one of them was beautiful, but partially because I was terrified of the repercussions.

Never have my parents spoken ill of white people to me, but they instilled enough of a healthy distrust for me to approach every “new” white person I meet with the same level of acceptance and distance. I have read the histories of young black men lynched for daring to speak with the wrong color maiden, and I had no desire to be another footnote in history. So for that reason, I closed myself off to being anything more than friends with any white woman. A rough truth to admit, but one motivated by survival instinct rather than prejudice.

I have many close white friends. I have more close black and minority friends. There is a bond that comes from being a minority in this country that unfortunately my white friends will never fully understand. One of my best friends in the world is a white guy with whom I’ve stayed up many late nights playing video games and discussing what it means to be black in this country. We have taken many a trip to the mall to slyly point out pretty girls, and for me to show him what I see as I walk through a public place. “Look, see the guard with his eyes on me only?” “Watch how long it takes for an attendant to shift positions when we walk in, and see which of us they approach first.”

Being black in this country is exhausting.

Every day when I wake up, I have to decide what face I want to present to the world. Do I wear a soccer shirt so they know I’m not one of “those” black people? Do I wear Jordans or do I wear loafers? If I wear my favorite hoodie, can I cover up my hair because it’s midweek and I need a haircut, or do I have to wear a hat so I don’t get shot?

I have dreamed of a day where I could roll out of my house in sweatpants, a ratty tee and house shoes and not expect thinly veiled looks of derision and distrust.

For this reason, I have a wardrobe that can outfit a small army. For this reason, I get a haircut once a week. For this reason, I will never not be amongst the best dressed in the room. It is exhausting. But it is necessary for me to be viewed the way I wish to be viewed in this country.

When the Michael Brown verdict came in the other day, I cried. Not because of another young black man dead at the hands of police, because the sad fact is that I’m numbed to that. I cried because of the reactions of “intelligent” people around this country, and just how far we have to go in this world. I cried because one day I’ll have to raise a little boy or girl who will be at least half black, and my most fervent hope was that I wouldn’t have to explain to them what the word “nigger” meant. I cried because I was exhausted, and being hopeful in this country is one of the most tiring things in the world.

When I was done crying, I looked at my phone, and saw a message from a GroupMe I share with some of my closest friends in the world, all of whom happen to be black (with the exception of two Puerto-Rican/Colombians). When I read the message, I smiled. As terrible as it is be to be black in America, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this world. It’s a sentiment shared openly by all of my friends. This really sucks. But we made it. And we will continue to make it.

There may be more tears shed, but we’re not going anywhere.

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About the Author

Aaron West

  • blklightdisco

    Wow! This is such a touching read and my tears are flowing. I spend my summers in Chapel Hill with an Aunt who taught me a few of those very lessons. I know first hand that CH is a bit different than other cities in NC. Like Berkeley is different from other cities in CA. I enjoyed reading this, don’t know if you write regularly or as a profession, but please don’t stop. What you have to say is worth hearing by all people.

  • Chris B.

    Brother, this is incredible. Thank you for sharing this.

  • trinileigh

    nothing but 100 emojis can describe this, man. Great post & glad you still in the fight

  • Mya H.

    Very well written and such great insight on your perspective as you walk through this life in America. Thanks so much for sharing. God bless.

  • hjs89

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing.