Volume 85: #BlackLivesMatter – My History in Black and White

Posted on 07/12/2016

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My name is Ellis Dean and I am an African-American.

I started the post this way because at times my life’s journey made it difficult for me to proudly make that statement. There were times in my life where my ethnicity was a burden that was too much for me to bear. You see, life as an African-American with some sense of self-awareness can be maddening, sobering, sickening, disappointing, frustrating, debilitating, suffocating, and rewarding, gratifying, unifying, and self-actualizing. Confused already?

Let me start at the beginning…

I grew up in a predominantly White, middle class neighborhood near the beaches in Jacksonville, FL. The first friend I can remember was White (we’re still friends, by the way). All the kids I could play with were White. My Blackness wasn’t a burden then. In fact, it rarely (if ever) came up. We were kids and we didn’t care. We just wanted to play.

But as we got older, my Blackness became a topic. Not with my first friend, but with some of the kids in the neighborhood, or in the area. For example…

  •  My first fight happened because one of them got mad during a game of football and call me a “nigger“. #Handledthat
  • Another kid, on our way to soccer practice, commented to the team that I (and other African-Americans) have pubic hair on our heads. No one corrected him or stood up for me.
  • I made the Brain Bowl team in 6th grade and was not put into one match. We won the county championship. Afterwards, I was told by a teammate they didn’t play me “because I was Black“.

In school, I was called “different” and “not like the others” because I was in the gifted program. I was called an “Oreo” by both my Black and White peers because I was articulate and didn’t do things that were considered to be traditionally Black. I cringed every time I heard them use the n-word, but they made sure to tell me that they didn’t mean me. I didn’t know being called “Black, but not really Black” was a prejudiced and stereotypical statement. I was uncomfortable every time I heard those comments made about me but, what was the alternative? I just knew I wanted to be accepted, and I was – even if it were only superficially.

You see, I was a man without an identity. I was celebrated for being “different” and received special treatment as such. I liked that treatment. I liked being able to put down the “burden” of being Black. Being Black meant I was lazy, dumb, violent, prone to criminal behavior, and forever the 2nd class descendant of slaves. Being Black meant that my opportunities were limited. Being Black meant I would probably become a “first” something. Being different meant I was just me, and that felt good.

Adolescence is marked by insecurities about our identity and development. Now, imagine if you had to do that in a foreign land?

My close friends knew me and liked me for who I was (am), but when we got into the public space, the world was not so accepting. My being “different” got me accepted by most of my White peers, the school and the faculty. But what did my being Black cost me? Let’s see…

  • I never had a girlfriend in high school and no one saw that as odd.
  • I never went to prom and I wasn’t missed.
  • I didn’t go to Grad Night and again, I wasn’t missed.
  • I didn’t have people clamoring to sign my yearbook and I was ALL over it. In fact, I didn’t even get one until my 20th reunion.
  • I didn’t have one person want to walk in graduation with me. I walked with a random guy, and made a new friend. Thanks, Brian…

The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with being an African-American is not prejudice, or stereotypes, or police profiling. The hardest thing to deal with is the invisibility…

I’m sharing my story not for people to feel sorry for me. I’m sharing because I want people to understand how privilege and discrimination works today. It’s not whips and chains and dogs and water fountains labeled “Whites Only”. No, it’s a Black kid wanting desperately to be free to be himself, but his environment not letting him. My growing pains and insecurities were like anyone else in my neighborhood and at my school. The only difference was I had the additional burden of being Black. And that made me invisible…

I swallowed all those negative experiences because I had positive people and relationships which gave me hope. Check that. They made (make) me believe. I believe everyone could have experiences like mine. I believe people are inherently good and will choose to respect all lives. But, before we can get to the place where “all lives matter”, ALL lives have to matter. Does that make sense?

Black Lives Matter is not just about the police and brutality. That is just a symptom of a bigger problem. Black Lives Matter is about moving beyond being “tolerated”. It means moving beyond the few areas where our contributions are valued, e.g. sports and entertainment. It means getting to a place where my success is not viewed as “different” or contrary to my “natural state”. It also means getting to a place where my failure is not used as another example of my inherent flaw. My burden. My Blackness…

Conclusion

I’ve had several conversations about the tragedies that occurred over the past week. Some were productive and some, wellllll, not as productive as I would have liked. The productive conversations were with people who saw Black people. It didn’t mean they understood or even agreed with Black Lives Matter. It just meant that they saw the people, and not the statistics. The not-so-good conversations spewed statistics and sound-bites and sweeping generalities (Side Note: If you know me, you know how I hate sweeping generalities.) Chris Rock said in one of his routines that equality is when Black people are allowed to suck at their job just like their White counterparts without having to bear the burden of representing the entire race. Funny, and true.

Finally, this post was extremely personal and difficult to write. I was hesitant to share my childhood pain. But, isn’t that the problem? As a Black man, I’ve had to swallow my pain, my pride, my dignity, and at times, my desire to live. I’ve swallowed it all to keep hope alive. The hope that one day, I will be seen. That one day we won’t search for stories or statistics to score political points, but only succeed in keeping us apart. That one day I won’t have to say Black Lives Matter…because they already do. Until that day comes,

My name is Ellis Dean and I am an African-American.

#my3cents

Sillethoughts

“Peep my ver-na-cular cuz I don’t know how to act…”

 

 

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