Race, Rants

A Note to the Majority from a Minority

I spent two years living in Orlando during graduate school, the first half living with a girlfriend and the second half living with a long-time platonic friend named Tina who served as my social life revivalist after said girlfriend and I broke up. Tina—as outgoing a person as a blonde freckled white woman in Florida can be—took it upon herself to fight against my introverted nature and introduce me to what seemed like, at the time, half the population of Central Florida, all while dragging me to every bar in town whenever the inclination hit her (which was often). A few of these outings were to a place named Cowboys, which looked and felt about the way you’d think a bar in Central Florida named Cowboys would look and feel.

Going to Cowboys was never my idea. I hated the place for many reasons, the most significant being that I’ve never been fully comfortable being the only black guy in a room full of distinctly white people (I know, it’s something I’m working on). I also intensely dislike most modern country music, makes me want to stab my eardrums out with a turntable needle (but that’s just my personal taste getting in the way). However, in the spirit of celebration and to avoid the alternative of sitting at home with an extreme case of FOMO, I would occasionally tag along with hopes that tonight would be more fun.

One night I agreed to go to Cowboys specifically to see a friend of Tina’s named Bobby. Bobby had just been hired as a bartender. Bobby was also somebody I knew. I’d never had more than a couple of superficial conversations with the guy, but he seemed cool and amicable; type of guy to throw a couple of jabs my way about how much better the Gators were than the Seminoles right before offering me a beer. Typical born-and-raised Floridian twenty-something-dudes type stuff. Bobby, of course, was a blonde white boy.

Walking into Cowboys that night, I was my usual level of uncomfortable. There’s something about fiddles and lines of drunk white people dancing in unison that gives me a distinct Twelve-Years-a-Slave-y type feeling (like I said, I’m working on it). And I felt the feeling of discomfort was justified, as there was rarely an evening out during this time period where I didn’t have to deal with something in the way of other-ing—the staredowns, the scoffs, the invasions of personal space, the blatantly racist statements. By that point though, I’d had so much experience dealing with this part of society that I was an expert at masking my emotions, ignoring my surroundings and simply pretending to have fun until I was drunk enough to actually be having fun (fake it ’til you make it, amirite?!).

So seeing as I knew the guy, I was relieved to find Bobby stationed at the back bar, far away from the giant wooden line-dancing stage that took up the entire middle of the room. Figured a familiar face is rarely a bad thing, so I walked over, catching his eye as I approached, nodding and possibly tossing a few finger guns (I wouldn’t put it past myself). Bobby stood next to the other bartender on duty, both of them posted up on a beer cooler wearing backwards camo-hats and waiting for the late night crowd to pour in. When Bobby walked over to me, the other bartender followed, both grinning.

“You sure you in the right place?” Bobby said, nudging the other guy with his elbow. “I didn’t think they let your kind in here.”

Then Bobby laughed, and the bartender standing next to him laughed, and a couple of the girls standing next them at the bar also laughed. So I forced a humorless chuckle and bowed my head. I can only guess that my timorous response is why—twenty minutes after the incident, as I was trying to order a drink—the second bartender who had joined Bobby in that little leg-slapping moment of racial hilarity looked me right in the eye—I’m talking pupil-to-pupil—then waved me off and took care of a white dude standing at the other end of the bar.

Seven years later, during a visit to Orlando, I’m initially moved by nostalgia at the sight of my alma mater, a flock of goodwill fluttering up from my memory banks. The goodwill quickly fades to bitterness though as I’m struck by not just the memory of that night at Cowboys, but the memories of countless similar occasions that occurred while I lived out there, all of which left me feeling like an outsider, a mannequin, an object whose sole purpose was to amuse the perceived majority. I also, for many many years, felt like somebody who needed to remain as jovial and insignificant as possible to avoid finding out what happens when that particular brand of attention turns hostile. And it is this timidity that I regret the most.

In each of those moments, it is my parents’ words I hear, spoken over and over again to me as a kid:

It’s not worth it.

In other words, don’t give them a reason to turn the joke into more than a joke, because it’s not worth the inevitably bad outcome; the insinuation there being that you will lose that particular fight every single time. It’s a Martin-Luther-esque inclination that has been passed down on a grand scale from every previous generation of black Americans to ours, ever since that first slave hissed at the second slave to keep quiet or risk the wrath of Massa.

Choose your battles, son.

And yet, it’s 2020. Bigots still exist. Racism still exists. Sexism still exists. Discrimination still exists. And—as is apparent by the mountains of evidence gathered throughout American history, especially in the past couple of weeks—whether these oppressive attitudes are proudly displayed in public or remain sitting just beneath the surface behind locked doors, they all have the same effect of undermining a huge portion of the population’s right to pursue happiness.

At a certain point, you have to admit to yourself when something is not working. And treating race relations delicately when you’re on this side of things—especially when you’ve seen time and time again that many on the other side don’t even know what the word delicate means—then you owe it to yourself to admit that the status quo has failed and the tactics for dealing with this epidemic need to be re-examined.

Not a knock against Reverend King, the man was an icon.

But so was Malcolm X.

**********

Though I lived about 15 minutes from Sanford during graduate school, by the time Trayvon Martin was murdered I’d already embarked on my short-lived pilgrimage out-of-state, relocating to NYC. Nevertheless, coverage of Trayvon’s untimely death peppered every entertainment outlet in Manhattan. There were a variety of opinions on the subject from people of all demographics, social media lighting up daily with personal monologues (much like the one I’m writing now).

An odd amount of commentary I came across sat in the middle somewhere, sort of toe-dipping into each side of the argument. But the most surprising reactions I saw were from other black people, who seemed not just outraged by the murder, but simultaneously angry at the victim, Trayvon. The consensus was strident: Trayvon should have known better, should have never been walking around that neighborhood like that, hoodied up, hands not clearly visible, drawing unnecessary negative attention. If it wasn’t Zimmerman that got him, it would’ve eventually been somebody else, probably the police themselves.

In other words, Trayvon should have known what was likely to happen. Because everybody knows walking down the street at night with clothing others deem inappropriate might lead to you being hurt in some way, right? It’s been rapists’ go-to argument for years, why not murderers? It’s almost as if a specific demographic within black society (here’s looking at you Dr. Cosby, ya frisky s.o.b.) was relieved to see Trayvon gunned down, so they could hold his picture up as they turned to the rest of us youths and scream “See?! We’ve been telling you for years to pull up your goddamn pants!!”

This sentiment was echoed throughout portions of the white community as well, as I found out while at the New York publishing firm where I was employed during the Trayvon coverage. The owner of this firm, Jeff, hired me about a month after I left Florida, following a slightly nerve-wracking interview process which included him questioning the validity of my graduate degree from the very much accredited University of Central Florida (but I digress). I was working at a Brooklyn copywriting company at the time, commuting two hours each way from the room I was renting in Harlem. So when Jeff hired me, I overlooked the mid-20K salary (plus health care, he was always quick to add) and rejoiced over the fact that I now got to work in Times Square.

When the topic of Trayvon came up at work one day, the five of us that constituted Jeff’s work staff all seemed to be on the same page: what had happened to Trayvon was f’d up, and George Zimmerman was an asshole. Jeff, passing by, overheard the conversation but didn’t offer anything other than a nod and a dismissive wave of his hand. Later though, during one of the many impromptu meetings he liked to call in his office to speak to each of us individually (during which I always noticed his office was bigger than my entire apartment), Jeff made his opinion clear when he compared Trayvon to me.

“You see a guy like you,” Jeff said. “You come in here and you’re not dressed like a hoodlum, and we hire you because you’re educated and can speak well. Some of these people though…and then they wonder…”

I remember he let his words trail off there. He was theatrical like that.

A few months later, on Fourth of July—a National Holiday, if not the National Holiday—I received a series of frantic calls from Jeff while at my apartment enjoying the rare day off. In one voicemail he told me that I needed to come into the office immediately, insinuating that my job was on the line. So I got dressed and hit the subway. Sitting in his office half an hour later, I bowed my head as Jeff reamed me about two typos that had slipped into an issue of one of the magazines I was managing editor of (to be honest, by that point both my salary and months of eating ramen noodles for dinner had drained me of all give-a-fuck). Jeff’s face turned red as he shouted, looking me up and down as if I had crapped on his office floor.

“You realize I had to catch a limo in for this?” he asked. “From the Hamptons. That’s not close by. I’m embarrassed of this.”

As he spoke, I looked around once again at Jeff’s giant office, and I thought about the tiny room that I was renting for a grand a month in the tiny apartment located in a predominantly black and predominantly broke part of upper Harlem. I thought about how that tiny room was right above both a liquor store and a junkie who slept in the stairwell and always asked me for change every day on my way out, no matter how many times I told him I was broke too, bruh (I offered him five bucks once to get rid of the rats I could hear scurrying around in my ceiling every night, but he just laughed).

It was then—staring at Jeff’s red face describing to me his rush limo drive back from the Hamptons—that I decided to apply for a teaching position back in Miami. ‘Til the day that I hopped on that plane from JFK to MIA, Jeff—a proud born-and-raised Jewish New Yorker with many, many family and professional ties to the New York real estate industry, let me tell you heh, this guy right here—insisted that he’d been doing me a favor by giving me that job. That he’d been doing me a favor not many others would have done. And every time he spoke like that, I was reminded of the way he’d shook his head at all of us in the board room that day while we were talking about Trayvon’s murder.

Left: Me circa 2007 holding a Black & Mild and trying to look cool (yes, I used to smoke Black & Milds, and yes that is a cell phone clipped to my belt); Right: Trayvon holding some money

Pictures of Trayvon after his death brought me to tears because of how similar to my teenage self he seemed. I wondered so much about him, what his self esteem was like, what type of verbal and physical crap had been tossed his way throughout his short life in Central Florida. I wondered how many people had told him from birth that this society was out to get him, how many times he’d been told that he basically had only two choices: survive through conformity, or risk the wrath of U.S. Oppression. I wondered if Trayvon ever really understood as he walked out of his house on that last day of his life that being killed for his physical appearance was not just a possibility, but an eventuality.

I don’t believe that he did understand. Because I was Trayvon too, at his age. And I never understood. None of my black friends did either, not at first. It would take years of bad shit happening to us for that fact to sink in; the fact that there are just some things black people can’t do.

**********

Mom, dad, and an apparently shell-shocked me

My parents are Jamaican immigrants, transplanted here a couple of years before I was born. Knowing this country’s history of violent discrimination, they were understandably paranoid while raising me. What this amounted to were a lot of stern lectures on how to navigate society’s many potential landmines: racist police officers, racist school administrators, racist bosses, basically anybody in a position of power who could potentially use that power to display their inner bigoted views.

The underlying moral: beware, and don’t ask for trouble. The sentiment is borne from an understandable but misguided ideal: that minorities should be trying to fit in with the majority, because the majority has all the power.

But sitting here now I wonder realistically: does that “majority” of society actually have power? Over me? Am I expected—as a perceived minority—to quietly hold up my index finger and wait for this majority to get around to acknowledging my grievances? Or is that perceived majority a fantasy construct that has pervaded American society for so long now it’s just considered true for lack of a better argument? Am I justified in looking past this majority, towards my ultimate goal of being at peace, and pushing through anybody who stands in my path?

Is the “majority” even really a majority anymore?

In lieu of a concrete answer, I’ve chosen to simply ignore the social constructs inherent in the question, looking instead at the core of what it means to be human and self-aware. At that core is a basic principle: each and every one of us is a singular individual with the natural-born and inalienable right to pursue our own peace of mind. And in this, the concept of “majority” and “minority” becomes irrelevant. All that matters is this pursuit, of self-awareness and self-actualization. If achieving these things requires challenging the status quo, then challenging the status quo is the only option we have.

Power is a construct, just as racism is a construct. They only gain credence if you give it to them. Which—here and now and forever more—I expressly choose not to do, just as I expressly choose to oppose others who give these constructs relevance.

I do not accept the majority power.

I do not accept bigotry.

It is my right not to accept these fantasies, just as it is my right to respond to these societal inconsistencies with a loud and passionate “Fuck. You.”

And believe me, there will be no bowing of the head in deference when I hold up that particular finger.

**********

I started dating a girl named Zuly when I got back from New York in August of 2012. Zuly is Cuban, born from Cuban parents who both immigrated to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. Zuly’s mother is a woman who has never worked a day in her life. The day I met Zuly’s mom—this was maybe a month or two after Zuly and I started dating—I was not surprised by the many religious artifacts lying around the house. Zuly had been raised Catholic, attended a private Catholic high school, and pretty much had all the trappings of a Catholic-raised Cuban girl in Miami (which constitutes a giant portion of Miami’s population).

Zuly’s mother—like many Cuban mothers and fathers I’ve met—did not like me when she met me, and made it very clear to Zuly that this was because I was black (on a related note, she also made it clear to both of us how much she hated Barack Obama as president, not just because he too was black, but because he was a “communist”; her lamentations were nearly constant, occurring in loud succession from the couch in the living room of her government-assisted housing arrangement…irony is always funny in retrospect, not so much in the moment). This was all a moot point at the time though, because I was not dating Zuly’s mother. I was dating Zuly. So I therefore gave Zuly the benefit of the doubt that she had fallen far from the apple tree her mother was rotting on.

One day, as I was giving Zuly a ride to work while her car was at the mechanic’s, we passed a couple walking down 27th avenue in West Flagler. The woman was white and blonde, the man black and tall, and they were holding hands as they strolled, giggling with each other. As we passed, Zuly studied them then turned to me and made a face like she’d just walked by roadkill.

“Every time I see a white girl with a black guy,” she said, shaking her head. “She just looks so…trashy.”

In retrospect, there are many things that come to mind about that comment. What it meant about Zuly’s self-worth is one. How I wish I’d reacted—by ending the relationship and kicking her out of my car right there in the middle of the street—is another. Instead, I continued to date her for another couple of months, which I know now says a whole lot more about me at the time than it does about her.

It wasn’t the first time I’d endured offensive racial statements from prospective partners though. From “you’re cute, for a black guy” to “you’re not cute enough for a black guy” to flat out “I don’t date black guys,” the manner in which race played a role in my romantic and sexual upbringing still sort of baffles me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the statement “my parents would kill me if I came home with a black guy” in casual conversation, or had people I thought of as friends look at me and tell me almost gleefully that a girl I thought was cute “wouldn’t even look at a black dude, much less date one.” Combine it all and the exercise of dating has been sort of like a decades-long game of Russian Roulette.

As is almost every other damn thing for black people in this society.

**********

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Growing up I was drawn separately to all musical genres, from soul to country to pop to rock to jazz and everything in between. As a young black kid living in the southernmost portion of Miami though, I was inevitably exposed to hip hop at an even earlier age. My first cassette tape was Snoop Dogg’s (formerly Snoop Doggy Dogg’s) Doggystyle, a gift from my cousin that my parents promptly found and destroyed once they saw the comic book depictions of anthropomorphized dogs having sex inside the album cover booklet. The first CD I ever bought was Mystikal’s Unpredictable, which I still own, by some miracle. To this day, it is hip hop I put on when I’m taking a shower and trying to unwind.

As with many black kids growing up middle-class though, it was sometimes difficult for me to relate to the more hardcore hip hop artists. Though my parents and I spent the eighties living in an apartment complex in the middle of Cutler Ridge (what many would have considered at the time to be “the hood”), we moved out when I was eight, transplanting to a nice middle class neighborhood a few miles north. By junior high I had a basketball hoop in my front yard, a bicycle I used all the time, my own room, a TV and video games. I went to a predominantly-white and Hispanic middle school and lived on a predominantly-white and Hispanic block. As far as I know, there has never been a drive-by shooting in my neighborhood, and if you see the cops outside with their lights flashing, everybody’s walking outside to rubberneck at the spectacle of it all. I loved hip hop, but I had no idea what the hell half these guys were talking about in their songs.

Why does Biggie keep mentioning bricks?

Has 2Pac actually murdered people?

What the hell is a dopeboy?

None of this stopped me from listening though, because the beats were sick and the artists at least kinda looked like me.

My best friend in the neighborhood up until high school was a white kid named Conrad who lived in a house that overlooked the lake located across the street from my parent’s house. Around sixth grade, it came out that Conrad’s dad had been abusing his mom, which started a chain of falling dominoes that eventually (and thankfully) led to their divorce. After an adjustment period, Conrad’s mom met a new guy who moved in with them, bringing along his daughter, Jessica (sidenote: besides being the first white girl I ever kissed, Jessica also holds the honor of being the first white girl to tell me she couldn’t openly date black guys because of her dad).

After a year or two of friendship, I would eventually admit to Jessica that I had grown an affinity for rock music. It started with MTV back in elementary school, watching music videos with Kurt Cobain lamenting life (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” video still gives me goosebumps). By middle school the interest had congealed into genuine love. So I started rattling off my favorite bands to her: Nirvana, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Metallica. I had a thing for guitars that I didn’t yet recognize, except to know that this music had a way of touching portions of my soul that hip hop just couldn’t (let it be known that the same holds true vice versa). Jessica looked at me when I was done, sitting on her bedroom floor with her CD collection spread out in front of us.

“Rock is totally not for black people,” she said.

Jessica said it so nonchalantly that I still don’t know if she meant any offense by it. I truly believe that, in her 13 year old mind, she felt that she was just stating the obvious, and at the time that was as close to obvious as you could get: rock was not made for black people, just as hip hop wasn’t made for white people (we’re talking like ’95/’96 here, pre-Eminem).

Today, music enthusiasts know that idea is nonsensical, and it is this transition in sentiments within the progressive society of music-lovers that I’m hoping serves as a microcosm of what the majority of society will eventually look like. Because whether the bigots like it or not, times are a-changing.

There is nothing black people (or any other race) can’t, don’t and won’t do. Humans are a miracle of evolution at a cellular level, a fact that surpasses all physical traits. Working together, the breadth of achievements ahead of us could be vast and not just life-changing, but species-changing. However, the only way for the stragglers to know it’s time for them to cut the crap and get on board the train of progress is to make sure they are no longer allowed to be comfortable with business as usual. Make sure they know that both themselves and their outdated ideals will be left behind, alone and abandoned.

Let them know they are not in control anymore.

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Rants, Uncategorized

I Grew Up a Privileged Black Man

The night Obama won his first term, I was living in Tallahassee, working towards my BA at FSU and in the midst of applying to grad programs. I remember that night perfectly for a couple of positive reasons (first time I’d seen anybody who looked even remotely like me in the office of highest power in the nation I call home) and one particularly negative one.

I was dating a white girl at the time (promise her race is relevant to the story). She and I had been a thing for almost a year at that point and were basically living together in my apartment a couple of blocks from campus. That evening, after Obama’s win was announced, we climbed into my blue Scion and headed out to a CVS down the street to grab some beers, come back and celebrate.

Before we got there, we stopped at an intersection in front of a bar—karaoke bar right across the street from my place, forget the name, with the upstairs flooring that bounced like a trampoline when it was packed—and my girlfriend and I observed a number of people outside of this bar with signs up, congratulating Obama.

Right when the light turned green, one of the celebrating guys—anybody who knows Florida State and this particular bar can imagine the condition he was in—stepped into the street, in front of my car. I had to slam on my brakes, and I tapped my horn reflexively. The guy looked embarrassed, waved at me with a sheepish grin. I waved back then tapped my horn again (promise it was a tap, I’ve never been a long-winded honker, liable to get you shot in Miami) and threw a fist up in solidarity (or a thumbs up more likely, I’m waaaaay cooler in my memories than I actually am in real life). A few seconds later, my rear view mirror lit up with flashing red and blue lights.

Now, everybody knows the feeling of seeing those red and blue lights in your rear view, regardless of the color of your skin. And I’ll admit, the version of me that existed in 2008 hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of his existence.

Like……my asshole clenched up real tight when I saw those lights, sure. But not as tightly as it would’ve clenched up today.

In other words I’d dealt with cops enough to know I pretty much needed to shut up, nod and follow their lead, but not enough to know that those actions sometimes still might not be enough.

The cop approached the driver’s side and the moment I rolled my window down, there was a flashlight in my face. I squinted and held my hand up, and the officer switched the beam to the passenger seat. I could see his face then, white guy with pink cheeks and a Smokey the Bear type hat. He shined the light on my girlfriend for a moment. Then he asked her if she was “in any distress.”

I didn’t even notice the words until later on, just sat there thinking there was something in his tone that I didn’t like. Something accusatory. My girlfriend was maaaaad confused like 🤨 but she just nodded and said yeah, I’m fine.

The officer turned the flashlight back on me and smiled, pretty sure he winked too (don’t quote me). Asked me if I was out here celebrating Obama’s win “like the rest of them” (you can quote me there). I just shrugged and said yeah, nothing over the top. Knew enough not to get goaded into THAT conversation. He nodded and did the license/registration routine. I handed them over and he studied them then looked at me and asked me why I was honking right before he pulled me over.

Pause.

So, I’ve always thought myself a sort of scientifically-minded person. As in, I believe in the scientific method, and the lessons we as a species have learned as a result of it. In this situation, the evidence was presented to me in real time. The number of seconds that elapsed between

1) me honking my horn at the guy stumbling in front of my car, and

2) this state trooper flashing his lights in my rear view,

were a single handful—five at most—which only stood to reason that he’d been behind me during the entire encounter.

So I explained to him what he’d probably already just seen. And he told me that I was in violation of local noise statutes. Because it was after the cutoff point (9pm/10pm, can’t remember which). I said okay and he walked off to his vehicle. A few minutes later he came back and explained to me that he was only going to give me a warning for the noise violation, but he’d have to give me and my girlfriend tickets for not having our seat belts on (I promise I’ve gotten better about that).

I signed it and he gave me my copy, did the same with my girl then he left and I drove off and continued to CVS for our original purpose: beer. At some point—after a couple of complaints from me about the injustice of the entire stop, much less the tickets—my girlfriend told me I should have said something, told the cop he was out of line.

Which I laughed at, of course.

The point of this story isn’t what happened to me that night though, not in the slightest. The point is what I eventually found out—over the next decade or so—could’ve happened to me. If I was a different person.

My parents are immigrants, came to Miami from Jamaica in the early 80s right before I was born. Strict Christians, so I was (with very frequent protestations on my part) raised in that value system. My father’s a product of straight up abuse and neglect but also a very educated individual, which gave him a firm belief that education is the only real way to escape your conditions when your conditions are sub-par.

As a result, education was not just A priority for me growing up, it was THE priority. I did pretty good in high school too, but as any person with Caribbean parents like mine can vouch, there was always another level you could reach in their eyes (love you muma and pa ✊🏾). I spent the first eight years of my life living with my parents and younger sister in a tiny apartment in a dilapidated neighborhood off Caribbean Blvd in South-South Miami before they saved up enough to buy the house in Perrine they currently reside in, the house I’m destined to inherit.

Which is to say, on the spectrum of black existence in the United States, I grew up privileged.

I never had to worry about where I was going to sleep.

I never had to worry about not seeing at least one of my parents at some point throughout the day, much less both.

I never had to worry about drive-by shootings, or eviction notices, or gangbangers or close family members in prison or my next meal or shoes or clothes.

I never had to worry about much really, except staying out of trouble (fail), being home by dinner and the aforementioned grades. I’ve been through my fair share of hardships, but they’re mostly side effects of life. The type of stories you toss out when everybody else is airing their dirty laundry at 2 am and you get that weird urge to outdo each other in the “who’s childhood fucked them up more?” conversation.

So even though I spent much of Obama’s initial-inauguration-evening bitching about a slightly weird encounter with a state trooper, the experience didn’t linger outside of that feeling of wrongness, like I’d slipped into the Twilight Zone for a moment there. I paid my ticket and my girlfriend paid hers and we went on about our business of getting the 🤬 out of Tallahassee as soon as possible.

The keywords for me in the above paragraph are “I paid my ticket.” If I had not been me—the type of person who grew up with parents who would never let him starve, who would never let him seriously need, who would never let him encounter a state trooper without at least SOME preparation for the Dance with Law Enforcement—

—If I was somebody lower on the spectrum of black existence in America, basically—

—My future/current position might be very different. I might not even be writing this right now.

There’s a podcast on NPR called Serial I got into a couple of years ago (like a lot of other people who are into good journalism). It studies how the justice system treats certain cases, starting season one with a thorough exploration of a murder trial that—due in part to Serial‘s coverage—has since led to a retrial for the accused, Adnan Syed. Season two covers the disappearance of Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009, and both seasons are amazing from a journalistic standpoint.

But my favorite season, by far, is season three, where the podcast’s investigative team tackles not just a single case but the entire local justice system in Cleveland, Ohio. Per the website’s description:

“Inside these ordinary cases we found the troubling machinery of the criminal justice system on full display. We chose Cleveland, because they let us record everywhere — courtrooms, back hallways, judges’ chambers, prosecutors’ offices. And then we followed those cases outside the building, into neighborhoods, into people’s houses, and into prison. We watched how justice is calculated in cases of all sizes, from the smallest misdemeanor to the most serious felony.”

It was during this season that I started to really understand the detailed machinations of a system that I’d always thought was a little bit awry, even though I never really understood why I felt like that. In the first episode of Serial season three, producer Sarah Koenig discusses the case of a woman going by the pseudonym “Anna.” For the purposes of speeding things along I’ll spare you the lengthy recap and just provide a video of the encounter that led to Anna’s arrest (Anna is the one getting smacked on the butt):

 

Along with a quote from Cleveland.com’s recap of the episode:

“The video shows the woman [Anna] talking to a man near the bar. She turned toward the bar, and he smacked her behind. Without turning around, she patted her own behind twice in response.

Another man seated nearby smacked [Anna] again a few seconds later. She wiggled back at him. The men continued smacking her, but she clearly grew irritated with it. She twice turned around, including once to give a half-hearted kick, and then, after the seventh time the men smacked her, got close to the man’s face. That’s when another woman who was sitting a few stools down stood up, walked directly in front of the 21-year-old woman and started yelling in her face.

Both reached for one another at almost the same time, and the fight broke out. The officers in the bar did not immediately get involved, and the fight turned into a scrum.

At one point a third woman, who was talking to [Anna] on the stool, appears to kick the 21-year-old woman while she was on the ground. A man grabbed that woman from behind and held her back.

When the officers finally came over to break up the fight, the 21-year-old got back up and threw punches while several people tried to restrain her. That’s when a punch landed on one of the Gill’s jaw. They took [Anna] down to the ground.

Police put [Anna] in the back of a police car while they sorted out the situation.”

Now, how this incident plays out is baffling enough on its own. But the eventual outcome of the entire situation for “Anna” is particularly interesting:

“[Anna] was taken to the city jail, where she sat for four days before she appeared in Cleveland Municipal Court for arraignment on a felony assault on a police officer charge, which carried a maximum sentence of nine months in prison. She was not charged in connection with the fight with the woman.

She pleaded not guilty and was released after she posted a $5,000 bond through a bonding agency.

A judge appointed attorney Russell Bensing to represent her. He and assistant county prosecutors got together and worked out a deal to bypass the grand jury and agree to be charged by information, which usually comes with an agreement that the defendant will plead guilty.

The case was then assigned to Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Jennifer King, who had yet to see the video […] King eventually offered a deal for the woman to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault. Bensing and the woman rejected the deal.

The case came upon the original trial date of June 12, 2017 with no plea deal in place. Judge Maureen Clancy pushed the trial back a month, and on the two sides reached a deal on the morning of the second trial date.

Prosecutors dropped the assault on a police officer charge and she pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. Clancy imposed no jail time, fined her $200 and ordered her to pay court costs that equaled the cost of her prosecution, which according to court records worked out to $782.50.”

Putting aside all the injustices “Anna” went through during this encounter, and putting aside the injustices she went through in trying to seek justice for this encounter, I’m focusing on two particular aspects:

1) the fact that Anna is white, and

2) the end result of this entire case.

Ultimately, Anna’s cost for defending herself was a $5,000 bond, four nights in jail with the threat of nine months more, a $200 fine and an additional $782.50 in court costs. And this happened to a white woman.

Now…most people I know don’t have that type of money lying around to just throw at criminal charges.

Which brings me back to my encounter with that state trooper in Tallahassee the night Barack Obama was elected.

Because sure, I was able to pay that seat belt ticket. I was able to pay that ticket and move on with my life, and I am now an “upstanding citizen” with a career and motivations to succeed into the future. Largely because I grew up in the privileged portion of that spectrum of black existence in the United States.

But what if I hadn’t?

What if, as a child, I had had to worry about where I was going to sleep?

What if I had had to worry about not seeing at least one of my parents at some point throughout the day?

What if I had had to worry about drive-by shootings? About eviction notices? About gangbangers or close family members in prison or my next meal or shoes or goddamn clothes?

What if I had gone through all that and still made it to Tallahassee, only to meet up on that state trooper and receive that ticket?

What if I hadn’t had the disposable income to pay for that ticket, or the support from family just in case?

Let’s run through the hypothetical, eh?

Let’s say I’m working paycheck to paycheck for tuition and expenses, as many people I knew in college were. Let’s say I don’t have the disposable income to take care of that ticket I just received, and I don’t have the safety net of a family with their own income to help me out. Let’s say I have no discernible option other than to just let that ticket sit there and fester, like a severe wound on a person without health insurance.

What happens next?

Simple. Eventually, my license gets suspended. I might not even know about this either, it’ll just be suspended, just like that.

A couple months after Obama’s election, I was pulled over again heading back to Tally from Miami on I-10. Pulled over for speeding, and yes I was speeding. Not by a lot but yes, my bad. The cop—a black guy—checked my license then came back and told me to be careful, then let me go with a warning. Told me his CO was waiting in another state trooper vehicle ahead a couple of miles so I should slow down. It was a pleasant encounter.

Getting back to our hypothetical though…imagine I hadn’t paid that seat belt ticket. And imagine, now, my license was suspended when that cop pulled me over for speeding on I-10. Per Florida statutes, the first conviction of driving with a suspended license is:

“…a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum of 60 days in jail.”

Imagine now that hypothetical version of me—dude who had had to worry about where he was going to sleep growing up, had to worry about not seeing at least one of his parents if not both at some point throughout the day, had to worry about drive-by shootings and eviction notices and gangbangers and close family members in prison and his next meal and shoes and fucking clothes. 

Imagine now that that guy is spending a few nights in jail, because a cop didn’t like how he honked his horn.

Imagine he has a job, and he’s now lost it. Because he couldn’t show up to work on time while he’s locked up in a jail cell. All because a cop didn’t like how he honked his horn.

Imagine he finally gets out of jail and can’t afford that $500 fine. Imagine that this leads to more run-ins with the police, and more and more shit piled onto his shoulders, until his life is entirely ruined because of this initial encounter with an officer who didn’t like how he honked his horn.

Imagine the country then turns around and tells him they don’t care. He should’ve honked his horn differently.

Imagine that for yourself. Then tell me.

Would you feel like being peaceful?

It could’ve happened to me like this easily, I’ve seen it happen to many others. That quick shift to the lower end of the spectrum of Black Existence in the United States. I’m glad it didn’t.

But that don’t mean my privileged black ass ain’t got stories to tell too.

And it don’t mean that I don’t know exactly how everybody out there protesting feels.

✊🏾

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Advice, Dating, Random Thoughts, Rants, Shameless Self Promotion, Writing

Music and Mental (in)Stability

Haven’t written on here in so long I barely even know how this whole blogging thing works anymore.

[taps mic] This thing on?

Anyways…

Hello Internet. How are you?

That’s cool.

Me?

I’m doing alright actually, which is interesting considering the circumstances.

However, though I’m doing alright at the moment, I’m doing that kind of alright that’s made me realize just how not alright I’ve been for most of my life.

To put that statement in metaphorical terms (I am a writer, and English teacher, so please…indulge my neurosis for a moment): imagine a giant storage unit, with a metal sliding door and multiple locks and security codes and the whole shebang. There’s rust around the edges too, because this thing is old. Three and a half decades old, to be exact. And full. It’s so full it’s damn near bursting at the seams.

You see it? Good.

Now imagine this storage unit has been sitting in the back of my head since I was a kid, just gaining more rust and dust and strain.

And the unit’s contents? Shit, it’s got everything.

This old-ass storage unit sitting in the back of my head is filled with all sorts of life-changing crap: the ability to understand and empathize with others; the ability to accept, acknowledge, and change personal shortcomings and bad behavior; the ability to communicate effectively; loads of epiphanies and…

A storage unit filled to the brim with perspective, to be succinct.

Broad perspectives, but more specifically the various perspectives of the many people who have come in and out of my life throughout the years.

If you can, really imagine this packed storage unit (I’m imagining that moment in Breaking Bad when Walt opens a similar storage unit to reveal mountains of drug cash). The unit’s door is warped from the pressure of everything inside. Yet it’s managed to stay stubbornly closed anyways, for over 34 years.

Can you see it?

I’ll take that as a yes.

Now, imagine that–recently–Life itself stormed in through the entrance of that mind. Like a SWAT team, just rammed through the gate and barreled straight to the back, found that storage unit, and promptly stomped a giant boot against that strained door, bursting through the locks and security features and hinges, cracking through the rusted metal. Tore the whole thing apart, sending all of those loads and loads of perspective flying in every direction (I’m imagining “Life” in this metaphor as a huge manic soldier, high on uppers and red-eyed from being in the trenches forever).

To say it was a mess up there would be overstating the obvious.

Anyways, metaphors aside.

It should come as no surprise that it was the slow death of a romantic relationship that started the ball rolling on all this (I tell my students to avoid cliches in their stories, even as our lives are filled with them). More specifically, the many moments and circumstances leading up to and following this break-up led to me having so many successive realizations that I’ve got the equivalent of mental whiplash–just epiphany after epiphany, like a never-ending line of dominoes falling one by one, moment by moment, day by day, for weeks now.

A bit overwhelming. But seems to be par the course when it comes to break-ups.

In an effort to avoid the melodramatic though, I’ll point out that the break-up was just one of many factors that contributed to this mentality shift. Seems this was just my year for personal change.

Blah blah blah, what’s your point, right?

The point of this (and stick with me, I promise there is one) is that I’ve been recently forced by Life to take a long, hard look at myself, who I am, who I’ve been, and–most importantly for the purposes of this post–who I want to be.

And one difficult admission that I’ve had to make is that I’ve spent the vast majority of my years being the worst type of emotionally unstable person: the type of emotionally unstable person whose been good at faking emotional stability.

A younger me would spend the next few paragraphs detailing all the stuff other people have done to make me this way (and by younger me I mean any version of me that existed before the past couple of months). And I’d be wrong in giving voice to any of that criticism.

Because the other thing I’ve recently realized about myself is that that’s who I’ve been for most of my life too: the person who always assigns blame, never accepts it.

The person who unapologetically drops his unhappiness on other people’s shoulders, then gets pissed when they throw it back at him.

The person who expects others to make him happy.

A boy in a man’s body, really, lacking the ability to take responsibility for his life and his actions.

I know, I know. Not a good look. Kind of makes me wonder how I’ve made it this far, to be honest.

Suffice to say that these personal admissions have spurred along a strong internal desire to work on those aspects of my personality that have led to so many destructive habits and conflicts with loved ones.

And in nearly all recovery scenarios, the first step is admission.

So here goes nothing:

For most of my life–all of it, really when I think about it, because I can’t really remember a time when this wasn’t the case–I’ve suffered from deep depression.

To elaborate, I spent the vast majority of my adolescent and teenage years and all of my twenties fighting against the constant feeling of sinking into my own mind.

Returning to the clarity of metaphors: imagine a cloud of darkness constantly following you around, so that every time you catch a glimpse of sunlight, the view is immediately drowned out by lightning and thunder.

No matter who I’ve been with, what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been going, who I’ve been going there with–the cloud has remained, oppressive.

It’s a pretty shitty way to live. And because of it, I spent nearly two decades afraid of…everything.

More specifically: everybody.

I see now that it’s the initial reason why I became a writer. For most of my adult years, writing has been the only thing I could do to successfully combat the emotional issues I had that I had no other way of dealing with. But it also was something I could do by myself, alone, away from the anxiety of social interaction, which had almost just as much appeal.

As I’ve said many times before, writing literally saved my life by helping me–on numerous occasions–push suicidal thoughts away. But that’s about all its done in that regard. Because–as has become apparent to me most recently–the solitude of a writer’s lifestyle has done more harm than good for my mental evolution.

And as if depression ain’t enough of a bitch to deal with, there’s also been the near-constant issue of self-doubt.

Imagine that beautiful combo: crippling social anxiety sprinkled with a complete lack of confidence sitting next to the aforementioned dark cloud of depression, both riding shotgun in my head like some demented hitchhikers.

Crazy, right?

I can see you rolling your eyes. And dammit, hey, I get it.

I used to think all of this was unique to me. I guess that’s common for depression: the feeling that nobody understands. Fact is though, I know a lot of people can relate to what I’m saying here, because mental health has proven time and again to be a major problem in this country. In this world, actually.

Which is part of why I’m writing this.

My issue is the same issue that countless psychological experts have been discussing forever, and have been discussing even more vehemently in the current social climate:

The tendency for men to suppress/hide their true emotions and desires.

The tendency for men to push aside any talk of their emotional well-being.

The idea that–to many people in this society–I’m less of a man for even writing all of this.

I grew up in a very strict Christian Jamaican household, and was therefore never really allowed to assert myself. Not placing blame, just stating a well-known fact: Caribbean households, on the whole, tend to be about as authoritarian as they come. And to be fair, I grew up around and befriended a number of other Caribbean boys who were raised under similar (or flat-out bad) circumstances who’ve never displayed the sort of unstable traits that I have.

Yet still. I’m an introvert, and overall conflict-avoidant. Which is really the starting point of all this. The world is a bit cruel to people who aren’t naturally assertive.

The world is a bit cruel, period. But that’s another topic.

As I grew older, this lack of social development turned into destructive behavior; towards myself, mostly, when I was young. Eventually though, I turned it on the people I’ve loved and been close to.

My cycle’s followed a blueprint throughout the years too: 1) emotional state goes out of whack, 2) can’t figure out how to express it constructively, 3) turn to that ever-reliable pool of instant confidence: Anger.

As you can imagine, this has ruined many friendships and romantic relationships. And up until recently, I was pretty clueless that I was doing any of this.

Looking back now, I can say that living like this–cycling between anger and depression–is one of the loneliest ways to exist that I can think of. I can also say that not knowing myself enough to be able to identify this, to be able to tell others what I’ve wanted and not wanted–liked and not liked, tolerated and not tolerated, felt and not felt–has sucked a lot of the potential out of my years, leaving many of my fondest memories as dry and unfulfilling as a desert mirage.

But you get it at this point now though, right?

I’m just beating a dead horse?

To summarize: I’ve been fucked in the head for a while, and the collateral damage has been extensive.

Alright, enough with the drama.

Here’s the real reason I’m writing today:

Over the past three years, I’ve become obsessed with making music. Playing guitar, singing, writing songs, and  performing on stage. Listening to music has always been one of my favorite pastimes, but to have found an outlet where I can actually express my emotions in an active and acceptable manner has been something of a wonder.

A mental miracle, to toss in some alliteration.

In my pursuit of music, I’ve found a route through life that actually provides both shelter and a foundation for my own confidence, conditions that I didn’t even know were possible.

Go out in public, alone, without sweaty palms and an inability to look people in the eyes?

Yeah, right.

Talk to strangers without stuttering or nervously laughing or–sometimes literally–running from the conversation?

You’re talking about somebody else, not me.

Climb on a stage?

With people watching me?

And play?

And sing?!

You must have lost your goddamn mind.

Yet, three years since picking up the old, dusty Epiphone guitar I bought in college but rarely used, I find all of the above to now be true.

The Musical Mental Miracle.

Bringing all of this full circle: with the confidence in myself and my abilities that music has instilled, I have been able to look back and properly assess my own behavior over the years–without anger or defensiveness–for the first time in my life. And through that newfound opening, I’ve been able to realize that my number one responsibility moving forward is to take responsibility for my own emotional well-being.

Concurrently, I also have to acknowledge how irresponsible I’ve been with many other people’s emotions and livelihoods in my past.

And for that, I am eternally sorry.

To the people I’ve sold out in their moments of need, I’m sorry.

To the people I’ve lashed out at unfairly (or lashed out at for any reason), I’m sorry.

To the people I’ve abandoned, I’m sorry.

To the people I’ve saddled with my burdens, I’m sorry.

I promise you all: I aim to do better.

So right here, on this lonely blog entry–my first in like two years, my apologies for the heaviness/wordiness, I’m shaking some of the cobwebs off still–I’m sending a proclamation out into the nether-regions of this technological landscape:

I will actively seek to improve my overall mental and emotional health.

Additionally, I will actively seek to help the people around me–and anybody who needs it, even if you’re not around me–with their own mental and emotional health as well.

If you (yes, you, reading this right now) are currently going through something–if you recognize that cloud I described earlier because you’ve got your own demented hitchhikers riding bitch, if you’ve recently had your storage unit full of perspective explode all over your psyche, or if you just need to talk to somebody about the things going on in your head that are keeping you from reaching your full potential–you’ve got a sympathetic ear in me.

As for me?

For better or worse, I’m going to dive headfirst into this music endeavor (warning: it’ll probably lean towards “worse” for a while).

If you want to follow me on that journey, click the social media pages below:

Patrick’s Facebook Music Page

Patrick’s Instagram Music Page

Patrick’s Twitter Music Profile

And if you just want to talk, shoot me an email.

I might not have the best advice, but I promise I won’t judge.

Sometimes that’s all we really need.

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