In the book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates says, “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”
But how often are we really encouraged to be our fearless, unfiltered, unadulterated selves, regardless of how it might make others feel? In a society that conditionally embraces the different, how can you develop the strength to stand on your own two feet, let alone fly?
Brandon doesn’t have all the answers, but a clue was found in the powerful words of his mother: “I can’t be anyone else other than who I am. And if you don’t like me, you don’t like me.” And thus the journey begins on how to be brave enough to accept self even when you don’t feel you can be who you are.
I’ve always had to navigate life from a place authenticity, being true to myself. Whenever I try to be something that I’m not, I get chopped. Often this results in hearing comments like “Oh, you don’t sound black” or “You don’t do things that other black guys do.”
In third grade, I started reading adult crime novels. That was unique to my experience and looking back was my way of trying to understand the adult world from an adult perspective. I was the kind of kid that didn’t really like sports. I was very solitary. I used books as a way to explore life and you’d see me as the kid turning down different opportunities so I could sit home in my room and read books. You’d have background music of a violin or a cello.
You’d see a really lonely child because my childhood was isolated. I didn’t know about my sexual preference at the time, and I was somewhat feminine. So, people didn’t want to play with me. They were off put because I was different. And that’s where the books came from. The cello playing. As I got older, that sense of isolation made me more autonomous and gave me a more authentic way of approaching life.
I grew up in Denver, Colorado. There aren’t too many black people from there. My parents weren’t too bad. I was raised by both my mother and my dad and stepmom. They were growing up while I was growing up. So, that made childhood very interesting. They were still maturing as well. Dealing with dating and money issues, adult problems, but still having to raise a child.
My parents would probably call me a weird but interesting child because I was to myself. It made things difficult for them, yet easy. It was so bad that my mom said to me one time, “If you break curfew, I won’t even be mad at you.” She even locked me out the house one time to make me go outside and play. Now I can just laugh at it, but then it wasn’t so funny.
I hated high school. When I graduated, I think I ran across the stage. Everyone was trying to find their identity and acceptance. And I was a weird kid. There, they didn’t like people who were different. They didn’t want to talk to me. I was also having issues with my sexuality, trying to make sense of all of that. I wasn’t picked on, but it was very lonely. People didn’t value the other or anything different. The loner with light tag makes perfect sense!
Not all gay people are stereotypically so. There are many who are nontraditional. We are just like everyone else, and we don’t get the chance to be seen as such. We’re seen as caricatures, not people.
I was an undergrad for eight years, first at an HBCU in Oklahoma and then at a school in Colorado. At the HBCU, I learned it’s okay to be proud of who you are as a black person. Before you go to an HBCU, you’re not the majority. But when you do, you can really take pride in your ancestry and blackness, your culture. Allowing yourself to be who you are in your racial identity–the good, the bad, and the ugly.
At first, I started as a journalism major and then transitioned into a nursing major. I was one class away from graduating, and then I dropped out. It wasn’t the most peaceful time for me. Mentally it was very involved–you do classwork, clinicals, and deal with a lot of emotional trauma and caring. It’s direct service work, but I realized I’m more into social systems. For my own sanity, I decided to drop out of nursing school. It was really hard on me not making it in nursing school. But, I transferred to a university back home and that’s when I found my niche.
I completed an undergraduate degree in Integrative Therapies, as the program expanded my perspective to a holistic paradigm of public health. During graduate school, I questioned how we could improve public health without making the necessary systemic reforms necessary to build a robust public health infrastructure that would improve health outcomes for disenfranchised communities.
The school was also social justice focused, having the effect of me pursuing a career in addressing health disparities through research. No one wants to be an undergrad for eight years. It wasn’t traditional, but had I not done what I did, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Thus, a unique and authentic experience.
Now, I’m in NYC building my career to eventually get my doctoral degree. That progression from HBCU to a Metropolitan City was important to define who I am, more than just my sexuality and skin color. No one wants to be an undergrad for eight years. It wasn’t traditional, but had I not done what I did, I wouldn’t’ be where I am now. It was a unique and authentic experience.
As the minority of the minority, it’s easier to oppress the other since you’re in the minority. I think people need to have a more honest conversation and be honest with themselves. Not all gay people are stereotypes. There are many who are nontraditional. We are just like everyone else, and we don’t get the chance to be seen as such. I feel as gay men we are often seen as caricatures, not people.
At 31, I can honestly say it’s the first time in my life where I started to focus on my mental, spiritual, and emotional wellness instead of just my physical health. Anyone who knows me, they know I have insecurities about my weight and financial situation. But I never looked at how I was addressing those insecurities and how I can develop into a complete person. Before now, I really was not developing myself. It was from a superficial.
My mother has always said, “I can’t be anyone else other than who I am. And if you don’t like me, you don’t like me.” I can’t be who I’m not. Being autonomous and being who I am authentically is who I am, and I can’t be who I am.
But when you really address how you see yourself, you have to do something about it. At this stage of my journey, it feels like all of these lights are turning on and I am having so many , epiphanies as a result of working on my foundation. I still want to lose weight and I’m still broke, but I want a healthy concept of me. I’m a very skeptical person by nature. But I do believe that if I am to ever have healthy relationships with people, , I need to learn how to trust people at some point.
As much as we talk about fame, fortune, and material things, you’re not taught or given the space to be who you really are. If you were, people wouldn’t get so much pushback for being who they are. For example, not all rappers are heterosexual or “niggahs.” A lot of them are human beings forced to be a caricature. If they weren’t, they would be shunned (and lose a lot of money in the process).
My mother has always said, “I can’t be anyone else other than who I am. And if you don’t like me, you don’t like me.” That’s the kind of person my mom has made me out to be. I can’t be who I’m not. Being autonomous and being who I am authentically is who I am, and I can’t be who I am.