Life Writing

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Written By: Akilah Doty

Art By: Izzy Dickey

Recently I saw a tweet reading, “You have your whole life to be a minority sis, go to an HBCU.”

I giggled to myself. I couldn’t help but get it.

Despite the choices of my excited peers, I was looking into PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions). When I expressed my enthusiasm to attend a school in the middle of nowhere, people really couldn’t get with the program. They thought it was strange for a Black girl to consciously choose a PWI, especially if they weren’t the valedictorian, and it wasn’t an ivy league school. My friends said things like “Where the fuck is Vermont?” and “You go be up there with all them white people huh.” My Grandmother even suggested that I attend Georgia State, our local college, so she could visit more me often. Not to mention, not ONE person could say the name of my anticipated college to save their life, (I got champagne more often than anything). People were less than compassionate of my vision and it was infuriating. I tried to explain why going to school in bumfuck White America would be beneficial to my brown skin, but people just couldn’t rationalize the resources in endearing unnecessary trauma.

Still, I couldn’t ignore my unhappiness. I wanted them to see what I saw. I saw the possibility of being something other than what people expected. I had a surrealist vision of dropping a seed into the dirt and watching it grow, see it branch toward the sky, and stretch out to all the deserts. I couldn’t be another product of my community; I couldn’t allow myself to do what everybody else did in contentment. I was conflicted, I knew what made sense to me, and I understood why I didn’t make sense to them. The words and actions of my friends floated around in my head, I overwhelmed myself with scenarios of possible fruition.

On one hand, I could attend an HBCU. I would be identified as one of many, talented Black faces on campus. I would be surrounded by my culture. I would eat seasoned food.

Still, being there wouldn’t assure me of who I was. People of color didn’t guarantee a sense of belonging. Now, you can benefit from any experience if you want to but similar to plants, we all need different amounts of sunlight, rain, and room to grow. I craved an environment that would allow different parts of myself to flourish. Not to mention, HBCUs don’t usually award the white guilt scholarship to the thousands of Black students that attend their campuses.

I knew there wouldn’t be a customer satisfaction or your money back guarantee logo plastered on my tuition plan. A PWI wouldn’t be some jolly-fucking-walk-in-the-park either though. I knew I would be regulated by the ‘You’re too aggressive’ white people; insulted by the ‘I’m not racists, I have Black friends’ white people, and I knew I would have love for some white people.

I envisioned triumph as I graduated top of my class with a carpet of white tears to accompany my bronzed Brown face and glowing grin. The idea of being one of the only Black girls in my class felt like an advantage.

Subconsciously, the idea of using my brown skin to my benefit made me feel guilty. I had soaked up the idea that I didn’t deserve to use my skin to get into places. I thought I shouldn’t be allowed to think in that way about Black pain and suffering. It felt hypocritical to use the same systems that enabled my pain to get into college.

Inversely, I felt entitled. Entitled to a seat at the table, when we had been forced to live and die on scraps for so long. I would not use Black pain and suffering for your benefit. White people did that shit all the time without any special occasion.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always won the most talkative, sarcastic, narcissistic, anti-anything-anybody-ever-says, little bitch award. And for the longest time, people have always given me shit for it.

I was taught that being yourself was nothing to be ashamed of, but I still found myself conflicted on what the ‘right’ version of myself looked like. I wanted to be like all the people around me, to be normal. I noticed my ability to emulate people, to pick up on their habits and nuances. It felt natural to try so hard to be natural. I lived in constant strain, anticipating the worst if my behavior didn’t mimic what my peers deemed as ‘normal’.

For the longest time, I had myself fooled; imagining I hadn’t become a product of my community. Imagining I was an individual. I knew there wasn’t anybody like me. I mean, I even googled my name to be sure of it.

Every time I tried to express the parts of myself that didn’t match up with everyone else’s, I was met with hostility and harsh life lessons about love and friendship. I thought the truest version of myself was wrong, something to be overshadowed by what others thought, so I allowed myself to bend, to stretch, to conform.

Eventually, I got over my shit. I couldn’t ignore my unhappiness. Just because I was good at bullshit didn’t mean I had to be knee deep in it.

I noticed the things people couldn’t stand about me. The shit that made everyone’s knees shake with nonconforming fright, was the exact thing I wanted to be. I realized people were afraid of what was different, they were afraid of anything they couldn’t imagine in a box. Something to unbox and behold.

 So I embraced it. I embraced all the quirky shit that made my stomach knot up and all the random facts I knew from watching Animal Planet. I played Tyler The Creator. I sung SZA in the hallways. I chopped my hair off and dyed it pink. I figured if I had to be the center of attention at all times, I wouldn’t be fake. I’d be a force of brute rebellion. It shifted the way I interacted with my community. I could feel myself getting bored with me, but like a villain with too much confidence, I went around seeking world domination. I replaced my desire for approval with a different type of face. The mask of being different felt like the only consistent thing in my life. So by the time senior year of high school rolled around and it was time to pick colleges, of course I went against the grain. I’d go to a PWI.

I couldn’t wait to see all the grand things my friends would do in the long run. I had a vision in mind of something better than what we were living through. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t see it too. But I knew they had a plan too and I found great comfort in that. Eventually, divine timing would knock us in the head, making itself known, and like moths to a flame we would all come home. My incessant need to be right about what I thought was wrong took form faster than senior year ended, and before I knew it I would be shipped off to Burlington Vermont for the journey of a lifetime. It was easy to think about all the grand changes I could make as a hopeful senior in high school and although those aren’t too far out of my reach, my experiences have me thinking, was it worth it?

My senior year, I was struck. I never grappled the concept of loss because I never had to deal with it in close quarters. So when I lost my mom to suicide I was fucked.

I thought I could handle it, and I am, but at the expense of my entire childhood and everything I knew to be true. Throughout the next few months I would often hear, “You have a good head on your shoulders Akilah.” Though nothing was wrong with the statement itself, I felt required to keep shit together. I knew I was probably handling my mom’s death better than most people thought I would, but I was suffering. I had grown so used to pretending it became second nature; so much so that even my family couldn’t quite figure me out.

My mom was the person who could see through all the smart talk and deflective jokes. I picked up the habit of being too strong for my own good from her. I had no idea how I would deal without the glue that kept me altogether. I managed to teeter on the edge of insanity without going overboard. I went through the anger of my mother choosing to leave, but I ultimately learned that people had given her so much of their shit and she just couldn’t shake it all.

We are not equipped to carry everything by ourselves, we need others. We need to feel connected. When we long for compassion in the wrong places we get the wrong answers. The odd thing about loss is it gives us perspective. It gave me direction in the things I longed for, in the habits I picked up from my environment, and in the shit that wasn’t mine to carry. I gained so much from it, and still  I couldn’t help but to feel I lost so much more.

It was dark, and I walked back to my dorm. People passed me laughing, talking, and absorbing the ambiance of the night without a second thought. My vision went blurry, too many hot tears seared down my brown face and it was hard for me to see. I was pissed. The temperature rose in my body from my face to my feet, one degree at a time. I just knew I could set something on fire if I stared long enough. The flash of a blue and red domino atop a black Subaru sped by. I couldn’t ignore my fear. I was scared. I was angry; it was almost incomprehensible.

I could feel a shadow creeping up behind me. I sped up my pace, hoping the dark figure wouldn’t reach out and further dismantle my reality. My heart rate rose, and the tears started to flood again. I could feel myself losing my grip. I could feel my emotions drowning me in my own imagination: seeing a white face, feeling the slash of the blade, seeing it kill me. They would be the death of me. They were the murderers. They slaughtered my people. They got away with it, I could feel the anger flood my body. I was enraged and I couldn’t stop my heart from beating or my mind from racing. I couldn’t save them. There was no change, only pain, only despair and revenge, only more hurt to be inflicted. I hated them.

I felt like passing out after reaching the odd, new, comfort of my dorm. It didn’t feel like home but I knew it was the closest thing I’d get to one here: a thousand miles away from everything I knew.

As I caught my breath, I pondered the term ‘culture shock.’ I understood it was actual shock. It touched every nerve ending in my body and thrusted me forward into what felt like a distant future where I was the only black face around. I’m not sure who coined the phrase “Animals are more afraid of you than you are of them,”  but I’m pretty sure it applies to any unequal relationship. The thought of white people being scared of me wasn’t unfamiliar. I saw them go out of their way to cross the street when the distance between us was too much to bear. I could feel the tension in the air when I entered closed spaces. I knew they were scared, but I was afraid too.

When they see us they see criminals, drug dealers, strippers, single moms, people beyond reform. When I see them, I see genocide. I see strange fruit hanging from poplar trees. I feel wind taken from my lungs. I see families torn apart in malls, schools, churches. I see Charles Mansion, the Zodiac killer, and Ted Bundy. I see every police officer shooting at my back as I run for my life. I see my brown body being dragged through the woods, left at the mercy of people who have no mercy; people who see me as ⅗ of a human rather than a sister, a daughter, a niece, a friend, a human. I knew that if I was taken, it would receive no news coverage. People would continue to laugh, talk, and enjoy the ambiance of every night, comfortable in their bubble of willful ignorance. It brought me to tears every time I walked outside. I could feel the shadow rise up above me, waiting for the right moment to strike, snatching me and leaving me for dead.

The fear tried to stifle me in so many ways. The crazy thing about fear is that it can keep you safe, but there’s a fine line. I could feel myself internalizing all the stories I had been told, all the feelings that were projected onto me by a world that I didn’t ask to be in. I wouldn’t allow myself to be a byproduct of the world I inhabited. I couldn’t allow myself to be a hypocrite; nothing would change if fear took control. “Remember your mission Akilah,” I told myself.  “Be the one who reasons. Reason with yourself; reason with the people, you can do it, I believe in you. You are capable, you have the ability to do something, anything, as long as blood flows and the world lives on, you are capable.”

I’ve always felt that there’s this innate sense of responsibility that comes with knowing. People often ignore or don’t seek out knowledge because it comes with the guilt of not acting. Realizing the traumas of the world around me was overwhelming. A young Akilah couldn’t wrap her head around the truths of revolutions, enslavement, and eras upon eras of inequality and genocide. I couldn’t understand how a place filled with so much love and beauty could breed such despair and hatred. I figured I had to change something about it.

So, a young Akilah set out to understand and guide the world in a better direction, fueled by Cliff bars and hope. I yearned to be engaged with my environment. I knew what I would do, could change how people interacted with one another and our environment.

In hindsight I’d like to think I wasn’t a naïve and arrogant brat seeking approval. The truth of the matter is I was in over my head and had no idea the journey I was in for. Being in an environment like Vermont where I am genuinely the minority is horrifying to say the least, but I still can’t ignore the overwhelming feeling of happiness or the growing compassion and understanding I experience as I learn more about myself and my peers experiences. Through every interaction I feel myself shed layers.

We have this toxic relationship with the images people create of us. I loved being the ‘angry, outspoken, edgy’ black girl people painted me as. She was the best friend I never asked for, always giving illicit advice, and reprimanding my actions and thoughts. I couldn’t help but to lust after this image of myself. She’s the thing I loved to hate. In a way I think we’re all in love with the idea of madness and the social constructs that weigh us down. I think we don’t self-reflect on the images projected onto us or how we’ve created a cohesive system of emulating those images while simultaneously rejecting them. We crave directional cues on how to behave because it gives us something to look forward to. We love the parts of ourselves that hate people and give into the hierarchies of the world.

 If we innately know what we like and who we are, then any construct that imposed itself would be met with a defense mechanism. How is that our defense mechanism has been to dissolve ourselves in honor of upholding those same systems?