(Photo by Anthony Adia)
This might sting a bit.
Are you tired yet? Are you ready to be distracted by something else? Find something, anything, that will take you away from all of this? Are you ready to go back to your normal routine and business as usual? Feel free to do so as best you can. You can breathe a sigh of relief, and no need to read any further.
Still with me? Welcome to the next Great Awakening.
Take a deep breath — there is much work to be done.
This is just a small part of my story as a black kid growing up in Baltimore. This is my story about negotiating a system, that, during my childhood, was working with a frightening amount of surgical precision to divide and oppress black people, while actively ensuring all the privileges, benefits and opportunities for success would be afforded for white people.
Baltimore is a city that is made up of over 250 neighborhoods. Baltimore is a segregated city by design. Many neighborhoods, to this day, have bylaws written into their covenants that explicitly bar black people from owning homes in those communities. The practice of redlining is synonymous with Baltimore development. Fun project: Research how Cross Keys got its name. We all know the city is divided, and many folks of privilege have been just fine with that for generations. D. Watkins said it best, the two Baltimores. We’ve gotten really comfortable at navigating the one that we identify with most. I grew up having to navigate both worlds.
I am adopted, I am biracial and I was born just four years after Loving v Virginia. As a kid, four years felt like an eternity. Now, I have shirts that are four years old. My parents that adopted me are white. As a kid, I hated all of these differences. Growing up, on some level we all struggle with feeling comfortable in our own skin. But, for me, it felt like that discomfort had been super sized. The real struggle came from not knowing where I fit in or where I belonged. The world saw me and decided for me that I was black. To the white kids, I was dark enough that, without question, I was black. But from the black kids, I often heard, “What are you?” Today, I celebrate this difference. All that I’ve endured to reach this place of peace and comfort in my own skin, I wear like a badge of honor. I have embraced the struggle. Be at peace. Breathe.
Growing up, on some level, we all struggle with feeling comfortable in our own skin. But, for me, it felt like that discomfort had been super sized.
My parents got divorced not long after my adoption, so I was being raised by a single mother. We moved into an all-white, blue collar, rough neighborhood just across the city line in the late 70s. I don’t know this for sure, but I believe I may have been the first black kid to attend my elementary school. And if I wasn’t, it sure as hell felt like I was a trailblazing first grader! I attribute any later athletic success due in part to being chased home from school and having to dodge rocks thrown at me by the older kids on a daily basis. Man, I could run and I could hop fences three different ways, depending on the height, without breaking stride.
The writing was on the wall the first day I went to the neighborhood playground to hopefully make some friends. Once I got there, I couldn’t understand why the other kids were acting so strange. They weren’t playing with me, but I thought they must like me because it’s the first time we’re all together and I already have a nickname… They were calling me “watermelon.” I didn’t understand. Breathe.
I started to have some inkling that something was really wrong in my world when I finally made a friend, and we were playing in his backyard. His dad came out of the house and saw us playing together and yelled, “Get your black ass out of my yard.” I had never been so afraid, or run so fast. I had to remember to breathe. I was seven.
As I grew up, I learned how to navigate this world, but always while playing defense. I always had to know as much as I could about where I was going, who I was going with and who would be there. Remember that fear you felt the first time your parents talked to you about not taking candy from a stranger? It was kinda like that, everyday. I had to constantly make the calculations about whether or not it would be safe and, most of all, I always needed to have an exit plan. But, all the while, you had to look cool, calm and in control.
Looking back on these days, I equate it to planning a military strike mission. In my preparation, the final question was always the same. I had to ask myself, “If things go bad, how are you getting out of this?” On my way out of the house, I would have to remind myself, “Okay. Take a deep breath and breathe.”
Growing up in Baltimore meant crossing many divides. Whether it was in the streets, neighborhoods, different cliques or, eventually, attending one of Baltimore’s private schools, where these differences were amplified tenfold. I was one of only a handful of black kids in the entire school. Private school was a shock to the system; it felt like being transported to another planet. The feeling was mutual. To my classmates, where I lived was another world! They looked at me and where I came from like they were thumbing through a National Geographic magazine. The difference here was there was almost a fascination and sense of curiosity about the black kid that came from the wrong side of the tracks. I was embarrassed that my house didn’t sit on three acres or have an in-ground swimming pool, which almost seemed like the norm now.
My life has been a balancing act, a negotiation to understand how to navigate these two worlds, the two Baltimores. I always felt that I didn’t quite belong to either, but knew I needed to excel in both if I was going to be successful and also find inner peace. So amid the anger and pain caused by George Floyd’s death, it’s especially poignant — those final words. We are reminded that on a daily basis, that we as a people cannot breathe.
Today, Baltimore is still home, and that’s a choice we’ve made. My wife and I are raising our children here. We as a family are navigating two worlds. We live in a fairly diverse community. We demand better for our children, for our community, our city and our people. We are unapologetic about the change we seek. But yet the cycle continues. Not long ago, our 12 year old was walking the dog just two blocks from our house, and was stopped and questioned by the police after a neighbor called and made false accusations. There are so many factors that make up systemic racism. Dive in and help. There is so much work to be done: police reform, education, housing, public health equity, hiring discrimination, sexual harassment and colorism to name just a few. The change we seek starts in our own community.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. The system is designed to wait you out.
I am challenging all of us: Keep showing up in all the ways you know how. If one day it is me laying in the street and my last words are “I can’t breathe,” will you protest? How long until you grow tired? How long is an acceptable amount of time to be angry? How long will you keep up the social media barrage? How many books will you read or movies will you watch to “better understand” before returning to your normally scheduled programs? This is a marathon, not a sprint. The system is designed to wait you out. If you have any doubts about the answers to these questions, then we’ve failed George Floyd and all of those that have suffered and fallen at the hands of police brutality and injustice. We will fail the next George Floyd and we will hear the all-too-familiar last words, “I can’t breathe”. We cannot allow there to be a next time. This movement is not a hip new thing for your summer. This movement is forever.
I share my story as a call to action. If you are reading this and thinking, “Well, I can’t relate to any of this,” that’s okay. That’s the point. You don’t have to have had the same or even similar experiences as me or other black people in order to speak out with all the conviction that you can muster. Empathy is all that is required.
Imagine how you would feel growing up in a perpetual state of terror. Imagine being chased by a monster while trying to make it up a mountain of deep sand that continually slides by under your feet and you never feel you can get any traction and you’re not moving. Your chest is pounding, you can’t breathe. Feel that fear of being chased, the desperate frustration that you’re not moving, despite your best efforts. You’re frantic in your effort to get away, but your legs are shaking and feel like jello.You can’t wake up from the nightmare. You can’t escape! We can all imagine that. You don’t have to be black to know this is no way to live…no, exist. Black and brown people feel this on a daily basis.
Of all of my experiences, the lessons I’ve learned and minds I’ve changed, I am moved most by my childhood friend’s father. You remember: the one that commented about my “black ass.” Many years later, I returned to the old neighborhood, when my mother was finally moving. As I was standing outside of the house, my friend’s father, now an old man, saw me and quickly came down off of his porch and hobbled up the walk with the help of a cane to see me. His eyes were alive with energy and excitement.
He quickly bombarded me with questions: How was I and how I had been? Where was I living? I politely answered his questions. He continued, and wanted to know about college and what career I had settled into and if I was married yet or was there a special someone? He was excited to tell me about his life, too. As we talked I could feel my chest swell with pride as I brought him up to speed on all of my adventures and how life was unfolding for me.
I wore my answers as a badge of honor as my successes had been hard fought battles that never defeated me. Here was a man that when he first saw me all those years ago, was afraid, afraid of what he did not know. Of course I stuck around, his son became one of my closest childhood friends, and this man got to know me. I realized as we were speaking how much he had grown and how far he had come. He had made a change and we were all better for it.
None of us are exempt from the work that must be done. It is time we all grow. It is time for vulnerability. Share your own story of self examination, your own journey of self discovery, confronting your own bias. You are not alone and we need your voice so we know we are not alone. I keep hearing, “This time feels different.” “This time” can’t “feel different,” it must be different. Make no mistake: There will be no greater calling in your lifetime than this call to action right now. Stand up and have the courage of your convictions. It is time we all get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s time we all started navigating two worlds. I’ve done it, and trust me, in the end, you will be proud that you can navigate two worlds, too. You will wear it like a badge of honor. Keep moving forward and remember…breathe.-30-
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