I make money writing memoirs and non-fiction stories.
Not enough to abandon my day job as a client services professional at the local hospital, but I make enough dollars to splurge on lunch from fast food joints about three times a month. Of course, money cannot be the sole reason for why I choose to write about my life. I actually love to create a piece of writing from scratch. I love the process involved with editing a story I’ve written, pulling apart the contents and then putting them back together like a puzzle. Writing can often be a therapeutic exercise, a respite from the disappointments and doldrums of everyday life. And if I happen to write an essay that is instrumental in changing the world in some small way, then so be it.
Recently, I’d thought about expanding my oeuvre to include fiction writing, as science fiction and fantasy are my favorite genres. I’ve actually scribbled some ideas onto a notebook a few times before eventually coming to my senses. Because I don’t need to write an imaginary story to enrapture an audience. I am a large (6 feet 2 inches and 250 lbs), relatively young (age 43) black man living in the United States of America. My life, in so many ways, is much stranger than fiction.
In the stories I’m reading now — think comic books and graphic novels — there is often a protagonist who has been gifted with a super power of some kind. This person is also imbued with a sense of responsibility, which provides the necessary fuel for the protagonist to go out and help the world. Standing in the way is a sworn enemy bent on twisting the world into something that is less humane. The protagonist sacrifices a great deal to prevent the enemy from exerting corrupt influence on the world. But despite good intentions, the protagonist is often feared, ridiculed, and persecuted by the people he or she is trying to save. As a black man, I know what persecution feels like.
My first negative encounter having to do with race happened when I was about eight years old. It was nearing the end of a very hot Colorado summer, school was a few weeks away from reopening, and I needed school clothes.
Dad and I went to the local Kmart one afternoon to forage for the only three pairs of pants and shirts — Dad was very frugal — that I would be afforded to wear for the entire school year. After we secured the clothes I needed, my dad’s eyes widened after being stuck by a thought. He needed to buy a caulk gun.
Ah, no. Shopping for tools is boring, I thought.
Dad gave me permission to wander off on my own. I walked over to the toys section and scanned the shelves until I caught sight of a He-Man action figure — you’ll know who He-Man is if you grew up in the eighties. He-Man was surrounded by an iridescent, warm light that put me into a trance. I reached out to grab the toy. I turned the figure around in my hands a few times and sighed to myself. I badly wanted to leave the store with this toy in my possession, but knew not to ask my father for the toy, especially after he’d spent a significant percentage of the budget on my clothes and other supplies.
I hadn’t noticed the security guard who’d been lurking.
It wasn’t long before the security guard was looming over my shoulder. I didn’t pay him too much mind at first, as I was still taken by the sight of the toy I wished was mine. When he placed a hand on my shoulder, I flinched and then whipped my head around. I took two steps back, scaled my eyes upwards, and nearly choked on my tongue.
Any grown man staring down at the eight-year old me would have been imposing. But this man, dressed in a blue shirt and black pants, was made even more formidable by his uniform.
He asked me if I knew about a game that had been swiped from one of the shelves.
“No. I don’t,” I said through a stammer.
He pulled out his wallet and got down on one knee, flipped open the wallet to reveal a shiny star. My legs got wobbly and I felt like falling backwards. The security guard massaged the He-Man figure from my two hands and placed it back on the shelf. He wanted it to be just me and him.
The security guard penetrated my eyes with his icy blue ones. His pale face was wrinkled and sharp at his chin and his cheekbones. He must have been in his late fifties, perhaps early sixties. He was a man infused with plenty of presuppositions about kids who looked like me.
He asked me again: “Do you know what happened to that game?”
I whispered: “No”.
The security guard wasn’t budging. Figuratively and literally. The old pro knew that he had his man. He just needed to apply a little more pressure. He set his jaw. An image of me being paraded through the store in handcuffs flashed through my mind as I shivered.
I was becoming resigned to sitting across a table from a police officer in an interrogation room when a group of kids scurried by. The security guard whipped his head around, grunted, and got to his feet. One of the little urchins was holding the object in question. The children rounded the corner and disappeared, with the security guard in hot pursuit.
Although an abjectly terrifying experience, my encounter with the security guard ranks low on the totem pole of fearful police encounters. There would be at least a dozen more experiences in the ensuing years, some of which involved a gun being pointed in my direction by an overzealous police officer.
I have graduated from three different colleges. You would think that a forty-three year old man with three college degrees would have had less contact with police officers. But I’m black.
It’s not just police though.
Ten years ago, I was removed from a math teaching job three weeks before the start of the school year. On a Monday. When I met with the school’s CEO — this was a charter school — about a week after the event, he said that my firing wasn’t about my race. That’s when I knew that my firing was about my race.
Ready for some irony? I’d quit my previous secure — I’d been renewed for my second year — teaching job at the elementary school because I was afraid of eventually being fired by the principal at that school.
I can recall what it felt like to be stalked by a clothing store employee when I was a junior at Boston University. The woman scorched two holes into the small of back with her penetrating eyes.
And there are the other hundreds of slights and micro aggressions that I’ve had to absorb over the years. The instances have been sown into my memory, never to be forgotten.
I don’t know if I’ve reacted to these aggressive tactics in the best way, but I’ve always endeavored to remain calm in these instances. Because I knew that if I reacted in a way that made some of these people uncomfortable, my situation would have become far worse. I wanted to live to fight another day.
Though I’ve been able to maintain a serene countenance throughout a life filled with challenges, I’ve always been smoldering on the inside. That was the thing when I was a younger black man. There were a lot of feelings that were simmering beneath. I was never a verbally dexterous human being, so I’ve had a difficult time effectively expressing my emotions in the moment. After eclipsing the thirty-ninth year of my life, I was resigned to suffer the weight of lifelong indignities in silence.
Then I wrote my first story on my mental health a short time after I turned forty.
The audience reaction to that story was so very positive. I received feedback from readers who empathized with my story and offered well wishes. I was also encouraged to write more stories. And I thought, I’m a black person entering middle age. I’ve got plenty of stories that need to be told.
I’ve written some fifty short memoirs since publishing my first story three years ago. Fifty stories may not sound like a great amount over a three year span, but I’m not a full-time writer. I work a steady nine-to-five job and I have other responsibilities that cut into my writing time. Fifty individual two-thousand word essays is a lot for me.
I could not have written these personal essays fifteen years ago. I was still learning about the world then, was unread, hadn’t acquired the necessary life experience, and didn’t know how to write in a way that was affecting. My constitution as a young man was often shakier than a tree leaf in the wind.
But at age forty-three I’ve become solid in more ways the one. I’ve grown into my body and expanded my mind to include so much knowledge. I am a much wiser and cannier man, comfortable in my own skin. I know enough about the world to protect myself from harm, and am now capable of composing personal stories that are powerful and informative because I can speak from a place of experience.
Like the superheroes in the comic books and graphic novels I read, I wear a mask now — because of Covid-19. My identity is born out of a life that is both tragic and triumphant, as is the case with so many other men and women of color.
There is so much that I need to get off of my chest. So many more stories I need, and am capable, of telling. This is my time to fight back in the best way I know how.
I going to keep on writing for as long as I am alive.