I heard a saying the other day that when America catches a cold, the Black man catches the flu and I have never been the same since. After hearing this saying, I began to dwell on how I got here and the amount of work that I would put in; trying to run away from that flu, not knowing that I was running myself into my own casket. I know you’re probably thinking, “damn is this nigga about to talk about his near death experience?” Well, don’t worry, I’m not. But, I will talk about how I was so busy running from what I had assumed was the flu, the fear of not succeeding, that I could not see what the real sickness was. The risks I felt obligated to take in order to succeed in a society that does everything in its power to stop me.
For most Black men, they experience this “flu-like” phenomenon in the everyday big boy workforce but for me, my “workforce” was competitive speech and debate. This is part of the story where you can laugh if you’d like because things are about to get really dark from this point on…no pun intended. Yah know I don’t think people get it at all, the pressure that comes with being a Black competitor in speech and debate. The amount of work it takes to drop your ebonics. The amount of work that it takes just to walk up in front of a room filled with mostly white competitors. To pour your heart out to a panel of mostly white judges and hope to God that their support is not pseudo and that they are there for you. That they want to hear your story and not the story that institutionalized racism has created for them. But the hard work doesn’t stop there and shit, if i’m being honest, I don’t quite know where it begins.
I remember the first day I held a balck book in my hand. The color of its skin reminded me of the weight that the stories inside of it would carry. A weight heavy enough to break the stigma; to demolish every building in my path. My stories carry oppression and pain and power and the ammunition to shoot bullets through the glass ceilings that were made to incase me and place me on display to be the “good Black” the “proper Black” the Black who’s “not like the rest of them.” But sometimes I feel as if forensics isn’t the only thing to blame for my assumed “assimilation.” I received so much backlash for attending a predominantly white institution and competing on a predominantly white forensics team Even before forensics, I wasn’t like the “rest of them.” The other Black boys wore football cleats, I wore dress shoes. They spoke like a “nigga” where as I spoke “white” as my peers would say. I always felt white and I hated that feeling. It removed so many of my experiences that Black boys are supposed to experience. There’s a picture of me from my first speech and debate tournament that always makes me feel something. I was wearing a purple dress shirt with a Black suit that was composed of two different Blacks. What the hell was I thinking? Yes, you can laugh here. Anyways, when I examine this picture, I regret not being able to travel back in time to notify younger me about the amount of work that it will take for a heavyset Black boy to craft himself into a national champion in this event. To tell him that everything he will endure from that point on until now, will be worth the endurance.
I was supported by my community but I never felt as if I were connected to its roots. I was supported by my family but I never felt as if we shared the same blood. It took so much work, participating in this event. I had to combat an identity crisis while taking on other people’s identities every weekend. For those of you that dont know about interpretation events, it’s all about character pops and dramatic page turns. My classmates would call me white. My teammates were white. My friends were white. My partners were white. My community was white. Speech & Debate, when I started winning, allowed me to evade discrimination and become naive to the very same stories that I would spread in speech rounds. Police officers knew who I was so I never fit the “description.” My teachers would follow my speech success so I was always presumed to be a “good” kid. When I would put on my speech suit and rack in speaker points, I lived a cookie cutter life but when the super suit came off, I was poor, Black, obeese and queer. It took work to survive the identity crisis that both the speech community and the Black community had put me through. Living in a society that makes you feel as if you are a stain on an all white t-shirt. Where no bleach products such as, prison systems, glass ceilings and police brutality can get rid of you made me feel like being a successful Black man, granted me white privilege.
For me, it was never a glass ceiling, there was never just glass above me. Glass surrounded me, It trapped me. It made me feel like an artifact on display, an exhibit in a museum where my body didn’t matter, only my voice, because my Black body was never deemed worthy in an event such as speech, it was only a case containing my “proper” voice that made me competitive. So here I am, a beautiful sculpture that is supposed to be happy to be in one of the most competitive well known art museums, but I still feel as if society is only fascinated by my voice. Learning to love your body and the skin that you are in takes work. It takes overworking yourself to turn the pages in a Black book that carry your insecurities. It takes work to pick up the pieces of you that you tossed to the floor to make room for everything that society takes away from you.
So I work effortlessly sacrificing sleep and my mental health and humanity hoping to be heard before seen and listened to before corrected by society, or supremacy or a ballot. To be Black and in speech is to be like John Henry, yes the one from disney. It is to drill every ounce of hood out of you because presentation is everything.
So I work effortlessly sacrificing sleep and my mental health and my humanity hoping to be deemed acceptable into a presumed safe space. When I tell you all that burnout is real, will you actually believe me? Will you hear me when I say that I am referring to my mental health, or will you be like most judges and assume that the only thing I talk about is my skin? To be Black and a competitive speaker is to be an artifact, a rarity and in some minds, white. I worked hard because at a young age I learned that being Black meant carrying the assumptions of my people around with me wherever I went.
Whether it be the classroom or the competition, working hard is never a choice for me, it is a survival tactic resulting from living in a world that wanted me uneducated, voiceless, and dead. A world where you are your generation’s John Henry. Except this time, you aren’t dying from overusing a tool, you’re dying from being that overused tool. Except this time, the white man isn’t peer pressuring you into making yourself out to be an overused tool. It is the man that you see in the mirror, that is making you overuse yourself. Day after day after day, sitting there, on display, inside of a glass case watching success surround you but never being able to break through the class to touch it. Most sculptures are crafted out of marble, but you are different. You are as black as charcoal and crafted out of obsidian. So sit there, in a now cold room and bathe in all of your Black beauty, breathe in and remember, When america catches a cold, the Black man breathes his last brea-.