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As a Black man in America, I've found it hard to be my authentic self

You have to act differently, separating yourself from the majority of your peers if you want to "level up"

As a Black man in America, I've found it hard to be my authentic self
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Photo by Prince Akachi on Unsplash

As a Black man in America trying to advance socially and economically in society, one thing is very apparent — you're not allowed to be yourself. You have to act differently, separating yourself from the majority of your peers if you want to "level up". After all, "peasants" or "broke boys" don't deserve to be in the company of kings and queens. That language is common amongst everyday Black Americans and other BIPOC.


I mean, who could blame them? Life growing up without constant food on the table, electricity in the house, and hate-filled gazes in your direction might spur you to be novaturient and change your surroundings. This is a part of the overall manifest your destiny status quo this country was built on. The great American dream in which many ancestors came in chains or were welcomed to a hail storm of incredulous slanders.

Let's not focus on that, as that was quite long ago. Your uncle has a bad leg from a bite by a 130-pound german shepherd at a protest. But let's be honest, he's eaten Popeyes and 7-11 every weekend for 50 years (it's half a mile away), and he hasn't done any research on Dr. Sebi. We're focusing on making it out and improving your circumstances. You can't be concerned about minor things like that; it's all about tunnel vision. You can't falter for one day, minute, or second. I'm telling you this because I learned the hard way.

You have to allow your mindset to be aware at all times so that you can not only acquire but maintain your momentum of being considered one of the "good ones," which is typically correlated to how "popping," "lit," or "dripped" you are. Showing your designer sweats, mountains of cash, and flight tickets during a global pandemic have become the benchmark for status in a generation where what you see on your hands' palms rules your every thought and move. I never found much solace in that life. I wondered why people had such an intrinsic need to be carbon copies of each other (amongst other very traumatic happenings gone unaddressed in an American BIPOC household). As a result, I dove into a career within mental health and education.

This led me to New York City, the cultural merry-go-round of the USA. What better way to learn about people than to go to where they're not only populous but also multicultural? This led me to join a mental health organization. We'll call it the magic school bus, an ode to Ms.Frizzle and the gang for confidentiality reasons. The school bus's whole mission was to lend a non-biased and un-discriminatory ear in historically underfunded, over-policed, and criminally ignored areas of the city.

Very easy and straightforward, you might even say. Excellent experience in my quest to be popping, I mean a psychologist. What? Can you blame me? The mental health of the hood doesn't pay for Greenwich Village rent prices. Hell, the hood's mental health can barely pay for the hood itself, depending on what borough you're in. After being told how perfect I was for the role, and I quote, "Robert, you look like our target population, you should be more comfortable than anyone." I immediately jumped right on board.

Another thing you must understand about me is that I come from a poor background. This is why I love New York City; it makes being poor manageable (kind of). At least for those with the manifesting positive outcomes spirit. For me, if I were at the same place when I graduated high school, agonizingly going through the everyday monotonous cycle of "the grind," there's no telling whom I would've voted for in the 2016 election. Yes, terrifying stuff indeed. I suppose I would've chosen the lesser of two evils. Could've lived in a box next to rats and roaches for $800 and utilities, or think twice about actually going to the girl's house that you have been seeing because her father has a reputation for fatally stabbing three Black men during a race war and getting away with it (roaches for $800 Alex ). The school bus gave me the means to help further distance myself from everything I knew, at a rate of nearly four times the minimum wage from where I grew up. So yes, it seemed like my first real break was upon me. What I didn't foresee was the debacle of how numb I was going to let my mental health get in exchange for my financial security and stability.

The first reg flag happened to be my first day of work. I was sitting in a basement, patiently waiting for a meeting to start. I was there early, trying to be a leader and set a good example. The conference scheduled to begin at 9:30 am didn't commence until about 10:15 am. It's only a team about mental health. Being understanding and compassionate about others is the game's name, and I didn't think anything of it. Then we got to the actual meeting. As it turns out, this was more reprimanding than an introductory session. As the team's newest member, I was introduced as an excellent example for everyone else to follow (I didn't even know these people yet). I had come from doing exemplary work from a sister program and being stationed in the neighborhood. The chain of command went as follows: Candy was the top dog or the head honcho of the program, then there's subsequently Sammy, Chip, and Wanda.

Chip and Wanda were going on about how everyone should follow my example for meetings. I was there on time because I was 15 minutes early (Wanda arrived at 9:05 am, and Chip, on the other hand, didn't come until 9:45 am, followed by a breakfast cigarette one-two punch combo). I, for one, believe in a team effort and positive reinforcement. I'm not the type to stroke my ego or chew your head off for being late. Things happen. The next red flag occurred when Esmerelda, the woman I was supposed to be trained by and partnered within the neighborhood, arrived. Relda was described as one of the shining beacons on the bus, similar to me. We were around the same age, and both knew many people within the department. I had seen her around, and she always carried bold electricity that exudes optimism.

However, when she entered the room, there was a notable atmospheric shift. You could hear a mouse's heartbeat. I wasn't expecting that at all. She seemed popular with the team and within the agency just weeks before joining the team (I was in a meeting that she was a part of and everyone loved her). How had the dynamic shifted so quickly, I wondered? The meeting then turned into a morale-boosting tongue, lashing on how the team's morale wasn't where it should be. After the meeting adjourned, Chip directed me upstairs to the office to meet with Relda so she could show me the ropes.

"You're too good for the school bus, trust me. You seem like you want to help people." Yikes. That was the first thing Relda said to me once we were out of ear distance from anyone important. "The magic school bus was magical once until we got a new program director. Now, it's all about hitting a daily quota. It's not about the actual help anymore, but more so about the number of people you record saying you helped." I was shocked, to say the least, but didn't think anything of it. After all, the program I just came from had undergone a whole investigation because of the numbers game.

I understand that numbers make the world go round, but can you put a price on mental hygiene? Relda and I shared sentiments, similar hearts, and minds. I was optimistic that maybe I could help her turn back into the star everyone knew she was. Well, none of that optimism panned out, and she got fired when she walked back upstairs into the office while I was on lunch break. Wanda seemed very sad.

"She just couldn't get her numbers up," she said, shaking her head. A new person from the neighborhood was brought in to replace her, and I started my school bus journey. According to Chip, the person was younger than me, and I had to protect her at all costs. Well all right, even though they've lived here their entire life and know everyone, they require protection—no big deal. I wasn't thinking about Relda or anything else besides being the best bus rider I could be, here to listen to you unbiased. If you know anything about Ms.Frizzle and the gang, you see the magic school bus usually doesn't like to fly straight. Where is the magic in that?

Two months later, one project building lobby deathmatch, and one mass shooting later, I felt I was getting accustomed to the school bus quite well. This is the reality of some BIPOC in America. Unfortunately, being close to danger is as normal as walking to the school bus stop in the morning. It's something that you're supposed to learn to deal with or be accustomed to, right? And if you falter or show signs of weakness, you're deemed "sweet," "soft," or "food" for the belly of the beast. As a Black man in America, you are regularly fed this image that you are physically and emotionally superior to anything thrown at you.

You are strong enough to rise above any kind of challenge. As childhood friends die and go to jail and traumatic events steadily compile onto your psyche, you have two options: address the circumstances and seek help through a mental health professional of some kind, or you can grow a pair and man up. On the school bus, we had both. Candy and the gang were urging us to spur on in the face of danger."

You signed up for this" was a favored quote of theirs while simultaneously being told at mental health check-ins by certified therapists that we should consider taking time off due to the job's high stressful nature. But yeah, you see how my bank account is set up, I can't afford to care about myself. And the school bus only pays you if you ride. If you get shot at the bus stop waiting to board, well, my friend, you better throw yourself on that crosswalk and pretend that the bus hit you because that is the only way your ambulance ride to get your $80,000 surgery will be under $500. Say it with me folks, "liabilities."

I mean come on, you can't have workers that were just on ABC and in The NY Times say that their bosses don't care about them, right? That wouldn't boost our numbers at all. It's not like there have been actual times you were scared while you were working, right? Ms. Frizzle would never do something extreme, like sending the bus riders to quell gang unrest. I'm not talking about the gang unrest you see in NBA games. I'm talking about the kind of turmoil that would make LeBron think twice about walking down that street. Yet there I was, Crips on one side, police on the other.

A member had been murdered and linked to a motivational rapper from Los Angeles who had lost his life just months prior. Guns and liquor were being passed around on the Crips side while bulletproof vests were being passed around on the police officers' side. There I was in the middle, hands full of paper mental health resources ready to hand them out. I triumphantly walked into the fray, head up and chest high, prepared to talk to anyone about how they might be feeling. I turned around to make sure the team was in tow only to realize they had completely abandoned me.

I was the only bus rider in the area besides Palmer, an older gentleman who lives about 30 minutes east of our neighborhood. Was I supposed to be scared? Why didn't I feel uncomfortable in an environment like this? All these questions were racing through my head. I mark this as the day when I truly started to think that my thoughts and feelings about things didn't matter.


grayscale photography of man Photo by Julian Myles on Unsplash


I felt that I should be in optimal health to do my job and perform at full capacity. Let's be real. If the person doing the mental cleaning is sick themselves, whether it be psychological or physical, resting and resetting are proven to decrease burnout in the workplace, school, and any extraneous mental activity. Your brain gets tired, synonymous with muscles working out. You only got paid on the school bus if you ride—no sick days or mental health days for the mental health workers.

They would be flexible, but there was pressure above to deliver numbers. So once again, it's all about keeping that momentum by any means, no matter the circumstance. Whether it be a blizzard, domestic abuse, viral infection, or your grandmother has dementia and can't be alone, none of it mattered. The beast known as bureaucracy is unforgiving, especially during the "manifest your destiny" phase us millennials are in.

Me being as transparent as possible with the bus drivers stated that even though I was the beacon, I might need those mental health days to you know, try to make sure life doesn't entirely fall apart and you have time to process things you're seeing; get some therapy, maybe. That whole thing. Yeah? No? Are my numbers down? Oh right, let me talk to this man about his housing issue.

I'm homeless right now, too, so let's knock two birds with one stone and check-in at the shelter together. Chip told me that it was my most reasonable option. But wait, I have to log my numbers in (give me a second). Despite us being reduced to five riders from the original ten since I got there, things were going well, I suppose. Saving money sleeping from couch to couch, but spending every cent of dignity you had is a smart investment in the long run, right? I had seen a lot in these five months. I was ready to test the unfathomable mental bravado of the African American male. What could go wrong?

One frosty November morning, I traveled to Brooklyn, from Harlem, New York, for the school bus. When it comes to New York City, you know that native New Yorkers from Brooklyn and Harlem have never left their respective boroughs. Going an hour and a half on the subway is troubling to some. So despite there being other bus riders closer to the event I was scheduled to work, I jumped on the three train and never looked back.

Now, it usually takes an hour and a half to get there, as I said previously. This particular trip took three hours, however. Unfortunately, this train ride was delayed because a man jumped in the tracks and took his own life. I was the last person he talked to before he jumped onto the tracks. I won't go into details, but let's just say I felt like I utterly failed at my profession. And the worst outcome became a reality right before my eyes.

Most would turn around, go home, call in sick, say they overslept, or do something? I couldn't break the momentum, so I waited for another hour until we finally moved after the tracks were clear. We had to wait another 30 minutes at the next station until a train came to continue the route. Being the oh so optimistic bus rider, I decided to talk to some community members waiting around to pass the time. A few death stares later, and someone started conversing with me. After making small talk, he asked me for some money to eat.

After politely denying (because hey, let's be real, this five dollars is milk, cereal, and ramen for a week), the man becomes belligerent, jumps up to my chest (I'm close to 6-foot-four in Nikes) and starts screaming," You know it's all about the money and paper! How dare you." He makes feints and runs at me repeatedly. I don't move a muscle, wondering if he was about to draw a knife or weapon. I thought to myself, "now would be a good time for Ashton Kutcher to come running at me with a camera."

Ashton never shows, the man runs away, and the train comes. I sit on the train. Everything is normal (yeah, normal). At this point, the only thing I wanted was to make it to one of the most dangerous areas in America in one piece. I was proud of my mental fortitude! Momentum, let's go!

I ended up arriving at the event, and my fellow bus riders were in disbelief that I showed up (she lives 15 minutes from the place), and they called her because they doubted if I was ever going to make it on time.

I check in with the officials at the site and detail them my train ride. Have you ever become suspicious of yourself? You know, start questioning yourself? Asking yourself if you're okay? Did you eat today? Why did you just take two extra shots at the bar? What's going on here? Well, it was at that moment I started questioning if I was all right. The officials both looked at each other, then looked back at me and said, "you shouldn't be here," with resolution.

"Did you just say that you saw someone commit suicide?" "Yeah, but well, you see the thing is, excuse me, you're a bus rider, right? We need your help over here." So, I was whisked away to face the problem. The "problem" was a teenage kid who had stumbled upon our hot chocolate and dessert bar. Me, being ever so positive and optimistic, can't see what the problem is. "Yeah, he's not supposed to be here, and he won't leave. He won't talk to us, and he won't leave the food area. We figured since you were closer to his age and you look like him, maybe you could help." Long story short, the kid turned out to be on some form of narcotics and needed emergency medical attention. He was eating not to pass out. The reason nobody else knew is that nobody else got close enough even to ask him. He was seen as a threat or problem, not a member of the community.

He ended up passing out in my arms twice. As a school bus rider, I was trained to administer overdose medicine and carried some with me at all times, so thankfully, I was prepared. He was in no condition to go home independently, so I offered to ride in an Uber with him to make sure he was fully coherent and okay. Before I could get in, officials told me that it wasn't protocoled to do that, and he must go alone. So, much to the kids' cries (literal tears) and protest, he had to go alone. For some reason, that one hit home for me. Maybe it's because I want to work with kids his age. Perhaps it's because I felt like I was sending him to his doom. Either way, this was the day I stopped knowing how to feel. Was I developing? Or desensitizing? I had stumbled upon an interesting conundrum. I could only imagine someone without a base understanding of mental health would be thinking.

The following week, word had gotten back to the bus drivers of my event filled Saturday. It was decided that I would have a meeting and possibly some personal counseling implemented. But first, Chip's going away party followed by Candy's! After the festivities, my meeting would happen. A couple of rescheduled meetings, numbers boosting morale meetings, and meetings where half the school bus was sick while the other half tried to avoid getting sick, my meeting never happened. The school bus rider morale was low, along with rumors that the bus would no longer be funded. It was a very precarious atmosphere. As long as my momentum kept going, I would be fine, however.

Then I got very sick. I was used to upper respiratory infections because I had them as a kid. This was different, though, as I could barely move, talk, or walk. My numbers were looking terrible in a crucial period, and it all came to a boiling point one afternoon. My Achilles tendon is my transparency. I've been learning that politics and bureaucracy don't allow one to be that. You have to play politics or games, one would say. One day, the bus drivers were conducting interviews for new bus riders, and it was stressed how important it was for current bus riders to be there in the interview process.

So it was just me out in the community protecting the bus rider that I was in charge of until the bus rider decided to disappear and charge their phone. Me, being ever so loyal and optimistic, listened to the bus rider and stayed directly where I was at, waiting for their return. After an hour of waiting for the bus rider, I decided to go to our office and put my phone on the charger to receive their call. It turns out, the bus riders and the drivers had conducted two whole meetings without me. I accidentally walked in on the tail end of the third one that day. There was a look of genuine shock on everyone's faces, except, of course, the interviewee; they were just happy to be there. After the meeting concluded, the head bus driver thanked my partner and me from the bottom of their heart for being so integral to the interview.

All the blood rushed to my head, and in swift fight or flight fashion, I exited the room. I thought to myself; I just had a panic attack. But instead of panicking, exploding, and fighting for my life, I flew. All six feet three and a half inches worth of Black man yelling at a five-foot two-inch tall white woman. I had known better than to say anything in the heat of the moment. I knew that was the end of my bus ride right there— I had never blatantly disrespected a superior like that. I knew it didn't take a lot for your momentum to be knocked off, especially as a BIPOC man in America. If I'm seen in any kind of negative light, I'm forever boxed into that. I'm forever belligerent, forever lazy, perpetually hot-tempered, forever a thug, forever a criminal. It's like I'm being sentenced. One misstep and you're sentenced to life. So, I flew for my life, flew for my dreams, flew for my momentum, and I flew right out of a job.

I reflect and sometimes feel that I wasn't supported properly. At times, I thought that I was an overall bad fit for the role despite the reassurance. There's this weird way of viewing us Black men in America; it's almost as if we can only be seen in one light. We cannot evolve or have varying interests as a demographic.

Well, at least to other demographics. I started to think maybe it's because we don't ever change. We're fed the same momentum chasing manifest your destiny crap over and over from the age of five until we pass away. No room for anything else, so do the majority of us change? Or do we just acquire things, trophies, mementos of momentum? I try not to think about it. I mean, it doesn't matter how I feel about these things. They distract you, take away from your momentum. And your momentum is all you have as a Black man in America. Whether you're Dave Chappelle, LeBron James, or a college student at a PWI, one small misstep and you're sentenced, and it doesn't matter how you feel. It's about momentum. So remember, don't stop because that's what they want you to do, right?

*****

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. For services local to you, the national mental health database- Hub of Hope - allows you to enter your postcode to search for organisations and charities who offer mental health advice and support in your area. If you are based in the US, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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