The concept of fear never sat well with me. In fact, I think I've always had a rather odd understanding of what it means to be fearful. I am a black, gay man born and raised in North Carolina (way below the Mason-Dixon line). I was raised to value great hospitality, good sweet tea, and of course, my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! I was brought up on all of the important things, I guess. The problem is that with all of that "southern upbringing," I was never really taught to process emotions properly. (A skill that would have been invaluable growing up in the south.) I didn't become familiar with the term emotional intelligence until my later years of college. My parents taught me discipline, and my father always told my brother and me to "fear no man except for [him]!" But what I didn't really understand until my post-grad "find your purpose" phase was that emotions are healthy and a natural part of this human experience. And fear is an emotion I struggled to understand for a considerable part of my life.
As a boy, you are conditioned at a young age to be courageous. Boys are instructed on valor while girls are taught to be pretty or whatever it is that girls are taught. My brother and I were never allowed to stick around long enough to find out. I knew I had to be courageous, though, long before I even knew what courage was. Black boys and black men are not allowed to have fears, yet most of us live in a constant state of fear. We fear rejection. We fear inclusion. We fear we are not enough. We fear that we are too much. Too menacing. Too different. Too ugly. Too pretty. Too emotional. Too poor. Too rich. Too feminine. Too abrasive. Too distant. Too vulnerable. The list goes on and on. And we don't share these fears amongst ourselves. We simply bury them deep inside, believing that courage is the absence of fear. We think maybe if we don't admit to feeling fear, it doesn't exist. Well, guess what?!?! It does! Ignored fear is still fear.
As Black boys, we are taught the art of suppression. We master our disguises early on— we entertain. We see what the public wants, and we give it to them even if that means sacrificing our truth in the process. My first real lesson in courage was in first grade. This sounds so cliche, but I do remember it like it was yesterday.
I loved the first grade! First grade was like kindergarten on crack! We had scented markers, longer recess, and cuter boys ( to be honest). Each afternoon my teacher, Mrs. Schneider, would select a book to read to our class. This particular week we were reading a chapter from my favorite book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Every day, thirty minutes before the final bell rang, Mrs. Schneider would instruct a group of students to grab their belongings from the cubby area and find a seat in front of her rocking chair for storytime. She released my quadrant, and we all raced over to our cubbies to collect our things. I was rather excited because we would be reading from my favorite chapter (You know, the one where the mean teacher turns all of the students into apples)! I must have been very frantic that afternoon because I accidentally bumped into our class bully, CJ.
Now that little boy, he was different! CJ was one of the most hateful little creatures you ever did see! He was the shortest kid in the class but would have the teachers boohoo-ing. I mean, he was the type that spent every recess in trouble and every lunch period in detention. Discipline, time out, field trip restrictions, the principal's office, none of that s*** phased him! He would cuss you out first and ask questions later. And for some reason, he really had it out for me. He would threaten me regularly and called me every name in the book. I mean f****t, sissy, you name it, and he probably called me it. By that point, "f****t" didn't phase me much because I had been called a f****t since kindergarten.
[Disclaimer: Do not judge these people. They were hurt individuals who, like myself, were not taught emotional intelligence.]
However, there were certain things that I really hated people talking about, and that was my family. And that day, CJ was pissed! So when I bumped into him, he lost it! He called me this, that, and the third! But worst of all, he had the nerve to talk about my mamma. And you don't pull the mamma card! That is the ultimate disrespect. He called my mother fat and a whole bunch of other vulgar names, knowing good and well I'm a mamma's boy. The emotions that overtook me were something else. It took every bit of strength in me to wait until I got off the bus to start crying. I was going to keep it to myself and not say anything, but of course, my nosey siblings caught me sobbing. They knew something was up.
They forced me to spill the beans, which meant telling my parents. CJ had picked on me numerous times and even brought my mother into it before, but this particular incident really got to me. I never said anything prior because I knew how hurt my mother would be— she struggled with weight loss and self-esteem issues and had been bullied in school because of it. So you can understand why I was especially reluctant to break the news to my folks.
Nevertheless, my siblings forced me to share the day's events. And as I predicted, my mother was hurt to hear that this kid was bullying her baby boy. On the other hand, my father was confused as to why I hadn't beaten him up. Nerdy as he may be, my pops has always been a little rough around the edges. This is the same man that would take us on shopping sprees at Nordstrom's and two hours later be cussing up a storm with a chicken wing in hand at the barbershop. My pops was raised in the projects of Fayetteville, North Carolina (NC). He was the fourth born in a line of five boys. My father and his brothers had an inconsistent father figure and a mother who relied heavily upon government funding. Meaning they had little money for books, clothes, toys, and even food. This lack of necessities resulted in a lot of bullying for my father and his brothers. Not to mention they were the protectors of their household. So, for five young black men in the ghetto, when a kid "talks s*** about yo mamma," you don't run home crying; you beat they a**!"
And that is just what my father did. He was constantly fighting growing up. He was one of the only students who managed to be in the honors society and detention simultaneously. My father was and always will be a brilliant man. Unfortunately, he was never taught to turn the other cheek. He was never taught emotional intelligence. He was raised in an environment where survival skills were currency. Where protecting and defending was vital. So when I dared to walk in the door whining about some boy bullying me, he wasn't having it! He instructed me to return to school the next day, look CJ dead in the face, and confront him like a man. He even gave me a few lines to recite that I would rather not share with you guys, TMI (Too Much Information).
He told me that I was to punch CJ in the face, and if I didn't come home and report to him that I had given CJ a black eye, I would be meeting with "Blacky" or "Browney." (Blacky and Browney were his belts, my dad had a collection and each belt had a name.) So the next day, I went back to school and attempted to muster up the courage to confront CJ. The hours ticked by as I contemplated each deadly scenario in my mind. I knew I couldn't go home without fighting this boy, but I couldn't bring myself to lift my fist to his face. I was never much of a fighter. I was a sweet kid. And I knew it! My family even nicknamed me Muffin Man because I was so sweet, and my last name is Baker. CJ was one of two other Black boys in my class. Not to mention, I knew he was bussed into our district. He reminded me a lot of my father. He wasn't a bad kid, just an angry one.
However, theory and sympathy were not going to go over well with my pops. So I had to make a decision. That day I went home without laying a finger on CJ, and when my father asked me if I punched him in the face, I said, "no, sir." He scolded me but didn't whoop me (Thank the lord!). After threatening to beat me, he instructed me, yet again, saying that I was to return to school the next day and punch CJ in the face, or else I really would be greeted with "Blacky." The next day I returned to school, and yet again, I failed to confront my bully. When I returned home, I was met once again with idle threats. This continued for a couple of days until finally, I knew my father wasn't playing with me anymore. I had to deliver the goods.
So I did what any sensible child would – I lied. I told my father I punched him dead in the mouth at recess, and my father was through the roof. He was overjoyed that his son could defend himself. I was delighted to make my father so proud of me, even if it was a lie. That next day, when I returned home from school, my father called me into the living room. As I stood in the middle of the floor, palms dripping with sweat, he handed me two shopping bags and told me to pick which pair of sneakers I wanted. In congratulations for standing up for myself, my dad purchased two pairs of new balances for me to choose from.
As much as it hurt me to lie to my father, I knew I had to for his sake. To satisfy his fears and alleviate my own, I would have to live with this lie. And I was okay with that. I thought I was so afraid of fighting CJ, but I was afraid of becoming someone I'm not. I'm a lover, not a fighter. Always have and will be! As cliché as that may sound, that is my nature. That is everyone's nature, I believe. What right do we have to tell our children what emotions best serve them? What right do we have to tell our young men what courage looks like? What valor is? We don't know ourselves! Honestly, the most confident man you know is still trying to figure this life thing out.
In the first grade, I knew then that my life would not look like the men that I know such as the men that I saw on TV or like the guys that I grew up around. I knew my life would look different than my brother's, my father's, and even my uncles. Not that there's anything wrong with their lives. That day I learned that fear does not make the man nor does courage. But an emotionally sound man can listen to fear and still be brave enough to map out their path. Courage looks different for everyone.
Fear feels different in each experience, but if we are daring enough to be true to ourselves and honor who our journey has called us to be, we can live in symbiosis with our fear and courage. We must also understand that our real power lies within us, not within an emotion. Resting upon the fact that we have nothing to prove, hide, protect, or defend. We have nothing to prove to our fathers or our brothers. Not to our peers, our colleagues,or even the world. We need only to be consistent with what we know to be true in our spirit. True courage is not the absence of fear but rather the belief that something is more important than fear. All you have to decide is what is important to you. In fact, what maketh a man?
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 email@example.com, 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.