As a boy growing up, when did you first realize that your experience was going to be different than your peers?
I had friends of multiple ethnicities while I was growing up and although we all looked relatively different from one another, I just assumed that we would all be treated fairly and that our skin colors wouldn’t have any impact at all on our experiences in life. As a young boy in elementary and middle school, I truly believed in the fact we lived in a post-racial society and even though we always learned about the evils of discrimination and slavery in which this country’s past is plagued with, I always figured that all of those monstrosities only existed in the past. So with that said, early on in my life I don’t think I was ever acutely aware of the fact that my life experiences would be different from my peers just because I was a Black boy.
However, I did notice early on that my African heritage along with my blatantly unique name made me quite different from those around me. In addition, as I matured in middle school, and later high school, I began to realize just how much my upbringing contrasted from the experiences that my peers had as children. It wasn’t until my high school years that I began to realize that I could be stereotyped and treated differently based on the simple fact that I was a Black boy in America. Around that time, I also found myself naturally gravitating towards groups predominantly composed of Black people and befriending them whereas in the past I had more of a mix of Black, Asian and White friends. As I continued to mature, it became very clear that we were not in a post-racial society, which became all the more evident after the election of President Barack Obama, the endless reports of police brutality towards minorities, and a number of other events that indicated that very truth. If I didn’t understand in high school just how different my life would be from some of my peers, I definitely became fully aware during my time in college.
In regards to the follow-up question, I don’t think that there really is anything I wish I had known back then about what it’s like to be a Black man in America today. I was in blissful naivety as a young boy and I believe that if I had known the constant struggle that it took to succeed in today’s society, I wouldn’t have had as happy of a childhood as I did. But with that said, I think that it would have been great to understand just how strong, resilient and beautiful we as Black people are and that there is always a welcoming community made up of all types of people that is there to support people like me. I also think that it would have been great to know that being a Black man is not one-dimensional, no matter how much that tends to be portrayed in the media. There are multiple dimensions to a Black man, and he is filled with many emotions that he shouldn’t feel that he has to suppress at all times.
Can you think of an example from your childhood when you remember thinking: Is this how I’m supposed to act? The messaging I am receiving conflicts with me internally?
Absolutely. I specifically remember being a freshman in high school and feeling as if I was supposed to be acting like prominent rappers and actors in the media “to be cool”. I didn’t feel that I would be happy and socially accepted moving forward if I continued to remain the same nerdy kid that I had been for the majority of my life. Although I was advised by my parents not to mimic the things that I saw on TV, I felt the overwhelming need to wear baggy clothes, sag my pants, pretend that I was any good at basketball and talk a certain way in order to fit in to crowds that I felt that I belonged to. It wasn’t comfortable trying to be something that I had never been before, but I repeatedly forced myself to do certain things and act in a hyper masculine way in order to fit in and “be Black”. I would watch hip-hop/rap music videos every day to imitate the mannerisms of the artists in those videos because at the time, that was what I believed being a cool and successful Black man in America looked like. I was very concerned with what other people thought of me early on in my high school years, and I made it a point to try and act how I thought people expected me to act. It wasn’t pretty, and it pains me sometimes to think about how strange my mentality was back then.
This was an attitude that I carried up until around the start of my senior year of high school, where I finally ditched the whole act of “acting Black” and decided that I would be much happier overall by just being myself. Being unafraid to express who I really am at all times was definitely one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made, and it has opened doors for me that would have otherwise remained shut if I had continued to act in a fraudulent way. But at the same time, I would be lying if I said that the media didn’t have any effect on me to this day. Although I now have a much stronger sense of who I am, I do know that my life and the way I think about things continues to be impacted in various ways by what I’m bombarded with by the media on an everyday basis. It just goes to show how powerful the media is on people, especially on the minds of young people.
We hear a lot about how black men are profiled from an early age and parents really worrying about their children as they go out into the world. Was there a particular conversation or message your parents or significant adult gave that stuck with you?
I don’t really remember having any specific conversations early on in my childhood that stuck with me concerning this topic, but I do remember being repeatedly warned by my parents and uncles about being vigilant about the groups of people I decide to hang out with and the people I decide to get romantically involved with. I was always reminded to stay aware of my surroundings and to remember that life isn’t fair, especially for someone who looks like me. Even as a young adult, with all the racial profiling being done by members of law enforcement on an everyday basis, my mother still worries about me and my two brothers and prays that we never get implicated in the justice system in any way, shape or form.
Do you feel like there were some challenges unique to you that added a complex experience to your childhood that we as a society don’t normally speak on?
As a first-generation American born to Cameroonian immigrants, I definitely do feel that my childhood experience was quite complex and that it presented some unique challenges that I had to learn how to navigate through.
My household was very much different from the households of many of my childhood friends, for my parents made a concentrated effort to keep the Cameroonian culture alive in our home. This was evident in the exotic food that my mother used to cook, the distinctive sculptures that my father hung around the house, the African music that my mother would blare on Saturday mornings to indicate that it was time to wake up and clean the house, the intricate clothing that my parents would wear to go out to the Cameroonian meetings in the local community, and the disciplinary yet nurturing manner that my siblings and I were raised
Because this reality clashed so strongly with the reality I experienced outside of my home, there were times where I felt as if I were living two completely separate lives. It only got worse in high school, where I felt as if I were going through some sort of identity crisis while trying to marry my African and American lifestyles together. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was finally able to synthesize my two lifestyles into one comfortable identity. Attending college also helped me realize that there were so many other people like me who were also first-generation Americans and have had the similar experiences that I’ve lived through. I am now in a place where I can fully appreciate the traditions and the culture that my family worked so hard to uphold throughout my life.
What advice would you give your younger self on how to navigate the journey from a boy to a man?
If I could give some advice to my younger self, I would tell him that although things don’t ever seem to be going his way socially, staying committed to his academic goals will pay off in huge dividends sooner than he thinks and that college will allow him to grow in ways that he could never even imagine. I would also tell him to trust the process that he is going through, pray to God every day, read more books pertaining to self-help and life skills, work on adopting the mindset of a producer as opposed to a consumer, stop worrying so much about what people are thinking of you, and understand that the only limits in his life are the ones that he sets himself. And please, please, pleeeease stay true to yourself!