Essay On Growing Up Black

Editor's note: Brian Crooks moved to Naperville when he was in the 5th grade; his parents still reside here. On Saturday, he wrote a Facebook post about his experiences being an African-American living in America that has since gone viral and has elicited hundreds of comments from people around the world. Because of its length, we're publishing excerpts here. To read the entire post, go here.

The first time I was acutely aware of my Blackness, I was probably 6 or 7 years old. Like, before then obviously I knew I was Black, but I hadn't really had it put in my face like this until I was about 6 or 7. I used to go to daycare back then, and we went on a field trip to a water park one time. One of the other boys from the daycare came up to me and told me he was surprised I was going on the trip because his dad told him all colored people were afraid of the water since we sink to the bottom. He didn't know he was being offensive. He was just curious why someone who would sink to the bottom would want to go to a water park.

•••

In elementary school, I was in the gifted program. I've never been any good at math or science, but I was a really creative kid who loved history and telling stories. In third grade, the gifted program focused on the middle ages. I was in heaven. I loved learning about knights and castles and all that stuff. We had a group project to do sometime that year, where we had to give a short speech about something we'd learned during the year. All of the groups broke off to divvy up the work when my teacher came over to my group. Wouldn't it be "easier" and more fun for me if my group did our presentation as a rap? I'm eight years old. I have no history writing any kind of music, much less a full 3 or 4 minutes of rap verses for me and my teammates. But, I tried. The other kids just expected it to be natural for me. They looked at me like, "What do you mean you don't know how to rap?" We ended up just doing it as a regular presentation like everybody else, and afterward my teacher came up to me and said, "I thought you guys were going to rap? I was looking forward to MC Brian." Again, she didn't know that she was making a racially-insensitive statement. Why would she? It's not like she'd had deep conversation about how Black people feel about their Blackness, or the way Black people internalized the way White people feel about our Blackness.

•••

From elementary school through middle school, I can't remember how many times the White kids asked if they could touch my hair. I'm not kidding when I say it happened pretty much once a week at least. At first, it didn't bother me. But eventually I felt like an exhibit in a petting zoo. And I didn't have the vocabulary to explain to them that it was really weird that they kept asking to touch my hair all the time. See, I was a pretty shy kid. I was the only Black one, I was overweight, and I'd moved three times before I turned 10. So, rather than tell the White kids that no, they couldn't rummage through my hair, I just said yes and sat there quietly while they marveled at how my hair felt.

•••

My least favorite time of the year, every year, was February. Black History Month. Being the only Black kid in the class, I was the designated reader for the entire month. When it came time to read from our history books about slavery and the Triangle Trade Route, I was always the one who was chosen to read. When it came time to read about Jim Crow, it was my turn. George Washington Carver and the peanut? That sounds like a job for Brian. Booker T. Washington? Harriet Tubman? Surely Brian is the perfect choice for those passages. All the while, I felt the eyes of my fellow students on me. Again, I was already a shy kid. So, having an entire classroom of White kids stare at me while I explained what lynching and Black Codes were was pretty mortifying.

•••

In 8th grade, I went to a friend's house to jump on his trampoline. I didn't know the kid all that well, but we had some mutual friends and at that age, if a kid has a trampoline, you're going to jump on that trampoline. He had a couple of neighbors who were probably 6 or 7 year old girls. We're jumping on the trampoline and the girls come out of their house and come over into his yard. Within about 5 minutes, they were laughing while saying "Get off our property, Black boy." They were little, and they were laughing, so I don't think they knew how ugly they were being. After all, they'd probably never had a Black kid in their one or two elementary school classes. But they'd clearly heard that phrase somewhere else before. I wasn't even on their property; I was next door. But it's fair to assume that at some point, someone in their house had said "Get off my property, Black boy."

•••

In high school, I was around more Black kids. Still not a lot, but more than zero, so that was nice. When I was fifteen, I got my first "real" girlfriend. I'd asked some girls out before, and some of them said yes, but when you're 13 or 14 years old, what does "going out" even mean? So, my first "real" girlfriend was White. After all, I was living in an overwhelmingly White community and it's not like I was a heartthrob, so I was in no position to tell a girl who liked me that I was only interested in dating a Black girl. I might've never had a girlfriend if that was the line I drew. We were a good couple. We got along well and had similar interests and stuff. Basically, what you'd like to have as a high school sophomore. Her parents were divorced, but her mom and stepdad liked me. Then, her biological father found out I was Black. A week later, she called me crying and said we had to break up. Her dad didn't support her dating a Black person. So, my first heartbreak came as a direct result of racism.

•••

When I was going through driver's ed, my behind the wheel instructor was a football coach at one of the other Naperville high schools. He asked what kind of car I wanted one time, and I told him I was gonna get my dad's Dodge Intrepid, but that I really liked my brother's Mazda. He looked at me like I was nuts and said he figured I'd want an Impala so I could put some hydraulics on it and "hit dem switchezzzzz." When we got back to my house at the end of my last behind the wheel session, he shook my hand and said it was a pleasure teaching me how to drive. Then, he said, "You're a Black kid, but you're pretty cool, you know? Like, you're not like one of THOSE Black people, you know?"

•••

In high school, I played football. There was a kid on the football team who I'd been friends with since middle school. Not, like, best friends or anything, but we ran in similar circles and we were certainly friendly with each other. When we were 16 or 17, he started referring to me as "The Whitest Black guy." It really pissed me off. He knew it pissed me off. I guess because I used proper grammar, wore clothes that fit, and listened to metal in addition to hip hop, it made me "White." Turns out, to be "authentically Black" means being a caricature of what a Black person should be, according to this suburban White kid.

•••

I got pulled over a lot in high school. Like, a lot a lot. By this point, I was no longer driving the Dodge. I had a Mazda of my own. It was flashy and loud, but this was 2002 and everybody with a Japanese car was doing a Vin Diesel impression, so it's not like mine stood out that much more than anyone else's. I spent a ton of money on my car and was especially aware of its appearance. You can understand, then, why it was weird that I was routinely pulled over for a busted taillight. After all, that's the kind of thing I would've noticed and gotten fixed, especially if that taillight tended to burn out once a week or so. My parents had told me how to act when pulled over by the police, so of course I was all "Yes sir, no sir" every time it happened. That didn't stop them from asking me to step out of the car so they could pat me down or search for drugs, though. I didn't have a drop of alcohol until I was 21, but by that point I was an expert at breathalyzers and field sobriety tests. On occasion, the officer was polite. But usually, they walked up with their hand on their gun and talked to me like I'd been found guilty of a grisly homicide earlier in the day. A handful of times, they'd tell me to turn off the car, drop the keys out the window, and keep my hands outside the vehicle before even approaching.

•••

I went to the University of Iowa, which is a very White campus in a very White state. It's funny, because most of the people I met there who came from small-town Iowa were really excited to finally meet a Black person. And it wasn't like they wanted me to be a mascot; they genuinely wanted a Black friend so they could learn about Black people and stuff. It was nice. On the other hand, if I was in a bar and talking to a girl they didn't think I should be talking to, or in their drunken state they bumped into sober me, you'd be surprised to see how quickly some of these guys will call a complete stranger a nigger.

•••

Once, when I came home from college, I was pulled over less than a block from my parents' house. It was late, probably about midnight or so, but I hadn't been drinking and it was winter so I wasn't speeding because it had snowed that day. The officer stepped out of his car with his gun drawn. He told me to drop the keys out the window, then exit the car with my hands up and step back toward him. I knew he was wrong, but I wasn't about to be shot to death down the street from my parents' house because my failure to immediately comply was interpreted as me plotting to murder that officer. So yeah, I stepped out and backed up toward the officer. He hand cuffed me and refused to tell me why I had been pulled over, or why I had been asked to exit my vehicle. Only when I was sitting in the back of the police car did he tell me that there had been reports of gang activity in the area and that a car fitting my car's description with a driver fitting my description had recently been involved in said gang activity. Gang activity. In south Naperville. Committed by a Black male driving a bright blue Mazda MX-6 with a gaudy blue and white interior. Yeah, alright. He was very short in asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood so late at night. I explained that my parents lived at that house with the glass backboard over there. He didn't believe me. He took me back out of the car and put me face down on the hood of the police car to frisk me. I'd already been searched once before he put me in the car. Then, he spent about 15 minutes searching my car while I stood hand cuffed in the cold. My ID had my parents' address on it, but he still didn't think I lived there. I could tell he wanted to accuse me of having a fake ID. About a half hour after being pulled over, when he found nothing on me, nothing in my car, and nothing on my record, he reluctantly let me go. He didn't even say sorry, or explain that it was his mistake; he must've been looking for another Black man in a bright blue Mazda MX-6 who was a gang leader in south Naperville. He sat in the street until I drove to my parents' house, opened the garage door, drove inside, and then closed the garage door.

•••

One summer when I was back from college, I had an argument with a good friend of mine. When I say "good friend," I mean that this is a guy I knew since middle school. Our dads used to work together. I can't count how many times I had spent the night at his parents' house. But we had an argument. The kind of argument most friends have at one point or another. This time, he decided to get really, really racial about it. He started off by telling me I should be ashamed of my complexion (he later claimed that he meant I had bad skin; only I'd only had like two pimples in my entire life). Then, he said I belong in the ghetto, not Naperville. In the end, he looked me dead in the face and called me a nigger. Again, this was one of my closest friends. Since then, I've completely cut him out of my life. But, it fits with the experiences that I've had too many times; people can be totally cool for years and years but suddenly decide that they need to be super racist because they want to hurt you. They'll say they're sorry, they'll explain how you misinterpreted what they said, but the fact is, they reach for racism because they think it'll emotionally and psychologically destroy you, and that's what they want to do at that moment.

•••

I could go on and on and on about this. I could tell you about the guy who wanted to buy his guitar from someone who "actually knew what a guitar was" when I worked at guitar center. At that point, I had a Gibson Les Paul at my house and an Ibanez acoustic, plus a Warwick fretless bass. I could tell you about the coworker who thought it was funny to adopt a stereotypical Black accent to apologize that we weren't going to have fried chicken and cornbread at our company Christmas party. I could tell you about the time I gave my floor mate a haircut freshman year and he "thanked" me by saying he'd let a negro cut his hair any day of the week. I could tell you about leaving a bar heartbroken and fighting tears when the Trayvon Martin verdict came out only to see a couple middle-aged White guys high-fiving and saying he "got what he deserved" right outside. These are only a handful of the experiences I've had in my 31 years.

•••

I've never had a Black boss. I played football from middle school through senior year of high school and only had one Black coach in that whole time. Not just head coaches, I'm talking about assistants and position coaches. I've had two Black teachers in my entire life. One was for my Harlem Renaissance class, and one was for my sign language class. I've never been to a Black doctor, or a Black dentist. I've never been pulled over by a Black police officer. What I'm trying to explain is that, in 31 years, I've seen three Black people in a position of authority. Think about what that does to the psyche of a growing young man. I remember being excited just a few years ago when we started to see Black people in commercials without there being gospel or hip hop music in the background (remember that McDonald's commercial where the little kid was pop-locking with the chicken McNuggets?).

•••

When we say "Black Lives Matter," understand what that actually means. We aren't saying that ONLY Black lives matter. We're saying "Black lives matter TOO." For the entirety of the history of this country, Black lives have not mattered. At a minimum, they haven't mattered nearly as much as White lives. If a Black person kills another Black person, and we have it on tape, the killer goes to jail. If a White police officer kills a Black person and we have it on tape, the entire judicial system steps up to make sure that officer doesn't go to jail.

That is why Black people are in such pain right now. The deaths are bad enough. But having the feeling that nobody will ever actually be held accountable for the deaths is so much worse. And then watching as the police union, the media, and conservative politicians team up to imagine scenarios where the officer did nothing wrong, and then tell those of us who are in pain that our pain is wrong, unjustified, and all in our heads just serves to twist the knife.

If you read all this, I really, really want to say thank you. I know it was a lot to get through. But this is real. This is me. This is what my life is and has been. And I'm not alone.

Copyright © 2018, Naperville Sun

I grew up in a mostly white community. Everywhere I was, I’d be the only black person or black girl. However, I’d never given much thought about it because it had never dawned on me what it meant to be black and how much black rendered fear, savagery, and unattractiveness in American society.

I would sometimes recognize the contrast of my arm’s deep caramel color to that of my white classmates. I noticed my brown skin compared to their milky white exterior, but it was the least of my worries because being black was not an issue for me. I would proceed throughout my day, perfectly fine being colored in a brown coat of paint that wouldn’t come off. When I had play dates with my white friends, they wouldn’t draw attention to our color differences either. At only seven years old, all I cared about was watching the latest Arthur episode when I got home from school and trying to be first in line for lunch.

My family was one of the three black families on my street. Being one of three black families was not that big a deal to me partly because my parents did not make an effort to distinguish themselves among my white neighbors, so it made no sense for me to. My parents didn’t allow racial demographics in my hometown to dictate the way they viewed themselves as black Americans. Their actions contributed to why I did not make an effort to distinguish myself among my white peers. My childhood also consisted of playing with many toys, mostly white Barbie dolls. I don’t remember ever wanting to be white at a young age. I knew I could never change who or what I looked like, no matter if I was satisfied being Ashley, or not.

For the first time, I had gotten a set of braids. It wasn’t my real hair, so my second grade class would ask questions about how my hair grew significantly longer. I even caught two best friends pointing at me across the classroom and laughing. What was wrong with me? My parents thought I looked okay. I didn’t receive any negative comments from my teacher. After that, I didn’t think much of my hair in relation to white girls’ hair. I took pride in being me. I’d walk around with my straight, permed hair with curls and pigtails my ma did for me. Grade school wasn’t too bad, mainly because it was a time I actually remember being proud of whom I was.

Learning about black history month as an eight-year-old was intriguing to me, but it wasn’t significant enough for me to really think about what would happen if the accomplishments blacks made hadn’t been achieved. It wasn’t until the third grade when we studied our heritage and every white kid in my class knew what country their ancestors were from that I envied their knowledge. They knew exactly where their family originated from; all I knew about my family was that we were from the continent of Africa. We knew nothing about which country or which tribe or which slave master our ancestors were sold to. I began to feel deeply inadequate and different from my peers at this age, which wasn’t healthy for me at the time.

In my free time, I would spend time reading children magazines my parents subscribed for me. Too much of my time was devoted towards magazines that portrayed much of the white race. I remember my dad came in my room saying,

“Ashley, your mother and I purchase Jet and Ebony magazines so that you can see more people like us in magazines and appreciate who you are. Don’t forget to read these.”

Then he would leave me to the rest of my magazines. But I wouldn’t listen to them. I would let dust pile on top of the covers on my desk instead. I wanted to be so immersed with white culture. I’d flip through those magazine pages, gazing deeply into the girls’ eyes, wondering what’d it be like if I were white and had eyes where you could actually see the pupils, and not some dark brown hole sucking the joy out of everyone around me.

Fifth grade was the year most of my classmates grew more mature while in grade school. It was also the grade administrators thought it was academically appropriate to talk about slavery in our social studies class. The day we talked about slavery for the first time, I distinctly remember the sad, pitiful eyes an Asian classmate of mine gave me. That look made me feel bad for being black. I was ashamed my ancestors were slaves; why they were the ones cruelly belittled in society, stuffed in confined spaces on a human cargo ship for months on end. On the other hand, my white classmates were proud of their heritage. It made me think back to our heritage project two years before. Their ancestors “discovered” America and had the ability to choose the widely recognized American traditions we were so used to celebrating.

I wanted so desperately to be proud of my heritage I had yet to define, but because I was unable to from the lack of ancestral documentation, I continued to ignore the black-dominated media and magazines my parents paid for. This was my way of coping with my loss of identity. It was already known among blacks how difficult it is to trace back our family ancestry due to the vestiges of slavery, so I remember growing increasingly jealous of my white classmates who knew they were 50% Irish and 25% German.

A hardened pit in my stomach would form from my parents not knowing which African tribe our family originated from. I found nothing to be proud of in my black culture other than the occasional discussions of Dr. King and his contributions to Civil Rights America. It made sense I did not want to be me. I was a black speck on a white board; a black doll in a store full of white plastic Barbie’s, and a black person in a pool of white students in my school.

Because of that, white culture was all I knew. Most days, I’d find myself wanting my hair perfectly straightened and permed so that my physical features could align and appeal to the white race. At the time, I thought it was for my own benefit. I wanted to look pretty enough for my parents, for my friends, and for myself. I’d wear outfits from designer stores, trying to wear the same clothes white people wore and be interested in the cheesy pop music and hot celebs that deserved none of my attention. I’d walk into stores and notice the way people looked at me; the sly smiles but stares that extended pat our encounter. I’d feel as if I was under some magnetic pull that wouldn’t let me go off the manager’s radar. Over and over, I’d feel this pressure that just kept building up as I tried to let go of others’ prejudices. I didn’t want to be viewed as the ghetto black girl who couldn’t be trusted in a high-end department store. Me trying to “be white” was only meant to morph myself into another person I could never be; to not be the unusual and exotic girl in the room everyone questioned because she looked so different and came from a dissimilar background. Yet again, I was a black dot in a room full of white people.

After being around whites for so long, I became so deeply attached and rooted in the Caucasian ideas that I lost sight of what made me unique as a black American in the first place. I didn’t know the good qualities of African Americans as a separate group in society. This continues to be my problem because I am unable to force myself to believe my original and distinct blackness is just as beautiful and worthy and admirable as society’s whiteness; that me choosing an Afrocentric lifestyle over western ideologies is an okay choice to make.

Unfortunately, middle school came around. That was when everyone changed because all of a sudden, it was in a girl’s best interest to start buying designer bags and dressing up in extremely expensive clothes with a face full of make-up. I was still in my tomboy stage. My insides would turn and my mind would go completely berserk trying to understand why the hell my good friends from grade school turned into underdeveloped Barbie dolls.  My body began filling out the summer before seventh grade.  My hips grew wider, my height extended, and I went from a size ten to a size twelve in men’s. My feet would not stop growing. My boobs were these enormous, inconvenient blobs that took up space, as my female classmates would stare at me while I unchanged in the locker room. Every other girl was playing catch up when it came to puberty, so I was mostly alone in the process.  I knew that blacks had the tendency to physically mature sooner than whites, so it was bound to happen—I just didn’t think so many girls would make such a big deal over it. Even though this seems so insignificant, it was yet another event that pointed out how unalike I was in my community. I would try to fit in, saving up for a Dooney & Bourke handbag and asking my parents to fork out seventy dollars on a pair of jeans from Abercrombie. But it was so pointless because I tried to envision myself as a white girl. I wanted what they had—the slim fitted bodies, the tiny waists, perfect hair with just the right amount of body, and the porcelain skin that seemed to make every boy’s eyes pop. I wasn’t getting attention from anyone, so I felt the need to change who I was so that I could end up with some relationship. I was looking in all the wrong places, forcing myself to like the cheesy teen magazines with Miley Cyrus on the cover and trying on excessive pairs of jeans to find the right fit over my shapely butt. My eyes would start to water as I grew frustrated that certain clothes wouldn’t fit me. Why can’t I be smaller? This blockage of air would form in my throat as I tried to hold my tears back. Spending minutes scrutinizing myself in the mirror and picking out everything that was wrong with my stomach and my thighs only made my self-image worsen.

I had turned fourteen. Freshman year, I was so excited because I knew I had a chance to start over after being that weird, awkward black girl from Crone. That was a joke. All girls cared about were pleasing guys, the latest fashions, and tanning. All the girls wanted to be darker! Why? It was so frustrating because for the longest time I had been wanting to not be black that to find out white people wanted to be darker, despite all the racial issues we’ve had in this country, I was pissed. I grew irritated. I would criticize the girls and ask what was so special about tanning. Yeah, I wasn’t pleased with my skin, but I wouldn’t go and bleach it. I don’t want to cause any physical harm and put any toxins in my body. I couldn’t make me love myself. I wasn’t able to understand why guys didn’t like me, and often, I blamed it on the fact that I was black. They probably don’t like me because I don’t look pretty enough or like some skinny white girl. I honestly believed that because all the “attractive” people at the time were mainly rich, wealthy white girls. No one said how much a black girl was hot. I would slouch in class and feel a heavy weight over me as I tried to stay sane.

The night of school dances was such a pain. My group of friends would go out of their way to look their absolute best, which I did too, but not the extent they did. With the exception of my Indian friend, I was the only black person there. The comparisons between my friends and me grew even more difficult as I wished my hair was easier to manage and my physical features were less obvious.  They’d take their time putting on eye shadow and blush and eye liner, and I’d be by the edge of the mirror, uncomfortably twiddling my thumbs and wishing for time to just fast forward so we could move on with our night already. No one did my make up because of the difference in skin tones, the make up would have looked like a clown’s mask on me. Again, I felt detached from my white friends, and I no longer wanted to be the “off” girl in the group who wasn’t white, who didn’t have long silky hair or a tiny waste and huge man feet. I felt like a disgusting plague that wouldn’t go away; this nasty blob that had no business being around pretty, still flowers, also known as my friends.

I wish I had not let my white counterparts persuade me into thinking I wasn’t good enough because it hasn’t done me any good. Here I am today, still discontent, still worried, and still caught up in how I’m perceived as a minority by other people, mostly whites. We are all constantly judged as a human race, but I feel as though I’m judged even more because of my darker complexion. I don’t know how to maneuver through my life feeling proud of who I am, while still feeling inadequate because I’m not a size seven at American Eagle or because the only black hair products is 1/8 of the shelved space at the nearest convenient store. I feel like a lifeless machine that keeps traveling in midair, trying to find its meaning and why it was created to begin with. My family has been of some help. But my parents are still disappointed in my way of thinking, and the media isn’t helping to make things any better. My thoughts have gradually grown more accepting of who I am, but I still find myself depressed because there’s no bit of hope inside me that could morph me into some gorgeous, attractive white girl with a size two waist and just the right amount of boobage that won’t come off as too provocative.

“I pray that you’ll stop thinking that way, Ash.” It’s the one quote from my parents that’s stuck with me.

Being black is never going to change. Gone are the days where I didn’t mind being a dark skinned black girl. I don’t want to be black because I can’t find anything special about it. It seems like everyone already has a preconceived notion of who I am, so why waste time trying to change their way of thinking? Me going to a Big Ten school still doesn’t mean squat to some people. I’m still that girl who probably got in because someone felt sorry for her because she’s black. 

Black.

All that word renders to me is pure and utter darkness. It makes my stomach squeeze together and my sides tense up as I try not to think about that word. But I can’t get it out; it’s always there. Every time I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of who I am. So when I think back to those glory days when I didn’t mind being different than my mostly white counterparts in my hometown, I long for then. At least I wasn’t as miserable as I am now. Well now, now’s just complete and utter crap. It’s all because I had to grow up; I was forced to see that race is such a problem and continues to be such an issue in this country. If I had not been intrigued by white culture, things might be different; I might actually be happy with who I am. But I had to go on and compare myself to the gorgeous models and white girls in class with white porcelain skin and lanky blonde and brunette hair.

It’s so easy to say be proud of who you are, but when you’re surrounded by a dominant culture and your physical traits defy that, there’s nothing left to do but cry. I find myself doing this a lot due to the color of my skin. I wonder if beauty has a color, or if it’s just the color behind these words.

image – ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser

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