When it comes to the journey of finding ones identity and voice, that each of us are on, it’s important to take time and reflect on how far we’ve come, and what got us here. While looking back on my own young journey, the one thing that sticks out to me is the amount of time it has taken for me to be comfortable in my own skin. Growing up, I was a part of a pretty typical American middle class family. I have always had both of my parents in my life, to some extent, even through their separation and subsequent divorce. I was raised in the South Loop of Chicago. As a kid I existed in my own personal bubble. Consequently I was oblivious to many of the painful realities of this world that people of color navigate because, frankly, I didn’t recognize them, even when they were right in my face. I was unmindful of the fact that when I walked around in my quiet Chinatown neighborhood, old ladies would cross the street when I came into sight. I was completely oblivious to the fact that when I walked into 7-11 with my buddiesthe clerk only paid SPECIAL attention to me until we left.
My ignorance to my reality was just as prevalent for me at school, especially when I transferred to a public school in Lakeview, an affluent, predominantly white, neighborhood. Now don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a situation where I was one of two black kids in my grade, or anything that bad. However, nearly all my friends were wealthy white kids. Most of my time outside of school was spent hanging out with my wealthy white friends in wealthy white Lakeview and Wrigleyville; this only expanded my protective bubble, leading me to believe that I was just like my friends. I was convinced that I wasn’t subject to being viewed in a different light. I was sure that in the eyes of my teachers, my friends and their families, even people on the street, I was equal. Being just another kid in Lakeview was my perceived reality. I was conditioned to the point that once I was hit with the cold hard truth, that no, I wasn’t “just one of the kids”, I suppressed the hurt I felt concerned only with not upseting the people around me or making THEM feel uncomfortable. I distinctly remember a specific instance on the playground at school. It was a sunny day and we were out for recess on the turf field. Two of my friends were teasing me about the books I was reading, books about and by black people. My friends challenged me to name “10 smart black people”. It felt like I had been slapped in the face, so I angrily responded back, listing first Kareem Abdul Jabbar because his book, “On the Shoulders of Giants”, was one of the booksI was reading. My “friends” exploded in laughter, shooting down my idea because he was just a “basketball player”. I was absolutely mortified, but I kept quiet. I didnot want to make a scene. Yet the feeling, the rebuke, stuck with me. This was not the first, and unfortunately not the last, of thiskind of demoralization. Some of my friends made a habit of referring to me as “slave”, only to follow with laughs assuring me it was, “just a joke”. Shamefully, I laughed along with them, careful not to upset my friends. Although, looking back, I realize what I was really doing was trying to keep from reminding them that I was Black in order to maintain their friendship. I was determined to fit in. The thing is, no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t. No matter how much of my pride I swallowed and discarded, it was never enough to make me equal. I was just a novelty, stuck between two worlds. The bubble I had been living in made me believe that I was too white to be “the black kid”. But when the bubble burst I was faced with the reality that I would forever be too black for thesewhite kids.
Once I got to high school, I began to really find myself, my Black-self. Going to Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, seeing so many proud, brilliant and creative young black girls and boys drew me out of the confines of my burst bubble in the best way possible. Taking part in, and leading, Socratic seminars on race and social justice in my Honors US History class and hearing expressive ethno centric poetry and music on the bridge as I walked between classes, exposed me to the real world around me. My teachers and my classmates educated me through discussions and Socratic seminars all contributing to expanding my personal growth. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time after class discussing issues of social justice with my teacher Ms. Washington. Our discussionshelped me to evolve and enhance my own views.
Along with being physically surrounded by people eager to open my eyes I also had social media. Twitter informed me of what was happening where I could not see, like the first news reports of Trayvon Martins’murder in Florida, and the first hand documenting of the protests in Ferguson from activists on the ground. I was able to follow educators and journalists that broadened my sphere, such as Deray McKesson, Malcolm Lamont Hill, Van Jones, Michael Eric Dyson, and Tim Wise. I saw examples of how to express myself and respond to those in my life attempting to disenfranchise my black experience and me. Social Media helped to show me that it was okay to speak out and be proud. Even though I hadn’t yet found my own personal“voice” on social media, I was watching, listening and learning.
My Social Media education was making me more attuned to the World. I could see the benefits of my expanded surroundings at Whitney. Now don’t get it twisted, Whitneywasn’t a woke young black student’s paradise. Two white classmates told a teammate of mine and me, “we don’t want your kind at our party”. Then they chased the insult with, “But don’t worry bro, it’s just a joke!”. Then one night at my friend’s hanging out with her older sister and boyfriend I was faced with a “hands up don’t shoot” joke mere weeks after Michael Brown was gunned down by an Officer in Ferguson. None of this was paradise. The thing is, this wasn’t all white people. At my Elementary school, I was “Too black for the white kids.” Now in High School it seemed I was also “too white for the black kids”. I had my blackness challenged every single day. Whether it was remarks about the way I dressed or my curly hair, it was never ending. I was beginning to find myself, but at the same time I continuously had to fight for the right to have my identity as the people who looked the most like me tried to rob me of it. “Well Sky you’re not REALLY black!” The fact that my girlfriend happened to be a white student at schoolonly served to fuel the firestorm. My affection for her and her family brought the harassment to the next level. “Skyler and his white family”, “Where is your white princess Skyler?” See, part of my awakening was my positive experience seeing so many proud brilliant black men and women everyday, but an even larger part was my fight to establish and maintain my identity against the relentless questioning and challenging within my own race. I was lonely and hurt, but I was determined. I wouldn’t lose my new found,evolving identity and voice. No one would bully me back into a bubble. I would not be silent.
Fast forwarding to my senior year, I wasn’t prepared for the leap my consciousness was about to take. After my cancer diagnosis, and successful fight against it, my mother, sisters and I moved to the suburbs. I enrolled in Riverside Brookfield High School and joined their basketball team. The suburbs were a new world, and man was I FORCED to utilize my voicethere. The thing is though, while I was on the court scoring baskets, not ruffling feathers, everything was “all good”. During the basketball season everyone was myfriend and my “Homie”. Once the season ended, however, and there were no more baskets to be cheered for, things changed, or rather stayed much the same. A “friendly” joke about how a white classmate’s people have been free a lot longer than my teammates and I. Someone claiming my friend only counted as 3/5ths of a player during a softball game. Even a parent posted on Facebook about all the “naggers” and Section 8 kids playing on the school basketball team. I realized that the very same people waiting to shake my hand after a game were the people supporting Donald Trump and calling Black Lives Matter activists “thugs”. The people around me were the same, but I had changed. I was no longer embarrassed. I was no longer willing to just go along. I was no longer silent. I spoke up and communicated to my teammates in a meeting how disenfranchising it was to have them shun me and discount my blackness. I started to become more vocal on Twitter and Facebook, voicing my opinions and reactions to the things I was encountering, experiencing and watching unfold. Free from bubbles I was Black, proud and vocal.
It’s been a long journey, and I still have much road ahead of me, but I’m proud of my evolution now. Some days it’s harder than others to block out the Twitter trolls,people telling me that my feelings and opinions are worthless and unsubstantiated. But at the end of the day, I won’t be deterred. I will keep learning andI will keep speaking out. These days I’m trying to use my voice to make a change. I won’t let myself be thirty-forty years down the line looking back wishing I had done something to alter my reality and the reality of the people in and around my community. A part of that concerted effort is my writing. It has given me a new way to share my voice, broadcasting, increasing my reach.Another part of my effort is my group, Project Conscious. In the group, I’ve surrounded myself with four people whosupport, challenge, and inspire me to be better and do more. They’ve found their voices too, and together we’re meshing our collective intent to try and make a difference. In August I’ll be taking a new road on my journey. I’ve accepted a scholarship to play Prep basketball at The Gould Academy in Maine. There I intend to continue to evolve my voice and learn even more about myself and the world around me. No more bubbles for me.
My journey to this moment was a painfuland long process, but worth it because I’m here now. I’ve found my voice, and I’m not afraid to use it.
I will never be silent again.