15 Sep This hit me in the feels…
Growing up pretty doggone poor, I was always told that an education was the way out of the ‘hood and poverty. So, I became all about my book learning. If the teacher ran out of gold stars to put next to our name, I didn’t want a red star. To this day, I think of myself as a “gold star kid”. Everything that I do, I want to be the best at it. I go extra hard about it. This drive had me killing it at school. Didn’t miss a day until 7th or 8th grade (to get my immunization shots) and my senior year (skip day). I was always on the honor roll, had perfect attendance, was on the AAA safety team (had a gold badge!), excelled in sports…I was that dude!
But, here’s the rub: the more I excelled at school, the more that I was shunned by people that looked like me. “Why you trying to act White?” or “Geeter is an Oreo!” was commonplace. And this happened from about 3rd grade until I graduated high school. I would push back, “How is speaking well a White thing?” Never got a response. I started out in classes where there were about 10 Black males…then 5…and eventually would be the only Black male in college prep course in high school. I graduated 16th in my class. But always felt some kind of way about it. Because I knew crazy smart Black makes in middle to upper middle class homes that were failing and getting into trouble just to have a rep; to not show just how smart they were. All to avoid being called an Oreo…
I end up going to Cornell University in 1987. LOTS of White people there. I played football and in the locker room one day, a White kid asks me what my Pops did for a living.
“He works for GM.”
“Oh. Is he an executive?,” the kid asked.
“No. He works on the line.”
“Oh,” was the kid’s response. His presumption was my Pops was a higher up for me to be able to attend such a prestigious university. And, since there are no athletic scholarships at Ivy League schools, I was there through affirmative action or some hand out. I had academic scholarships and grants. Didn’t matter. I didn’t belong there. I was only there for a year so maybe he was right.
So, there I was. Black folks I lived around THINKING that I wasn’t Black enough and White folks KNOWING I wasn’t White enough. I have honestly never felt I belonged or fit in much of anywhere. And it’s also why I don’t care for following the crowd. Because that crowd will pat you on the back one day and shove a knife in it the next. The crowd I am for are empathetic, kind, and loving. I don’t care about race: my best friends growing up was a White guy of no discernible ethnicity from a middle class two parent home, an Irish kid that had a full beard at 12 from a single parent home, and a Puerto Rican kid whose family was as poor as ours from a two-parent home. My best friend now is half Lebanese-half Italian. I’ve developed the skill to move within any group, rich or poor, Black or White, religious or not, and not have to be concerned about planting my feet there for too long. Until maybe 5 years ago, I used to suppress the fact that I was in the Cranbrook HUB program (it literally changed the trajectory of my life) or that I went to Cornell (didn’t want to pull the Ivy League card). Now, I don’t care. At all. I don’t worry about whether I’m being impressive to anyone, just that I leave a good impression on them, and it’s a powerful position to be in.
I say all of that to say this: we need to normalize teaching our young Black children that their intelligence is not a detriment. Being an athlete and all is good and fine. However, being intelligent is awesome, too! It shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. It’s dope to be an engineer, doctor, scientist, CEO, athlete, entertainer, etc. It’s all there for us. And, they shouldn’t feel ashamed of being smart. That’s just weird that anyone would make someone feel that way. And, if you’re around people that do shame folks for being smart, keep using your bean. Eventually, you’ll find your place and not have to deal with those people any longer.