There are many things I am asked to do and to be a part of simply because of my age and race. I am a black man in my thirties who lives in a medium-sized city in Central Illinois. Simply existing in a state of normalcy while being black places many opportunities before me. I am asked on a regular basis to speak with inner city youth groups as they see me as a positive role model. Five years ago I was asked to lead a Christian apologetics ministry at Bradley University even though, prior to this, I didn’t fully know what apologetics was. For three years I have been speaking at prisons about five times a year. I have been helping teach job training classes through a local nonprofit organization. Recently, I have been asked to be on a board of directors of another nonprofit organization. I didn’t pursue any of these things, but was asked to do each one of them. Why? Because I am a black man in my thirties who lives what people consider an upright life. Yet I don’t see anything about my life that should be considered extraordinary by any means. I am just an average citizen living what I would describe as a basic life. I have a friend who is a master mechanic while being black and also in his thirties. When people learned about him, car dealerships fought a bidding war to have him working for them. Why? Because he is a black man in his thirties in a position where there are very few other black people.
Why am I or my friend so rare? Many will point to a system of systemic racism and white supremacy that has kept my fellow black brothers and sisters down. I cannot speak for other people, but I can speak for myself. I do consider my background extremely different from the norm for black males in the United States. First and foremost,I was raised in a two-parent household, but also I was raised by a mother who was of a different generation than my peers’ mothers. My mother was 40 years old when she had me and her father was in his 50’s when she was born. My grandfather was born in 1892 and was a very hard working man (that is an understatement, all he did was work). All of my grandparents were born in Southern states. My mother is very disciplined and expected us to be disciplined and work with a spirit of excellence. We were expected to respect adults, never give up or quit, and operate with a higher standard than those around us. We lived in a predominantly white community and went to predominantly white schools while attending a predominantly black church and participating in all-black cultural events. We were taught that since we were black we had to be twice as good as our white peers in everything to get ahead in life. Our whole family would break into the high-school track on a nightly basis to run and practice. We would attend numerous basketball and football camps growing up and were expected to always be in the top 10 of our class in academics. If we didn’t know how to do something or if we fell behind in school, our mother would stay up all night if she had to to ensure we would go to school the next day as experts.
My family had me so proud of who I was I literally thought I was better than everyone else in my class. If someone said something about my big lips I would stick my lips out more and call them jealous. In my family, we would fight over who had the darkest skin, biggest behind, and largest lips. All of my white friends respected my parents because they were expected to behave at a higher standard when around my mother, in particular, and they did. Did I experience racism? Most definitely! Many times I was the only black kid in the class. I have more stories about discrimination and racism than any other black person I know in my age group. I am sure there are many who have more stories than I do, but I don’t know them. There were a few other black kids who went to school with me over the years, and through them I learned that there was something different about me than even them. Other black kids that went to predominately white schools and experienced both subtle and blatant discrimination like me tend to be on the front lines of the racial divide, angry, holding signs and fists up high.
When I was younger, how my parents taught me to see myself lifted me above the pack. If I was wronged or cheated out of something, I would think that I would have the last laugh and just worked harder. I don’t know where I would be today if I’d begun to believe all that was said of me or dwell on all that was done to me. I couldn’t imagine going through life worried about what other people were thinking of me. The very thought of it now makes a little anxiety churn in my stomach.
The Old is Gone
However, thanks be to God, I am different now. In the past six years, God has greatly humbled me from the pride that used to fuel me. For a time, I went through quite a few humbling experiences and periods of poverty that brought me down out of the clouds. Through this humbling time, my community and identity have grown stronger than ever before. God has fathered me and showed me I can trust Him as He provides for all of my needs. I now realize that I am a son of the most high God and I long to uphold his standards to show my love and appreciation. I have so much joy in my heart and confidence in who I am in Christ that if anyone treats me differently than the person I know I am I simply feel sorry for them. From the vantage point of pride, I would have never thought to feel sorry for the person who treated me as less than. I would only seek revenge and be fueled by the thought of me one day looking down on them, whether from the height of my accomplishments or by beating them in a contest. Pride as a motivator will always turn into resentment in the end because it elevates a person, at least in his mind, to the level of a god. When life doesn’t play out as one dreams and hope leaves, anger and resentment are at the door constantly comparing and coveting. I look out at my fellow black people and understand what they experience on a daily basis and my heart aches for them. I see the feeling of hopelessness and I often weep. I ask God how can I help them see themselves how He sees them? One morning in prayer, He told me to speak truth to them, speak life to them, and to keep telling them who they are. You see, as black people we are constantly told we are oppressed and victims. We see the look in the eyes of potential employers and know we aren’t getting the job before we sit down; we grow up seeing white images as the standard, and our culture celebrates the very things that perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
So, why am I different? I am different because my identity is not found in this world, though I weep for it. Do I love justice? I would argue that I love justice more than all the people destroying statues and blocking roads combined. I am different because I strive to live according to the 2nd chapter of Philippians which specifically states:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 2:3-5
Or 1 Thessalonians 5:15 which states:
“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
Yes, I do know who I am, and no, I do not like it when I am treated as less than who God says I am. But like Christ, I choose to focus on the good that will come to me and to the people I reflect Christ to when I live in humility and return good for evil. I believe hearts changing, not vengeance, is the key to progress. I believe love is the perfect bond of unity and strive to allow peace to rule in my heart. I trust in the blood of Jesus and will share the word of my testimony, always willing to die for righteousness sake.
In Part 2 I will touch on prejudices, stereotypes, and the effects of how one views themselves.