I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.
I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.
That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.
My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.
All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.
I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.
I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight
Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?
Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?
When I was in Berkeley, I took a break from one of the information sessions for admitted students and went downstairs to the bookstore. I had realized that I hadn’t purchased any paraphernalia from any of the schools to which I had been admitted and I had always liked the Berkeley clothes that I’d seen at other students at Swarthmore. It was a typical shopping experience for me; I looked around, sort of scoffing at the expensiveness of most of the things I actually liked, before settling on the generic Berkeley sweatshirt that most people at Swat are prone to seeing me in, now. (I’m actually wearing it now.) Yet, I couldn’t find my size – M. There was either S, the size I eventually bought, and XL. As I looked at the XLs. I found this annoying, and asked the cashier if they had any Mediums in the back. She responded with a stern “No.” I then told her that it’s always so hard to find my size, although they had tons of XLs, a size I used to be able to fit long ago. And it was at that moment that I suppose she really looked at me, instead of giving a sort of rote response. And then she said “Wow, I could never imagine you in an XL.”
Many people at Swarthmore would not recognize the 11th grade Xavier if we were to randomly appear on campus one day, take a stroll across McGill, or sit in the BCC and wait to be seen. They would probably think he was one of my mythical siblings (everyone always assumes I’m an only child, and I’m not; I have three siblings.) I was far larger and far more aware of my body back then, and the pseudoconfidence I may exude now in this trimmer, slimmer form may fool you into believing that all aspects of that person, who existed for so much longer than the one who exists now, are gone or have been permanently changed. But that isn’t even remotely the case.
I joined an online gaming community on New Year’s Eve, 2007. I had wanted to be a part of a community after having a hard time transitioning to life in middle school. I was twelve years old, obese and very much alone. All of my friends had gone on to a different school in Maplewood, leaving me and a few of the stragglers who lived in the other town to go to South Orange Middle School. I remember one day the gym teacher saying that the school was once called the Pink Palace because of its state-of-the-art design and interior courtyard, but years of disrepair had transformed its coral-colored masonry into a Pink Prison. That description perhaps encapsulates my experiences there during sixth grade, that awkward threshold time between childhood and adolescence which one expects to last a year or two, but actually persists until you one day have the clarity to realize that growing up never ends, is a slow process, is everlasting.
I wanted to find friends who liked the same things that I did, which happened to be Pokémon, of all things. I don’t even remember liking Pokémon that much before joining the forum, but after spending years in that community, I learned just about everything there was to know about the rather expansive video game franchise. Yet, I was attracted to the friends I had made through our mutual interest in Pokémon the most. They were perhaps the closest people I had in middle school, and I told them everything, despite never having met them, despite knowing that they too left behind their computers to join their real-life friends every once in a while. I would find myself yearning to contact them, counting the minutes and the laps at football practice before I could come home and sit down at my computer and talk to them on AIM for hours on end about all sorts of things, telling them secrets which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others in person, in the real world, with whom I had relationships which were more tangible and more fleeting than with these well-known strangers, people with whom I could have a casual encounter at a shopping mall and never realize that they carry with them the most intimate fact of my private life.
This was my introduction to the internet world, a sense of community between like-minded people looking for friendship and comradery. I can remember my mother’s concern at my frequent usage of the computer, at my laughs directed towards or in response to no one in the room. “Who are you talking to?” she’d ask, and I’d say my friends, only for the confusion on her face to persist, if not thicken into a scowl. I used the internet to find people who were like me, or at least, felt like me, and this was before I was aware of the social media landscapes which now dominate every facet of life. These forums, oekakis and websites served as the foundations for my understanding of how communities function, or are supposed to function. They existed within their own separate realm, were governed by their own separate laws of reality, but still cultivated part of my young developing character and persist as archives of my presence on the internet to this day.
token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”
In my dream home, there is a two-car garage, a sizable backyard with a magnolia tree which is always in bloom, a million and one channels on the TV, all of which are educational, a room with nothing in it but forty thousand books organized neatly on mahogany shelves, a grey armchair and a Persian rug I do not like, and zero mirrors.
I’ve been growing my hair for almost a year and a half now. I started with a taper cut in August 2014 and have been growing it ever since. I realized in October of that year that I didn’t know what I was doing for my hair had become dry and difficult to manage. There is a sort of culture behind the maintenance of Black hair which I had sort of ignored for a multitude of reasons. I hadn’t grown my hair since I was 8 years old, and then it was not actually me taking care of it. Now that I was *pseudo* on my own, I was responsible for making sure I didn’t look crazy.
So I bought all the ingredients to be truly “natural.” I rejected store-brand products for the organic stuff – yellow Shea butter, castor and jojoba oils, and more essential oils that I’ll ever use. And I suppose I took some sort of pride in finding a way to be avant-garde – c’est-a-dire annoyingly different – while also being, in my own head, different. Few other men at Swarthmore had grown their hair, and those who did were doing something different with it. Similarly, the way my hair blended with my aesthetic created a deep enough rift with other Black men rocking similar haircuts. I took pictures on my computer – too terrible to share – and watched my hair get longer and longer.
I was graciously offered a free copy of De-Leveling the System, Cris Thorne’s documentary whose snippet served as the basis for my previous piece “The Elephant”. After watching the entire film, I’ve determined that there is something deeper to this question, other than an issue of merely race or class, which is the result of the dangerous and destructive mélange of the two in the American conscience in the form of something which seeks to posit itself as disinterested in both – intellect.
You are a youngish professional who has moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey because of a number of factors. The train station makes the commute into New York, where you inevitably work easier, for it seems, at least with eyes almost-open, that no one conducts their business in New Jersey. The neighborhood is quaint, a word which is often condescending, and you use it condescendingly at first, too, until you begin to love your new home and hate yourself for loving it. But most of all, the school district is progressive. You find it odd that it is so diverse, a word which means nothing in this situation, for diversity comes only with the realization that the school district is not all white or all black. As you tour the elementary school, you smile at the young black girls who play with the white boys in an image of racial progress which makes your liberal face break out into a capricious grin. America, the promised land, is finally ours.
It is a lie, of course. Those children are playing together at that age because the institutions which are always at work, always invisible, have not yet triggered them into realizing who they are. Black boys and white girls and Latino girls and Asian boys play with one another in post-racial bliss because they are not yet aware. Like so many young mammals, children manage to function without opening their eyes.
When I was in high school, a conversation gripped the entire school for a number of months. It concerned the issue of course leveling, which, more visibly, revealed itself to be an issue of race. Yet, as I delve further into my studies, I’m beginning to realize that very little in life has to do with solely race.
I have never experienced in the United States a place which is more simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous as the land in which I was raised. New Jersey, that armpit of a state – how so little is known about the Garden State, the narrow strip of land between rivers which once cradled the young and ignorant youth of the American film industry, which has sustained the lives of two great American cities with its sweat and its anguish. How it reeks of both inequality and the promise of advancement, the city skyline – which is different depending on where you live – an image of all our dreams, of all our fantasies and all our fears. It is here that I found myself clutching towards a consciousness which is still underdeveloped and raw, and it is here, among the trees and the broken pavements, where my soul will likely be bound.
Because I am from New Jersey, I feel qualified to judge her, and to do so ruthlessly. For only a person from the armpit can truly know of the inner machinations therein, of the insidiousness of class conflict and the brutal visibility of race.