By Jordan K. Thomas

Jordan K. Thomas is a black prose writer whose work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kweli Journal, The Toast, and elsewhere. He was a runner-up for The Pinch’s 2018 Literary Awards in Creative Nonfiction, was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant in 2017 and was a finalist in Indiana Review’s 2015 Nonfiction Prize. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Minnesota.

I have been black for thirty years, but I have only loved my black mind for seven of those years and my black body for lesser still. For too long, I hated my black flesh. I hated my black nose, my black lips, my black ass, my black hair, my ashy black elbows, my boring black-boy brown eyes. At least, I thought I did.

I’ve spent the past three years writing about black bodies that were made into corpses by white anger or white indifference or white institutions or the self-hatred that whiteness created and creates—with calculated insidiousness and ruthless efficiency—in black heads and black hearts like my own. I thought that I was filled with this self-hatred. I thought I had been poisoned, too. I thought I had been ensnared in their well-oiled, centuries-old machine and, for the most part, I was.

There was some small part of me, though, that did not break in the face of whiteness. I couldn’t see it when I was a boy and I couldn’t make sense of it when I was a teenager making my way through high school and college. As an adult, it would take many years and a great deal of pain to unearth that part of myself, that small piece of black joy, black pride, black self-love, because the models of blackness I knew were riddled with self-hatred, at worst, and were insufficient or ill-fitting at best.

My father was one of the acceptable models—well-educated, dressed in polos and button ups and khakis and dad jeans, who never dropped his g’s, who believed hard work and financial success would grant him their approval, and was always—always—angry. There was no predicting what would make him mad, what would push him to chase me or my brother into the bathroom to beat us hard enough with his belt to leave welts on our skin and scuffs on the walls where he missed us.

My mother was another: the outgoing black socialite with trained poise and grace coupled with fine clothes and flashy jewelry, able to code-switch without any effort whatsoever. She was the Oprah-type, which white folks found amusing, inviting, and harmless.

My brother, he got deep into hip-hop culture and got his ass beat by my father on the regular—because there was nothing respectable about my brother’s interests—and since my dad was so hot on academics, my brother responded by not giving a shit. His grades plummeted and he got into all sorts of trouble at school. He held the record for the most suspensions and detentions at both our middle school and our high school, and the white powers that be were all too eager to write him off as a thug, to put him in that category they’d constructed.

The models of blackness I saw and had been shown, they did not suit me. I was not reflected in the black landscape as I understood it, except as a joke. I saw myself in Steve Urkel and Carlton Banks, in hyper-intelligent black boys whose hyper-intelligence undercut their blackness. I had been skipped up two grades, started reading at eighteen months old, wore thick glasses that took up half my face (at least), talked with a nasally voice, walked without any sort of swagger whatsoever, and wore my pants too high. I was a black nerd, in other words, before black nerds were acceptable, if not cool.

That’s how it was in West Des Moines, Iowa, anyway, where there weren’t many black folks to begin with. If I’d grown up somewhere else, somewhere where black folks weren’t a rarity, maybe I would’ve found some other black nerds to kick it with. We would’ve rushed to someone’s house after school to watch Dragon Ball Z and rooted for Piccolo, the only black character on the show. We would’ve played Dungeons & Dragons and made note of the fact that no black humans had appeared in the Player’s Handbooks until 2008, thirty-five years after the game’s inception. And we would talk about how many times we’d been called ‘oreo’ that day, or maybe we wouldn’t because we wouldn’t need to with each other, because we all understood.

But I didn’t know any black folks like me, black boys who’d rather spend all day inside playing Final Fantasy VII than biking, rollerblading, hanging out at the mall, whatever. There were plenty of white boys like me in every way, though, except the one that was most important. I hung out with them, talked like them, dressed like them, walked like them, and when people started telling me they didn’t even see me as black or that I was the whitest black person I knew, I took it as a compliment. I thought that meant I’d made it. This is what I remember most—a sense of victory in minimizing my blackness and I’d built the narrative about myself around that memory.

Here’s the thing:

Every Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop gaming character I’ve ever played, since I started back in 1999, has been black. And not just a little black, but real black, black in the way I wished I could be: effortlessly cool, fine as hell, unwilling to bend or compromise to white folks, and hellbent on battling injustice and anti-blackness above all else.

And even though Final Fantasy VII’s Barret Wallace was a walking stereotype, he never left my party. I think Final Fantasy VIII’s Kiros Seagill is still one of the smoothest, coolest characters in any RPG. And Final Fantasy XIII’s Sazh, who seemed poised to be a stereotypical black buffoon, was my favorite character in the game.

And in the animé Cowboy Bebop, a bit character named Udai Taxim is the character that I remember most, all these years later. In the show Firefly—which is damn near a live-action Cowboy Bebop—the episode that hooked me on the show was the one featuring Jubal Early, a skilled and merciless black bounty hunter who makes short work of the crew until he’s stopped by the most powerful character on the ship.

What I hated, then, wasn’t blackness but how white folks wanted black folks to be. Put another way, I wanted to be free to be whatever I could imagine but that was a luxury black folks didn’t get to have in real life. I know that’s one of those obvious truths of being black in a world built on white supremacy and the fact that it took me thirty years to figure it out is shameful, embarrassing. My dad didn’t talk about race, except to disparage lower-class black folks. My mom didn’t talk about race either and neither did any of her relatives. My brother, more tapped into popular, current concepts of black culture, talked some and maybe I would’ve learned from him but he’d already written me off as an oreo, a Carlton, an Urkel.

It’s just that I wanted that freedom bad enough to try to be like them, no matter the cost to my own sense of self. I changed the way I walked, de-emphasizing my (phenomenal) big black ass. I spoke like them in ‘proper’ English, with ‘good’ grammar, and let my ability to code-switch atrophy. I looked down on poor black folks, the way my father taught me, and I looked down on all other black folks, the way white people taught me. I hated myself and my people in public in hopes that, if I could convince them I hated my blackness and the blackness of the world, they might let me have a taste of that freedom they so freely enjoyed.

In private, though? In private, things were different. In the safety of my mind, the villains were white and the heroes were black. We wielded magics the likes of which had never been seen before. We commanded giant mechs. We turned Super Saiyan. We lived in cities that floated on the clouds and we knew nothing but peace and joy. We lived in magnificent metropolises filled with flying cars, pneumatic tubes, hoverboards. We commanded armies armed with laser rifles. We fought off demons and dragons, aliens and AI, and we never died.

We never died in the street, murdered by police. We never died in our cars, murdered by police. We never died, murdered in parks, on the sidewalk, in a Wal-Mart. We never died, murdered with a sword in our hands. We never died, murdered on the word of a white woman’s lie. We never died in a jail cell in Texas, we never died in the back of a cop car, we never died from a stray bullet, we never died, we never died, we never died, and we were free.

I used to think that the kind of freedom white folks have—the kind that lets them be captains of spaceships, intergalactic heroes, dragonslaying champions, and presidents unburdened by any sense of decorum and bereft of any kind of intellect—was a fantasy that could only exist in my dreams.

It’s strange, though. In the past decade of my life, as black folks’ve been getting murdered in the street by the folks that claim to protect us, as this country and this world try to compress us with bars and bullets and ballots, by any means necessary, I’ve felt more free than I ever did before.

In the past decade, I’ve found James Baldwin and Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin. I’ve seen John Boyega in Star Wars, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, and Mahershala Ali in Luke Cage, in Moonlight. I’ve read Issa Rae fess up to her all-too-familiar insecurities about not feeling black enough. I’ve watched Donald Glover become a creative juggernaut, never losing the nerd he is at his core, looking happy as fuck (and dope as fuck, too) as Lando Calrissian in the new Han Solo movie, living out his dream. And there’s Sikivu Hutchinson, one of the few black atheists out there, standing up and stepping out for all us black folks who think that God shit’s some bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t the freedom I’ve dreamed of, that sense of unlimited opportunity. I still feel that anger when white folks on the bus would rather stand than sit next to me. I still read too many stories of black folks dying too early. I still feel the bile rising in my throat and the pounding in my chest because a police car’s behind me and I don’t know if I’m about to die or not. Even when it changes lanes and drives past me, I don’t know if they’re about to turn around to do their duty and put an end to my black life.

No, this isn’t the freedom I’ve dreamed of, but at least now I know that that dream isn’t just mine and mine alone. Now I know there’s folks like me—black nerds, black atheists, black folks who’ve gotta take five different medications for their whole life to keep from killing themselves—and we’re all dreaming this same dream together, knowing the day’s coming where, as Avon Barksdale once said, we ain’t gotta dream no more.

“Statues in the Park” by Annie Fletcher

Annie Fletcher received her BFA in drawing from the University of Tennessee. She is an award-winning illustrator and currently works as a freelance artist in Memphis and Knoxville. Some of her accolades include Outstanding Graduate in Studio Art, Drawing, and the Mary Lynn Glustoff Scholarship for watercolor.