My debut book, Props, is on-deck. Here's the prologue:
The kid’s aesthetic was consistent, I'll give him that. An oversized Rebel belt buckle matched his red, white, and blue Rebel cowboy hat, boots, and chaps. My wife, our two daughters, and I were wandering around the Topsfield Fair, Massachusetts’ annual country ho-down. My girls anticipate the fair every fall, and despite the fact that we now reside in a quiet corner of Lynn, Massachusetts, they're effectively city kids. A day of agriculture, animals, and rodeos gives them a rare taste of farm life. It's one of our favorite family events. I was waiting in line for some trans-fat indulgence and counting tickets to the dilapidated carnival rides when I spotted him.
I wondered if this Confederacy enthusiast was a local who was dressing the part, or a carnie from another state. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, was blonde, and seemed charming. The center of attention, he joked with his friends who were either amused by or oblivious to his bold fashion choices. Whether he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek or attempting actual flag-waving, his look made a strong statement. Was he a just a good ol' boy, never meaning no harm, or was he announcing his commitment to the preservation of a traditional southern way of life? There was no way to know for certain.
I was certain, however, that he was avoiding the popcorn stand.
A young black man, also in his mid-twenties, was serving popcorn to a line of customers. He exchanged pleasantries as he conducted transaction after transaction, seemingly focused on the tasks at hand. He seemed oblivious to the audacious cowboy mere steps away.
Didn't all of this bother him?
Why would he choose this venue, of all places, to sell popcorn?
Then I saw his T-shirt. A bold ROXBURY was silk-screened in black letters across the front. Roxbury. It's a Boston neighborhood largely unknown to tourists. It’s a place my father specifically instructed me to avoid (we'll get into my rebellion later). It's a corner of Boston with all of the grit and none of the Hollywood glamour.
Was he merely expressing neighborhood pride, or was he making a subtle point that racism in the form of Confederate flag belt buckles, cowboy hats, boots, and chaps was tolerated for two weeks every year and dismissed as innocent fun? Was this a suggestion that such displays are almost laughable in light of generations of institutional racism, stratification, and disproportionality embodied in that one location emblazoned across his t-shirt?
Or perhaps, the guy selling popcorn was just a college student with a Roxbury shirt, taking a semester off to pad his tuition fund, and the blonde kid was a traveling showman, and all of these messages never crossed their respective minds. There was a good chance I was overanalyzing.
This is the lens through which I view the world, and it never seems to lose focus. Even during a lighthearted evening with extended family I can’t flip this switch off, as I'm acutely aware of the imbalanced world around me whether I'm on the clock as a social worker, or just waiting in line for fried dough.
A perfect account of how I arrived here would catalog a journey of trial and error. It would contain sincere reflections on racial and societal chasms, and lots of laughs at the misconceptions, judgements, and ignorance of my youth. It would culminate with a profile of the Person of Impact standing before you today, refusing to ignore these disparities.
Unfortunately, I have come to see that this process of awakening has always had a jagged edge. Make no mistake: my compassion is very real, as are my relationships. My commitment to serve underserved and marginalized people is genuine, as is my dedication to cultural competency.
The truth of my story is that I have been setting my own stage for a very long time. To rewrite my personal narrative, I've distanced myself from the guilt of privilege. I’ve had to fabricate confidence, and have attempted to create a persona of someone exceptional in order to compensate for an intense and nagging insecurity in my own abilities and relevance. My set design has required the careful positioning of props all around me, a heroic lead character with a multi-ethnic and socio-economically disadvantaged supporting cast. Together, we've inspired audiences by defying the odds. I have appropriated many features of other cultures, and most importantly, I've benefitted from the glamour without ever feeling the sting of prejudice or poverty. I've been telling their stories because I never thought I had my own.
Fortunately, the people who love me have stayed with me on this journey, and I believe this supports the most important conclusion of this story: we are individuals, first. To make presumptions about people dismisses their individuality, and pigeonholes them, potentially unfairly. I don’t promote colorblindness, don't get me wrong. What I am stressing, however, is the value of relationship. To draw premature conclusions about people, even in the spirit of justice, can itself be a harmful act of prejudice. Manipulation in a guise of reconciliation makes for shallow friendships. To take the time to listen to a person’s perspective based on their own, unique experiences is not only responsible, it’s fundamentally human. Advocacy requires listening. A true friend gets to know a person.
For a time, I believe my crippling insecurity and subsequent quest for identity stunted my growth, but here we are. I see now that the people who love me have been standing around the corner that I have just started to turn. They have been patiently awaiting my arrival so we all can start the next act together.
I would love to be able to say it will be an easy process for me to step out of my own perceived spotlight and play a lesser role, but who am I kidding?
I'll suspect I’ll always yearn for my props.