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Crisis of Identity

Photo by Amanda Lopes via Flickr

Photo by Amanda Lopes via Flickr

My first identity crisis came with my Haitian background: both of my parents are Haitian and I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I experienced a lot of negative stereotypes and taunts—Haitian Booty Scratcher, Haitians smell, their socks don’t match—and decided to embrace my American-ness while denying my Haitian-ness.

All that changed on May 18, 1995. No, I didn’t wake up that morning enlightened. It was more like a cold bucket of ice water was thrown on me.

I was a senior in high school and was selected to be part of a program called Close Up. The program brings high school students from across the county to Washington, D.C., to get a behind-the-scenes look at how our government works.

On May 17th, I looked at the program and noticed that the following day we would be talking about international affairs and the country of focus was Haiti.

I did what any brilliant scholar would do, I called Mommy and Daddy to get a few questions to ask so I could sound smart.

The day came, but the main presenter couldn’t make it so there was a substitute. The pinch hitter totally dodged my first question and went on to share how insignificant Haiti was. He said, “We could bomb it anytime we wanted to. There are no trees there.”

I raised my hand to ask a second question but was ignored. My hand went down and I started to cry. For the first time in my life, I was Haitian. After denying my Haitian-ness all these years, it took someone bashing the country of my ancestry on May 18th—which, incidentally, is Haitian Flag Day as well as my mom’s birthday, no less—for me to appreciate my roots.

When I made it back home, my sister’s boyfriend at the time told me something very profound: “You can take an orange seed and plant it in an apple orchard but that doesn’t make it an apple.” So true.

My experience forever changed the way I looked at my Haitian heritage and how I identify with it.

I’ve come to find out that this was only the beginning of many discoveries around identity.

What part of yourself are you denying?

Mike Ambassador Bruny helps people and companies master the art of soft skills, with a focus on networking, presentation skills, and personal branding. He is a certified life coach, speaker, and author of Move the Crowd: 30 Days of Hip Hop Lyrics to Change Your Life. Follow his writing on Twitter @Ambassador Bruny.

Protesters marching in Seattle for justice for the killing of John T. Williams, 2010.

Protesters marching in Seattle for justice for the killing of John T. Williams, 2010.

Native people are the most loving people in the world. And it makes sense—so many of us have seen this movie before.

We got our own problems, right? Still, ever since the Michael Brown tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, I’ve received hundreds of Facebook messages and emails—Native people understanding the connection between black folks’ interaction with law enforcement and Native folks’ interaction with law enforcement. The Natives who’ve contacted me seem to know, “We’re not saying all police officers are bad. Heck, most are ok.” But those Natives know that when things do go haywire and a police officer does do something bad to someone, it’s usually someone brown. And when that brown-skinned person is killed or hurt badly, it’s usually for something small. Insignificant. Something that doesn’t deserve deadly force. Like allegedly stealing cigars.

That’s rough. But to quote Bill Murray in Stripes, “That’s the fact, Jack!”

Those Natives told me—if I get a chance to write about this—to express that they understand the family’s profound sense of loss and grief. They were very clear when telling me that they stand with the people of Ferguson. They recognize this—this looks familiar. Maybe that’s why so many Native people are standing with the frustrated and grieving folks of Ferguson. Maybe that’s why so many are up in arms about this recent unnecessary death of yet another brown person.

Many of Natives have seen this movie before. This looks a lot like John T. Williams—the beautiful and brilliant Native carver, shot while breaking no laws by Seattle Police Officer Ian Burke. We recognize how the inquest tried to paint John T. as aggressive, as drunk—the same way that the Ferguson Police Department “leaked” information that Michael Brown may have had weed in his system.

So what? Who doesn’t have weed in their system?? Weed doesn’t make you aggressive—it makes you hungry and lazy. But the police department is attempting to make Brown look like a “thug”—which we all know is code for “ni**er.” We recognize this doublespeak, the smokescreen.

But I digress.

This movie looks a lot like the recent Becky Sotherland incident, tasing over and over and over an unconscious Native man in Pine Ridge. Or AJ Longsolider, 18 years old and died in a jail cell, sick yet no one from the state would help him.

This looks like Black Wall Street—there are plenty of Natives in Tulsa; we remember how Blacks caught hell for doing well. This looks like Oscar Grant—brutal. Unnecessary. Tragic.

Look, there are plenty of good police officers. I mean, I come from a “Don’t talk to the cops” family, but I also know that there are many who do their jobs every day respectfully and lovingly. This is not a condemnation of law enforcement—not at all. But it IS an observation about some law enforcement. I KNOW there are amazing police officers who engage in good and healthy practices—heck, just the other day, a member of the Suquamish Tribal Police took time out of his day to give instruction to my nephew that literally might save his life. That’s community policing. That’s beautiful. That’s the opposite of police brutality.

But when police brutality happens in this country, it happens to black and brown-skinned people entirely too much.  Now I’m not saying I want it to happen to white people more­—­all I’m saying is that there are a WHOLE bunch of white folks who were convicted of ugly, violent crimes, and they were around and healthy to stand trial.  And then there are a WHOLE bunch of black and brown people who weren’t alleged to have committed any crimes, or at worst a misdemeanor (like that pack of cigars), and those black and brown people aren’t alive anymore.

Seems inconsistent.

RIP John T. Williams. RIP Michael Brown. God bless all the victims of police brutality, of all colors.

Gyasi Ross is a storyteller, an attorney and, most importantly, a father who comes from the Blackfeet and the Suquamish Indian Nations. He is an editor at Indian Country Today Media Network and has a CD of stories coming out in May called Before Here Was Here. You can follow his writing on Twitter @BigIndianGyasi.

Johny Pitts in Moscow

Johny Pitts in Moscow

Contributor Bani Amor talks with Afropean journalist and cultural chameleon Johny Pitts.

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer, and broadcast journalist interested in issues of Afro-European identity. He won a Decibel Penguin Prize for a short story included in the The Map of Me, a Penguin books anthology about mixed-race identity. He recently collaborated with author Caryl Phillips on a photographic essay for the BBC and Arts Council England dealing with London and immigration, and curates the online journal Afropean.com, for which he received the 2013 ENAR (European Network Against Racism) Foundation award for a contribution to a racism-free Europe. He currently hosts a youth travel show for the BBC and recently finished the first draft of a travel narrative about a five month trip through ‘Black Europe,’ due to be released in 2015.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work and the impetus behind it?

Johny: Well, I hold American and British passports, I was raised between London and Sheffield in the UK, my father is black, my mother is white, and I was born on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius, so even my star sign is dual! So I identify with W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness stuff. I feel as though I kind of grew up in that liminal terrain between cultures, races and spaces, and I suppose my work is all about trying to find some kind of coherence in that liminal space. Instead of seeing myself as half-this or mixed-that, I try to solidify the cultural ground I walk on as something whole. And that is where this term “Afropean” comes in.

It is a platform to engage with—and acknowledge the duality of—my influences, whilst bringing them together as something new. I didn’t create the term Afropean, so in a way I’m working off the backs of a Generation X who came of age in the 90s. People like Neneh Cherry, Zap Mama, Stephen Simmonds, Les Nubians, artists and musicians who brought forth new aesthetics that were a mix of African and European influences. The word was being used, but it hadn’t really entered the popular lexicon, so I snapped up afropean.com and tried to create a community around that, [to] see if there was a way for Afro-Europeans to get a sense of themselves in the same way I feel African-Americans did.

Bani: Do people use the word in real life? I mean, outside the internet.

Johny: I’m hearing it more and more. They seem to be most comfortable using it France. To be honest, though, I don’t necessarily use it in on a day to day basis. It’s more an inclusive platform from which we can all engage in the idea of a Europe more in tune with its multi-cultural, multi-racial population. I’m seeing it online more and more though and, in a way, for better or worse, the line between “real life” and our digital lives is getting ever blurrier.

Bani: Of course.

Johny: So to see it growing online must be to see it growing on the streets, and in people’s minds. Our community on Facebook and the subscribers to the website is growing exponentially.

Bani: Which speaks to a great need for this type of platform.

Johny: I think so. It’s weird—growing up in the 90s, as a young black person, there were very few celebrations of black culture. At least, it never entered the mainstream really. Anything mainstream that could be called “black” came from the States. It’s still that way now, to a certain extent, but things are changing. I think Afropean is one of many outlets taking advantage of this Wild West-era of the internet, where we have the opportunity to cut out the people controlling the media and tell our own stories.

Bani: Which is a main obstacle in trying to build (cross-cultural) community—the representation in media (or lack thereof) sends a message to marginalized people that they don’t exist, or do, but in limited, stereotypical ways.

Johny: Exactly! I work in TV, and also as a writer, and the classic thing you hear is “oh, we already did a show or book about black people 15 years ago, we don’t need another one…”

Bani: Because a black person can’t tell a story in the mainstream without it being an “identity narrative.”

Johny: Exactly, and as you know, it isn’t just ethnicity, but also gender, sexual orientation and so on.

Bani: The default narrator is a straight white male.

Johny: For sure. And within the sphere of “black culture,” it can sometimes feel that the default narrator is African-American. Something that I’d like to make clear though, is that I don’t really see myself being part of that whole African-American hegemony argument. So often, you’ll see a division at black-consciousness conferences between African Americans and Afro-Europeans. Afropean is about being inclusive, and encouraging dialogue, and even though there was/is more room made for black American culture in Europe than black European culture, I think the contribution of African-Americans is certainly valuable and, at times, even a template to how we might be able to get a bit more unity and exposure in the afro-European community.

Bani: Word. I mean that it’s interesting to me that black American history tends to overshadow Afropean “consciousness” but more so that in other regions (Asia, Latin America) black American “culture” has been commodified and exported like a lifestyle that can be bought and sold. Yet when we look to local movements to progress black communities, it’s like, a completely divorced thought.

Johny: Yes. One of the funny things I noticed on my voyage through “Black Europe” is that very often you’d find Ghanaians or Nigerians talking and dressing like parodies of African-Americans because it’s more culturally acceptable to be African-American around the world, and especially in Europe, than it is to be African. And they tend to assume that very commodified and exported idea of African-American culture you’re talking about.

Bani: About your travels, you took a five month trip through “Black Europe” to document Afropean culture across the continent, is that right?

Johny: Exactly. After seeing these interesting Afropean images creep through the stereotypical black images in the media—in places like Trace magazine, and in some of the great Afropean soul and hip-hop, I wanted to see where this stuff was born. Was there a community to liaise with? What does it mean to be Afropean? Is there any point in trying to bring the black European diaspora together, or are we all too different? These were some of the questions I sought to answer on my travels.

Bani: What were the results? I’m sure it’s too long and nuanced to answer here (that’s why you have a book-type project in the works, no?) but did you feel a sense of collective identity? Were there communities to liaise with?

Johny: Yes, it is complicated, but ultimately I did find commonality through people living life on the margins. We were similar by virtue of facing the same problems: old, stubborn European countries clinging on to outdated self-images and national identities. That’s the thing about Europe – it is so old, and obviously its colonial history heavily shaped the way many European countries view themselves and “the other.” And it’s a case of teaching an old dog new tricks.

Bani: Do people create problems for you in reading your identity outside of Europe? As in assuming you’re not from there? Does that happen within Europe too?

Johny: I had an interesting chat with a black British friend living in New York recently and he told me that I’d have no problem with white people in America at all, as soon as they heard my accent. Because when they heard me speak with a British voice, the blackness disappears. It is a blackness that Americans don’t have a shared history with, so they feel more relaxed. I thought that was interesting, and during the many times I’ve been to America, I’ve never been victim to any overt racism.

Because of my background, which actually also has Scottish, Irish, and Cherokee American roots, I find that half the world actually looks like me. When I was in Fiji, they thought I was Fijian, when I was in Morocco, they thought I was Berber, when I was in Japan, people even thought I was part Japanese.

Bani: Same.

Johny: But I would say that there is a certain “Afropean” sensibility. Look at and listen to Sade, Les Nubians, Zap Mama, Seal, Stephen Simmonds, Baloji, Joy Denalane and you get a sense of it. I very much feel Afro-European and I think people sense that more and more—the way I talk, act, dress, it is all connected to blackness and Europe. Or, rather, a response to being black in Europe.

Bani: Was there something you learned about the diaspora that you hadn’t known/realized before your trip?

Johny: So many things, but because I’m not a historian, it was finding out about people like Septimius Severus, the African Roman Emperor, and, in racist Russia, learning that possibly the most famous Russian, and the Godfather of Russian literature, Alexandr Pushkin, was an Afropean, and even wrote a book about his black great-grandfather, titled Peter The Great’s Negro. So many stories I wasn’t taught at my British school, which led me to believe black people’s contribution to history was slavery and the blues.

Bani: (sigh)

Johny: So it was that the diaspora isn’t some new phenomenon. Immigration isn’t new. The Moors practically created Southern Europe.

Bani: Right, how can people express their identity when they’re taught it doesn’t really exist. Schooling + media = erasure.

Johny: Exactly. I often say that my identity is something I’m constantly in the process of inventing. Maybe it is a human condition, but it isn’t made easy when you’re told you have no history or place, really, in the country you call home.

Bani: It’s funny. On Facebook, some folks and I shared a link for a round-up on the best being Latino-in-New York movies and one of us lamented on how we gotta make an Ecuadorian-NY film ’cause none exist! Yet there are a zillion Ecuadorians in NYC. Anyway, that’s just my background.

Johny: But it’s true. You need to do it! I’d watch for sure! Ha!

Bani: It would be epic! And I never use that word.

Johny: Ha! It’s interesting, I literally just came off the phone with Angelique Kidjo before this interview and she said that she loved New York because the whole world is there. I don’t mean to make light of the struggle of people in New York but the whole world is in London too. In fact, I think a recent census said that more languages were spoken in London than anywhere else on earth.

Bani: I came from that background, of being in the most diverse town in the world, and not seeing reflections of that anywhere. That shit is internalized.

Johny: But here is the problem—London still exports this image of itself—the Queen, Big Ben, London guards. The UK isn’t a democracy. We still have hereditary peers in the House of Lords. 1/6th of hereditary peers are required to be male. That shit still exists here! New York has the advantage of being relatively new, so it is a little easier to shape in one’s own image.

But London is still controlled by a small elite, who are often aristocracy, often went to the same private schools, the same universities. They are the people who don’t just control the country, but also the very idea of what it means to be from that country. Most of Europe is the same. It is an old, stubborn class-based continent.

Europe has been written about so much, but travelling through the continent and looking with new eyes really shed light on new landscapes…new stories. We think the world is small, but it is only small if you look at it with one pair of eyes. I would love to read the story of a Guarani travelling to Norway, or an Eskimo journeying to Brazil. If you feel that you are living on the margins of society, it’s your duty to help edge your story onto the pages of the narrative, and turn what society calls niche, into something everyone can understand. Travel and tell your story, whatever your background. Oh, and checkout afropean.com! :)

Bani: Word!

Bani Amor is a queer mestiza travel writer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador on a mission to decolonize travel media. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Nowhere Magazine and Bluestockings Magazine. You can follow her writing at Everywhere All The Time, and on Twitter @bani_amor.

Mental Means of Production

Photo by DryHundredFear via Flickr

Photo by DryHundredFear via Flickr

In a society where we witness the continuous, acute consolidation of power, be it economic, political, or through sheer military might, far too many souls have been locked in a circle of consumerism. Cities turn to mega-cities. Ample countrysides and vast open spaces, rich and fertile land stand waiting as if in defiance of our desire to pack in on top of ourselves to be closer to work. Endlessly pushing to be closer to the center of it all, doomed to find in that space, nothing at all. Too many have become trapped in a cycle of consumerism.

A cycle of self-doubt.

Do you feel caught by endless comparisons to folks who articulate problems and solutions better than you ever believed you could? Many are educated in lands most of us will probably never get to see. Living phenomenal(-looking) lives, projected onto our screens with hazy filters. Beamed into our timelines, updated live.

Message boards below our daily news articles remind us that our social problems are still very much alive. How many fathers and mothers have greeted you with a smile in the light of day, but have dehumanized your people with unrelenting malice when given the comfort of the anonymity provided by plastic computer screens?

Think about eyes that flash in your direction when you walk into all-white restaurants or coffee shops. Think about the words of cat-callers on the street. Think about the instinctual feeling that you are not safe, that the very ground you walk on rejects your presence. Think about how difficult it is to explain these traumas to souls who will never have to worry about such pain.

It’s alienating. It’s straining.

Too many times I am intimidated into silence. I feel unsteady about disrupting someone else’s peace, even if theirs comes at the cost of my own. I am expected to consume. Consume hate while I continue to not take up too much space, trying not to dirty anything while feeling that my hands somehow are permanently dirty.


Why must I simply just consume? Why should I sit back and let someone write my story? Why should we let men who arrive with guns at talks for peace lecture us about what’s needed for our freedom?

We need not sit passively. We can take control. Build capacity and organize. We can turn back the tides of global inequality. It simply must be done.

But how do we walk that journey?

Surely, my friend, we start by taking our first proverbial steps. We need to allow ourselves to be creative. There are ideas that can be conceptualized by only you. Only you with your experience, your way of thought, and your passion can access certain places. The world of the present day that denies you has no option but to change when you change.

Seizing the mental means of production is to accept the responsibility of your gifts by asserting your presence in society by the act of creation. Crafting stories, fables, or paintings and drawings scribbled on dining room tables. To this aim, we need to encourage one another to give more and collectively take less.

There is no oil well or gold mine on this earth that will ever be worth what your mind can contribute. Our most valuable resource is our minds; it is what makes us who we are. Human. Safeguard yourself against manipulation. Achieve this through challenging the world that confronts you, through tireless, relentless participation.

Look squarely at yourself today and recognise that without a critical engagement with this wretched world, our circumstances will not change. Our children’s futures will be further compromised. We must allow ourselves the courage to speak while knowing that we may never be heard. We are good enough, as is.

So say it. Take a step forward and engage with your reality. Speak to your neighbors. Find out where your food is produced. Support local business. Actively give. More.

Let me assure you. My brother. My sister. Your mind is the first means of production you will need to own. You must seize control. You must produce. You must write. You must think. You need to speak. You need to sign. Do whatever it is you need to do to communicate your ideas.  In the midst of our mental enslavement, call upon strength to dream. This is undoubtedly an act of revolution.

Pick up that pen, my friend. With every word you say, a change is on its way.

Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based spoken word poet and engineer by trade committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a budding Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle. Follow his writing online and on Twitter @BrianIKamanzi.

Jean Baptiste du Sable, first settler of Chicago, Illinois

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, first settler of Chicago, Illinois. Painting by Thomas Blackshear.

OG commemorates pioneering men of color throughout history. Do we really need to explain the acronym?

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (1750-1818), was a Haitian-born trader and pioneer, most famous for being the first non-Native American to settle in what would letter be named Chicago, Illinois. Du Sable established his farm and trading post near the mouth of the Chicago River in 1790, predating the government-built Fort Dearborn settlement by over a decade.

Today, the DuSable Museum of African American History stands bearing his name in Chicago, with the mission to promote understanding and inspire appreciation of the achievements, contributions, and experiences of African-Americans through exhibitions, programs, and activities that illustrate African and African-American history, culture and art.

Adam Tolliver believes it is our responsibility to create spaces that foster meaningful discussions surrounding our history, heritage, accomplishments, and challenges. Follow him on Instagram @primediscussion.

Photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr.

Danger: Causes Itis. Photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr.

As a full-time Black Person, I have attended about 12 hundred dozen Blackpeoplegatherings in my lifetime. Crab boils. Welcome Home From The Clink parties. Fish fry-style wedding receptions. You’ll probably observe many of the same elements at most of these Blackpeoplegatherings. Drank. Music (with a high probability of the Electric Slide making an appearance). Bad ass kids. Overindulgence and the Itis. Well seasoned food. The usual.

(Do White people get The Itis? Serious question.)

In these Blackpeoplegatherings, there is an unspoken hierarchy of meal-making clearance that exists to ensure collective enjoyment and prevent mass food poisoning. More importantly, where dish responsibility is concerned, this hierarchy helps avoid culinary blunders and embarrassment: Meats > Macaroni and Cheese > Greens> Other Sides > Dessert, etc.

In short: unless you want to be the person who fucks up Granny PumPum’s 113th Great Day In The Morning Super Turnt Episcopalian Celebration of Life dinner with a dry-ass turkey, know your motherfucking role in the kitchen.

Every relative isn’t allowed to up and decide that they’ll make the primary meat of the meal. Twenty-nine-year-old Auntie Bop Bop, who survives off of corn chips and purple Kool-Aid, would never be allowed to walk through the door with a turkey on Easter Sunday. Uncle Man-Man can’t declare that he’ll make The Fried Chicken on Christmas night if nobody has ever tasted his cooking. There are rules. You have to audition and shit. Anything else would be uncivilized, and would only take place in a family where crack rocks mean “I love you.”

At these Blackpeoplegatherings, food is often the purpose of the event. Sure, it’s nice to catch up with your favorite Druncle and his new dumpy White girlfriend. But over here in reality, getting down on that corner piece of the macaroni and cheese is the real reason for the season. So if you do Harlem Shake your ass out of bounds where food is concerned, you will never ever ever ever live it down. Your Black family will NEVER let you forget that one time you forgot to rinse the college greens before attempting Meemaw’s recipe. Until the day you perish like Nicole Scher$;ra!J678’s singing career, you are the LaTivia LaTavia of holiday meals. You can only bring liquor and napkins, ya bish.

Pro tip: If you’ve never made a certain dish before, holidays are not the best time to experiment.

About a decade ago, my family met up for Thanksgiving at my grandma’s house. Now, my grandma is the kind of woman who doesn’t eat in restaurants. She rarely eats other people’s cooking, and if she does, she never forgets a culinary blunder. (“She’s nice, but she likes to use a lot of salt. It was alright, I guess.”) Miss Ruby doesn’t believe in buying cleaning products or salad dressing because she can make her own. Duh. She is a legendary cook and used to cater damn near every Panamanian or Caribbean event in Virginia. If she is involved, the meal-making clearance hierarchy is as follows: She makes everything, including the sorrel. Anyone else can bring dessert but it must be prepared outside of her kitchen. And you can do dishes, if she’s convinced that you know how to wash dishes.

There is no “I’ll bring the ham” because No. You will bring the Paul Mason and take the trash out. In this case: “you” means “the entire family.” No exceptions.

So on this particular Thanksgiving, my sister and aunt decided to bake a cake after dinner. A lemon joint. Somehow, they were able to prepare it in Grandma’s kitchen, unmurdered. My uncle was sent to the store for icing. Lemon icing. “Okay fine,” he said as he grabbed his keys and bounced.

We continued Blackiando and talking shit. I likely went back for a third plate. My uncle eventually returned with two bags and set them down on the counter. The cake had cooled and we were ready to apply the frosting and get to work.

He presented his purchase to his wife, satisfied with himself for his contribution. “Here, lemons and ice.”

You know that instant where the air is sucked out of a room, all eyes meet, and everyone explodes into laughter? Yeah. We howled and cried for a good 20 minutes, mainly because my uncle didn’t find it funny at all and, well, Black relatives ain’t shit.

“Now, tell me what you thought we were going to do with these lemons and this ice,” my sister asked, placing her hand on his shoulder. Everyone paused to wait for his response, because Black relatives ain’t shit.

“I thought y’all were gonna make icing with the lemons.” More tears.

Now, that wasn’t even a meal-ruining blunder, but do you think we’ve let him forget that he brought lemons and ice rather than lemon icing? Of course not. A decade later, my Dad or someone will ask him, “So, what’d you bring?” and the tears just come.

We’ll probably put “lemons and ice” on his headstone.

So, friends, as the year unfurls and the chicken-eating gatherings begin, remember: know your motherfucking role in the kitchen. Stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. Don’t be the guy that ruins Granny PumPum’s 113th super turnt birthday. Every auntie can’t be Deena Jones with that crock pot. And that’s okay. For dignity’s sake, sometimes it’s better to stay in your place, be the LaTavia, and bring the fucking ice cream.

Alexander Hardy, cultural critic and calorie enthusiast, is a Virginia-based lupus survivor who spends his days daydreaming about his next meal and missing Panamanian humidity. Alexander writes colorfully on race, sex and sexuality, expat life, pop culture, mental health, and scoundrelhood, and other pressing matters of the day. He doesn’t believe in snow or Delaware. Read more from Alex here and at The Colored Boy.

The author at age 19.

The author at age 19.

Fat faggot was what they called me from eighth through twelfth grades. It had been just plain faggot before then. And sissy and sweet thang and Oreo and mutt and sometimes halfbreed and once or twice even cracker. But it was fat faggot that stayed.

It stayed after I had graduated high school and lost 120 pounds, after I graduated college with honors and snagged a staffer position on Capitol Hill, after I finished my masters program and moved abroad, living and working as a college professor, then writer, in Colombia and Brazil and Germany and South Africa. It stayed no matter how much weight I’d lost, how many personal or professional achievements I’d accomplished, how many lovers I had, how many exotic trips—or psychotropic drugs—I took. Fat. Motherfucking. Faggot.

Obviously, the words didn’t continue to haunt me in their initial, unaltered state. They morphed over the years, as these things do, into belief templates and action patterns. I did things to improve myself, but for all the wrong reasons. I became nicer so that people would like me. I cut calories dangerously and worked out intensely, even dabbling with steroids, not for the sake of my health, but to be physically what I wanted to attract. Once I finally reached the other side of desirability, though, I became sullen, angry, depressed—and yes, even suicidal—because the attention I did get only lasted until the next nut or three. But therein lies the futility: I wanted them to see in me what I didn’t even see. I only saw a fat faggot, and even if they couldn’t actually see that, they could feel it, me, empty and needing to be validated, filled, loved. But were they really the ones rejecting me? I mean, who wouldn’t run from me, when I was running from me, too?

In fact, I ran to almost fifty countries. Travel became my addiction, my religion, my substitute for love. I got to meet people and be shiny and new all the time, a comet, in the words of one admirer. And I did shine, through the cold vacuum of space, the light covering up the darkness for a time. Until it returned, as it always did, whenever I sat in one place for too long. Insecurity, self-doubt, self-loathing.

You know, really, deep down underneath it all, you still just a fat-ass faggot.

By then, I was enmeshed in a long-term but long-distance relationship with a beautifully broken soul just like me. I understood his pain, so much so that I figured, with self-esteem lower than mine, I’d never have to worry about him leaving me. We clung to one another out of need, trying to fill each other but without anything left for ourselves, and wondering why things still just weren’t quite right. It was unsustainable, in the end.

And an end is almost what it took. When I finally bottomed out, the only choice presented to me was thrive or die—literally. Choosing to thrive meant choosing myself, meant learning to sit still and redirect the love I tried to give others to myself. That’s when the healing began, with meditation, instead of medication. With gratitude for my friends and family, my talents and abilities, my five working limbs, my very breath each morning. And instead of continuing to bury the persistent and ever-present torments of my youth further and further inside, as we’ve been brainwashed to do as Strong Black Men, I called them out, one by one, until they flew away. So far, it’s been an intense process involving lots of cleansing crying jags, an attribute that I am not ashamed of, and the process will most certainly continue until I complete this life. But it’s a process that allows me to, fully and in every way imaginable, live. And love.

Brothers, do you love yourselves? Are your habits healthy? Think.

Do you drink because it’s beneficial, or to cover up the pain? Do you call our sisters bitches and hoes because it’s uplifting, or to silence the voices of your past? Are you homophobic because you think the Bible tells you to be? Do anger and volatility make you happy? Do you rack up sexual conquests because multiple partners makes you potent, important, empowered? Does the relentless pursuit of material things let you sleep with ease every night? Do you refuse to cry, or refuse to let your son cry, because you think it’s unbecoming of a man? Do you withhold love from others because it was withheld from you? Do you withhold love from yourself because it was withheld from you?

Is it manly to run from yourself?

Is it manly to refuse to heal yourself?

Is it manly to refuse to love yourself?

I didn’t love myself until I was 37 years old. I turn 38 this October.

Ernest White II is Editor-in-Chief of Abernathy Magazine. A writer, educator, and travel crackhead, he can be found in Cape Town, Miami, or anywhere else that suits his fancy. His passions include São Paulo, Indian food, and Rita Hayworth. Follow his writing online and on Twitter @FlyBrother.

Erick Cedeño, Freedom Biker

Erick Cedeño, Freedom Biker

Trailblazers features men of color crafting extraordinary experiences. Contributor Bani Amor talks to Erick Cedeño about his journey north along the Underground Railroad by bicycle.

Over the past three years, Erick Cedeño has traveled long distances by bicycle: from Vancouver to Tijuana, and from Saint Augustine to New York City. But in August of 2013, he embarked on a different kind of trip: one measured not only by miles but also by history. He rode from New Orleans to Niagara Falls along the Underground Railroad route, developed by the Adventure Cycling Association using the spiritual slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which relays directions for escaping to freedom by following the North Star. One known path followed waterways from Alabama north to the Ohio River—and this became the basis for his route.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. What do you do and why do you do it?

Erick Cedeño: My dream is to see the world by bicycle. In 2011, I did my first trip–2,300 miles from Vancouver, Canada, to Tijuana, Mexico. Then in 2012, I rode from Saint Augustine, Florida, to New York City. My last trip was from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Niagara Falls, Canada, retracing one of the original Underground Railroad routes by bicycle. I do it to challenge myself mentally and physically, but also to learn about history and people. After my first bicycle trip, I fell in love with traveling by using my own power.

With traveling by bicycle, you get to smell, see, and feel like no other method of transportation. You engage with and discover people, nature, yourself. I learned that traveling by bicycle gives me an inner peace. You learn to stay in the present moment and not to think about the challenges in the past or the future. You learn that you have only the few miles ahead.

Bani: Sounds mad Buddhist. When did you first experience the urge to travel?

Erick: When I was five or six years old, my mother would take me walking to a restaurant every Friday. We would walk about a mile and half to McDonald’s and walk back home. One day, my mother (who did not drive and depended on public transportation) saw me walking by myself past the McDonald’s about almost two miles from my house. She stopped the bus and got off. She asked me where I was going. And my response to her was – I just wanted to see what was past McDonald’s. I had a love for traveling and exploring at a very young age. She never was upset with me from that incident. As a matter of fact, she encouraged me to travel and explore.

Bani: Yesss, I was the same exact way.

Erick: I always said that I was born to the perfect mother because she would never limit me. She would travel everywhere and I always wanted to go with her. One time, we dropped my mother off at the airport and I said to her, “I want to go with you,” and she said you can’t because you do not have clothes or your passport, and I replied, “I do, they are both in your suitcase,” which I had placed there myself. She bought the ticket at the airport counter and I got to travel with her.

Bani: Hehe.

Erick: One time, when I was 11 years old, my mother took me on a two-week trip to see the pyramids of Mexico, and that had such an impact on me and my love for travel. I believe it came from having been born and raised to a mother who always wanted to travel and see the world. She always told me when I was young, “when I die, I will die happy because I will not have any regrets. My love is to travel and that brings me happiness.” Those words have stayed with me ever since.

Bani: She sounds like such a badass!

Erick: She was fearless…

Bani: Back to your cycling adventures, what inspired the Underground Railroad trip?

Erick: One day, I was having lunch and thinking which route to travel next and it came to my head…I wonder if I can retrace the Underground Railroad. From that moment, I got home and started researching to see if it was possible to travel, ride, and visit historical sites of what is known as the “Freedom Trail.”

Bani: Why did it appeal to you?

Erick: I find traveling by bicycle physically and mentally challenging. But when you travel with a purpose it is more enjoyable.

Bani: Did you come out of that trip different than you were before? How?

Erick: Every trip teaches you different lessons and you always come out different. This particular trip taught me many lessons – how previous people who had traveled the same route endured many sacrifices to reach freedom. It taught me that when we travel with a purpose we can endure challenges. My bicycle was stolen in Buffalo, only 15 miles from reaching Canada after traveling more than 2,100 miles. I did not want to give up on reaching Canada. I wanted to experience the same feeling the previous freedom seekers felt in crossing Niagara Falls. I was able to borrow a kid’s ten-speed bicycle to finish my journey.

Bani: That’s incredible. So what’s next for you? I heard you wanted to bike from Florida to Panama, and across Africa.

Erick: I would like to retrace the Trail of Tears from North Georgia to Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. I would also like to ride from Miami to Panama City, Panama, where I was born. My goal is to travel through Mexico and Central America to learn about the ancient civilizations, speaking to elders and shamans along the way.

I just want to encourage people of all ages to travel and discover their world by bicycle. It could be their neighborhoods, towns, cities, countries or the world, but when you travel by bicycle you will definitely learn something new. Every single time.

Bani Amor is a queer mestiza travel writer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador on a mission to decolonize travel media. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Nowhere Magazine and Bluestockings Magazine. You can follow her writing at Everywhere All The Time, and on Twitter @bani_amor.

Aliko Dangote

Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa

Listed by Forbes as the richest man in Africa, Aliko Dangote is worth an estimated $21.6 billion. Rumored to have gotten his start on the strength of a loan from his uncle, the native of Nigeria is founder and CEO of the Dangote Group, one of the most diverse business conglomerates in Africa, dealing in the commodities of cement, sugar, flour, and just recently, oil.

Africa’s richest man is also its richest philanthropist: last year, Dangote endowed his namesake foundation with $1.2 billion for initiatives in poverty reduction, education, health care, and the environment.

“I think it is also part of corporate social responsibility for companies that are out there making money to be giving back to the society,” Dangote says.

Adam Tolliver believes it is our responsibility to create spaces that foster meaningful discussions surrounding our history, heritage, accomplishments, and challenges. Follow him on Instagram @primediscussion.


A page from the author’s passport.

Brothers, if you don’t have one already, you need to get yourself a passport. If you do have one, it’s time to use it. As a 37-year-old black man from Florida, I can honestly say that now, more than ever in my lifetime, I am mortally afraid of inadvertently pissing off some over-eager, trigger-happy jackass with a gun, who would then feel entirely justified in shooting me because he felt “threatened” and knew that he’d be absolved by a jury of his peers of any wrongdoing. No matter how many languages I speak, how many countries I’ve been to, how many degrees I have, how many classes I’ve taught, how many non-black friends I have, I am part of the same pariah class as you, demonized because of my skin color and feared because of my potential – for violence as well as greatness.

I left the United States in 2005, running adventurously towards the unknown but also running away from the miasma of inequality as I perceived it all those years ago. I returned this past Christmas and have felt like things have only gotten worse.

Be it the barefaced happiness at George Zimmerman’s acquittal, the unmitigated hatred for President Obama, the unyielding desire to use the ugliest racial slur in the English language because “[we] say it all the time,” the grotesquely ironic opinion that black Americans are the most racist group in the country, the antagonizing law enforcement activities like “stop-and-frisk” and “random secondary screening,” the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the inhumane disparities in prison sentencing, or the mass closing of public schools in the neediest neighborhoods, we are reminded incessantly of our lowly place in American society by society itself. And this is despite innumerable examples of how much we as black Americans contribute positively to society (especially when allowed to flourish) and despite the efforts of scores of white Americans who recognize their privilege and do fight with us in destroying inequality.

Yet, in 2015, ignorance and hatred remain as unfettered and ingrained in the American psyche as they were in 1915 and 1815 and 1715. For too many Americans, citizens of a land which espouses freedom and liberty as the driving forces of its national ideology, it is unsafe to merely exist. That is what it’s like to be a problem.

Mind you, family, the United States isn’t the only place black folks are catching hell. We are murdered or disappear in Brazil and Colombia and plenty of other places with mind-boggling frequency, often at the hands of local law enforcement. No place is utopia. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for it.

We have options. There are places in this world where our presence isn’t viewed as a menace, as a problem, or even as an inconvenience. There are places where we are welcomed, listened to, appreciated, and even loved. These places can and do challenge us in ways we could have never imagined, but our very existence isn’t challenged.

We will have to do our part, by being open to learning new concepts, new languages, new ways of thinking and being. By being permeable. We will have to strive to be just as understanding and accepting as we hope to be understood and accepted. In the end, the tangible investment in passport fees, airline tickets, and lodging expenses pay off in that they remove the yoke of low expectations. They can release us from the snares of a society that thinks it’s got us all figured out. Most importantly, these investments pay off in options.

We must have the option to participate in our own society as full-fledged members or be part of the creation of a society that will not hinder us from personal greatness. But we alone have the power to create these options for ourselves. That responsibility – that choice – belongs to no one but us.

Once you have your passport, if you decide to leave permanently, do not feel like you’ve abandoned anything. You are merely following in the footsteps of our (s)heroes Josephine Baker and James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Nina Simone and W.E.B. Du Bois, searching beyond the borders of the United States for a cure to that cancer of oppression. You, like them, may flourish in foreign soil and find safety and peace.

If you do return, you will do so in the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston and Malcolm X and Langston Hughes and Katherine Dunham and Angela Davis: eyes opened, mentally unchained, and better equipped to withstand the renewed assault on your spirit once repatriated. You’ll be able to act as an example for other brothers and sisters – of all colors – in their quest for growth, enlightenment, self-worth, freedom, peace, and even physical safety. Basic rights, but options, too.

A passport isn’t the antidote to financial woes or family drama or failing schools or racial profiling. But it is a door opener, an exit, a way out, an escape to the boundless existence – the boundless life – that we deserve as human beings. A passport allows us to choose our reality, be it here or abroad.

Previous generations fought for our right to be first-class citizens of the United States, a right that, just a few days ago, was denied yet again for a black youth born in this country.

It is now our duty to be first-class citizens of the world.

Ernest White II is Editor-in-Chief of Abernathy Magazine. A writer, educator, and travel crackhead, he can be found in Cape Town, Miami, or anywhere else that suits his fancy. His passions include São Paulo, Indian food, and Rita Hayworth. Follow his writing online and on Twitter @FlyBrother.