Who Goes There?

Identity is a crucial part of every person’s life. It is what makes us unique and individual. People should be able to choose their own identity regardless of what anyone else thinks. Society often sets standards and molds people to fit within certain labels that do not necessarily align with their true selves. This can be harmful and limit individual expression. It is important for people to have the freedom to be themselves and explore their own identity without fear of judgment or persecution. Everyone deserves the right to choose who they are and live their life authentically.

I didn’t develop a sense of “identity” until fifth grade. Before that, at school I was known as “the shy, skinny kid who ate alone.” Often, I didn’t even eat my lunch; instead, I gave it away and spent lunchtime daydreaming about adventurous space journeys or leaving school early. In fourth grade, I was transferred from the predominantly Black elementary school by my house and bussed to the White school across town. That year, I became known as “the shy, skinny Black kid with braids in his hair, who got into a fight on the bus, and wore a church suit to school one day to honor a dead singer.” I told everyone it was because of Sam Cooke’s birthday (he’s always been my favorite), but the real reason was that I didn’t have any clean clothes.

At home, I was the opposite of who I was at school; I was a superstar-the first-born grandson, a leader whom the younger kids followed and respected. Hell, I was allowed to make Kool-Aid on my own without adult supervision, and whenever the neighborhood kids got together, we usually played games or went on adventures that I created. I was an opinionated child that would often get into heated arguments with adults over anything from a game of chess, religion, or the quality of the US film industry’s special effects versus the one’s in a Godzilla movie.

But the two different personas never lined up, school was always a lonely place for me. I didn’t have many friends, and I hardly spoke to teachers or anyone else. I didn’t play sports with the other boys because I didn’t know the rules. My mother had me when she was only 14 years old, and my father wasn’t around much. My mom didn’t trust her cousins enough to take me to the basketball courts with them, so I spent most of my free time drawing dinosaurs or reading books about animals, robots, and outer space.

In 5th grade, my school bussed me across town to attend an all-White school. One of our weekly activities was singing American Standards in a hallway, the lyrics projected on the wall via an opaque projector. Although I didn’t know many of the songs, singing them became one of my favorite activities. I gradually became more accustomed to seeing White people on a daily basis, as my exposure to them had previously been limited to the Ingalls Family on Little House on The Prairie. Which led me to believe that if I ever needed help, a friendly White man, his family, and sometimes the entire town would go out of their way to help me. I now realize how naive that was, but in 5th grade, I just wanted to fit in, and I was succeeding. I made a best friend, Jason, and even had a crush on two girls in my class, Dawn, and Lisa. Jason introduced me to comic books. Although my cousin Luther collected them, I had never really read one. Jason lent me his copies of Alpha Flight #10 and #11 and my mind was officially blown. The intrigue and deceit, along with Guardian who in my opinion had one of the coolest costumes of all time, had me hooked. Needless to say, issue #12 of Alpha Flight changed my life and made me a lifelong fan and collector of comic books. It even caused me to go back and buy everything X-Men, John Byrne, Chris Claremont, and Terry Austin related, but that’s another story for another time.

Jason was my best friend, but according to the cool standards of the 1980s, he was considered a nerd. Despite his slightly overweight and bespectacled appearance Jason was much cooler than me. However, because many kids in our class had known him since kindergarten, he could never move past the label he had been assigned. He introduced me to rap by playing LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad”, which was a completely new genre to my taste. At the time, my favorite song was Men at Work’s “Overkill”. Despite being the actual nerd of our duo, I was not labeled as such due to a few minor details, such as my race, singing, and dancing.

Jason was smart and he knew a lot more about the world than I did at the time, plus he loved to draw. I aspired to be like him and to embrace my own inner nerd. Unfortunately, my vision was perfect, so I resorted to sitting too close to the TV screen and reading comic books in the dark, just to ruin my eyes enough to get glasses and be like him.

I pretended to like video games because at the time, they were considered a “nerd thing” and I wanted to fit in with that crowd. However, I was a skinny Black student with a Jheri curl attending a primarily White school in Omaha, Nebraska during the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity, which made things even more challenging.

At the beginning of the 5th grade, I tried to be a nerd, but to my surprise, everything I did was considered cool. Being able to draw broke the ice. I created a superhero team and named a few of the characters after my classmates. Soon, everyone wanted to join the team and they were even paying me to draw pictures of them as their character. One school day, in the late afternoon, I somehow ended up in the front of the classroom lip-syncing Del Shannon’s Runaway.

Growing up, some of my fondest memories were centered around my family’s love for music. My mom would spend every weekend teaching my siblings and me Stevie Wonder songs, and during hot and humid Midwest summer nights, we would all sleep in the living room, trying to stay cool with a box fan placed in the window. I remember my parents listening to Lakeside, The Commodores, Earth, Wind and Fire, and sometimes trying to sneak in some private time while my siblings and I pretended to be asleep. Music was a key part of our family gatherings, with evenings of playing cards and drinking inevitably culminating in my uncles and older cousins harmonizing to songs by Aaron Neville or the Isley Brothers, or my mother belting out an Aretha Franklin solo.

We kids also liked to perform. We would put on our own talent shows with me, my brother, sister, and cousins. Most of the time, we ended up singing the same songs we heard our parents sing or making up our own tunes. Since none of us played instruments, our performances consisted of over-the-top dancing and wild theatrics to get each other pumped up. It was a lot of fun.

The lip-synch routine I performed sparked a fire in me, I was popular before because of my drawing ability, but after that, I became a minor celebrity at the school. Maybe it was because I was one of the few minority students in the school, or maybe my teacher just needed a break from our usual class routine – regardless, she gave me the freedom to entertain the class however I wanted at the end of each day. At first, I typically did my Michael Jackson impression, complete with singing and dancing, and the girls in my class went wild for it! Suddenly, I found myself signing Michael Jackson albums and book covers daily. In fact, I was so into it that I even started carrying sunglasses and a sequined glove with me at all times in case of an impromptu performance. However, it wasn’t all just fun and games – I also led discussions on things I had seen on TV, including a Nostradamus documentary narrated by Orson Welles that absolutely terrified me and my classmate…after I described the whole movie to them in vivid detail.

Despite my newfound popularity, nothing changed between Jason and me. Every day during lunch, we would expand our superhero universe with our drawings. Then, each night after school, we’d discuss our crushes, comic books, and the latest happenings in the GI Joe, Transformers, and He-Man cartoon universes. Jason was my best friend, and he knew the real me – a kid who admired comic book artists and writers more than historic figures, pop superstars, actors, or athletes.

With time, I realized that I didn’t have to try to become a nerd – I was one through and through. In fifth grade, I may not have looked the part, but I knew who I was on the inside. For the first time in my young life, I discovered what truly made me happy: comic books, action figures, Godzilla movies, and things that weren’t considered cool at the time. The following year, I switched to a different school on the other side of town. The Michael Jackson fad faded away, and I was now known as “the skinny, nerdy kid with the long Jheri curl.” But it didn’t matter whether I wasn’t cool anymore or the people in my neighborhood thought I was nerdy or corny. I was comfortable with the person I was becoming, and I embraced him wholeheartedly.

Identity is how you perceive yourself, and no one else’s opinion matters. It is what is inside of you, not what people see on the outside. Society does not define who you are. Your spirit – the thing inside of you that creates fantasies, imagines stories, and allows you to dream and visualize – is the ultimate authority on your identity. Your outward appearance and mannerisms do not define your true self. Be whoever and whatever your imagination will allow you to become. Live in the present moment and keep your mind focused on the one life that you have control over – your own.

When you are content and at peace with yourself, embracing your identity, nothing is impossible for you to achieve. Embrace self-love and cherish the person that your true self has become. When you love yourself, others are drawn to that energy, finding it impossible not to notice and reciprocate. Your presence alone radiates a divine energy as ancient and primal as the cosmos, spreading peace, truth, and love. Remember, I love you and support you unconditionally.

It is time for us to embrace the intricate and diverse nature of identity, and to celebrate the ways in which we all uniquely differ. By doing so, we can foster a more inclusive and accepting society that values each person for their true self.