“Black American ambition, unchecked by healthy doses of fear, would lead to slow, painful death. This was our American story.” –Kiese Laymon
I’ve always dreamed big. My ambition came from my parents. They believe in prophets, signs and visions. When I was around eight years old this prophet visited our church and told my parents that one of their children would become a doctor. I believed that prophet so I guess I believed in prophets, signs and visions too.
I never thought I couldn’t be anything that I put my mind to. My freshman year in high school I saw a movie entitled The Rock which costarred Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. The movie took place in San Francisco and Alcatraz. Cage played a biochemist that specialized in chemical warfare. I loved that movie as a teenager and I knew then I wanted to be a biochemist. I now hold a PhD in biochemistry although I wouldn’t know the first thing about biological weapons. I knew what I wanted to be and with hard work and dedication I achieved my goals. This is the supposed American dream.
The other day I walked down the street to the corner store to buy some snacks for a basketball game I was watching. Since it was chilly out I put on a hoodie. As I entered the store the clerk asked me to take off the hoodie so he could see my face. I didn’t think it was an odd request until I noticed a white man in the store with a hoodie on. I understand it was a safety concern that I had a hoodie on but what made me different from the white man besides the color of my skin? I’m used to being the target of discriminatory practices. As I was walking back home I wondered how many people would view me as suspicious walking around a dark neighborhood with a hoodie on.
I’m 32 years old. I’m a doctor. I’ve never been trouble with the law. Despite this I’m surprised that I’ve lived as long as I have. I know too many of my peers who’ve fallen victim to gun violence, drugs and/or prison. Whenever I drive somewhere and I see a police car in my rearview my heart rate still increases because I know that there’s always the possibility that I could get pulled over for “matching the description of a suspect” or there’s always the possibility of “justifiable homicide”.
Last week a friend and I were asked to speak to a group of children for a program called “Little Geniuses”. They were two groups of children of color (aged 4-7 and 8-12) that lived in NE Washington, D.C. I was asked to tell the children what I do, how I became interested in science and to tell them there are many other types of doctors they can be besides physicians. I told them all about the joys of science and research but I also wanted to explain to their young minds the reality of being born with skin the color of ours. If I could get away with telling the naked truth and being sure they could grasp all I had to say it would have went something like this:
“Good morning young geniuses. You are amazing boys and girls. You can grow up to be anything you want to be. Doctors or lawyers. Engineers or teachers. Nurses or politicians. You are in fact our future kings and queens. You come from a legacy of great men and women do did and do amazing things in this country and around the world. People that look like us have ruled countries. We’ve invented many of the things that we use on a day-to-day basis that makes life more convenient. We’ve been to space, we fly planes and we are write books. It is tragic that there are people who don’t feel the same way that I do or appreciate what people like us have done and continue to do.
I’m unhappy you can’t walk down the street with a hoodie on without fearing for your life. I apologize for you not being able to play your music too loud without the possibility of being shot. I’m sorry that you can’t ask someone for help without being shot in the head. Its sad that even if you are killed or injured because of the color of your skin there will be rationalizations and excuses as to why what happened to you happened. It’s disheartening to see the value that is placed on black life. There are going to be people who hate your very existence because of the color of your skin. What they don’t realize is that they have so much in common with you if they would just open their eyes. These are the type of people who can only feel tall if they believe they can stand over someone; and what easier way to distinguish yourself to feel superior than by race?
I’m not going to tell you to be a bigger, better person and love them even though they hate you. I struggle with that myself. Love your neighbor as you love yourself is lost on me when my neighbor considers me less than them. I followed my dreams to get to be the person you see standing in front of you today. It wasn’t easy; in fact it was a lot harder than it needed to be. I don’t want that to discourage you though. I want you to use the fact that there are people who expect you to fail as motivation to succeed. I would be remiss in my duty here today if I failed to warn you about coupling that ambition to succeed in becoming the kings and queens that you are with apprehension of what can happen to you despite of how far you make it. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but that’s what you have to look forward to being Black in America.”