Middlesex United Way: Courage means believing your life matters

This week’s Middlesex United Way guest column is taking the opportunity to use our platform to help elevate the voices of those in the Black community. This week features a guest column written by Kwamena Blankson, a mental health advocate and legal consultant. We want to do our part to create an environment where everyone is heard and seen. — President and CEO Kevin Wilhelm.
It is almost 4 a.m. Before midnight, my 13-year-old crawled into bed beside me, crying. When I asked what was wrong, she said, “I just need to know you’re safe.”
I reassured her with sentiments about love, God and justice. Once her smile returned, I sent her back to bed.
I have not been able to fall back asleep. I can still hear her breaking voice and my hollow words.
The things I told her were true, but I did not tell her the whole truth. I have always been silent about the whole truth, at least as far as it pertains to me. One day, I will be ashamed to tell her just how silent I have been.
In New York City, I was silent in kindergarten when we first arrived in the United States from Ghana. Kids made fun of my broken English, so I became ashamed of both my English and my native language. I eventually mastered one and buried the other.
In Minneapolis, I was silent in elementary school when older kids repeatedly asked me what it was like to live in the jungle — not what life in Ghana had been like. They just needed me to affirm their preconceived notions about Africa. I laughed, thinking they were joking. But they were not.
In Birmingham, I was silent on the first day of middle school when a group of boys approached me, the only black student in the class, and asked how I felt about the n-word. I was nervous, so I just laughed and shrugged off their question.
I was silent when kids at an all-Black summer camp called me Kunta Kente because I was not “black like them.” I laughed — the joke was on them, since I had passed the entrance exam for a private school on the other side of town. I just had to survive the summer.
I was silent when, as the only Black male at my new school, I was called the n-word by some boys during gym in junior high. I finally broke my silence, but only to my parents. They reported the incident to a school administrator, and the bullying got worse. Just without the n-word.
I was silent all through high school, believing my actions spoke louder than any words I could muster in my defense. After all, if my academic performance proved I belonged there, I would eventually be accepted as “one of them” — an equal.
Occasionally, I was reminded that grades and good behavior were irrelevant. One summer day, I drove to the wealthiest suburb to pick up a friend who had just returned from boarding school. We drove through those better neighborhoods, reminiscing about the fun we had together when he had attended my high school.
We noticed that a police car was tailing us, matching every turn I took, then stopped following us once we crossed the invisible line separating that suburb from the rest of the city. I was disturbed, but my friend laughed. He said that was the first time the police had ever followed him anywhere.
Shortly before graduation, seniors had to announce what college acceptance letters they had received. In my mind, this was the day of vindication, the day there would be no question whether and/or where I belonged.
I remember sitting at the back of our English class as each student listed their colleges with pride. My turn came, and for a moment I was whole, at least by the world’s standards. Then someone asked the headmaster (our English teacher) whether I had been accepted to those three Ivy League schools because I was Black.
After that, I held on to hope just a little longer. But I could not walk around with my SAT and ACT scores printed on the front and back of my shirt. Achievements were irrelevant compared to two facts: I was neither white — nor Black enough.
Although I hid it fairly well, I was a mess in college and law school, but those years made me who I am today. Taking my eyes off of myself let me notice a world full of people carrying burdens much greater than any I carried. I am pleased to say my first 30 years made me who I was meant to be instead of who I wanted to be.
And that is what I hope my daughters learn from these and other stories I will start telling them tomorrow. Because I don’t want them to fear the world and what it might do to us.
Yes, I will be ashamed to admit how silent I was when faced with painful realities. I who challenge them to “dare to be the difference.” I myself failed to be “anti-racist” on occasions when I could have and should have taken a stand, not just for myself but for anyone living unheard and unseen in the margins.
But the shame of sharing those memories and showing the scars left by cowardice, all of that will be worth it if my children learn the following life lessons much sooner than I did:
Sometimes courage means: believing you are lovable and loved by the people who know the real you, and believing your voice matters, even if no one seems to be listening — believing your life matters, even if the world seems to disagree.
Kwamena Blankson served as a legal advocate for patients in the general psychiatry division of Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown for 13 years.