“There are parts of the story that feel uptight,” my friend said, sharing with me his critique of a piece that I’m currently working on.
As soon as he uttered the words, I knew exactly what he meant. Because it’s been said to me throughout my life. My friend’s critique shocked me back into the present.
I’m censoring myself again, in my writing and in my life. And I can see how this self-censorship has influenced my experience here in Stockholm, Sweden these last 76 days. My friend’s assessment reminds me that I need to continue to work on being honest and vulnerable. My inner saboteur’s voice has been stifling my essence, getting in the way of me sharing my protagonist’s story.
My story’s protagonist is black and gay. In my own life I wage an internal struggle of fretting that these two descriptors overshadow other parts of who I am. As a gay man, I worry that a person’s awareness of this may bring me emotional and/or physical harm. However, black isn’t something I have to reveal to someone. And so I battle more against the expected and negative expectations surrounding this part of me.
As a sheltered and shy kid from Phoenix, Arizona, my formative years I lived mainly around non-blacks, and thus always sensed I was an outsider. And even though I was a fountain of knowledge with regards to black American history, I was aware too that my disinterest in sports and phrases and music made popular by black youth also made me unpopular. I remember those perplexed looks when I’d reveal that I didn’t know how to toss a football, pepper my speech with urban slang or deliver the latest hand gestures or dance moves. However, it seemed that because I was book smart, quiet and well-spoken, those who weren’t black usually left me alone.
However, during my teen years, I became aware that being an urbane young black person who sounded white and liked U.K. music acts like Five Star, The Style Council and Depeche Mode made me a suspect around other blacks. It was during this time too when the word Oreo was first hurled at me, a pejorative used for someone with some of my characteristics.
Which brings me to where I’m at now in Sweden, a country with a smaller black population than the United States. This isn't an issue for me, as long as I feel safe and respected. However, I’m not pollyanna about life. I’ve lived long enough to know that being outside of the U.S. doesn’t remove the realities of racism and homophobia that may revisit me.
My biggest challenge around being a black American expatriate in Sweden is that I worry that wanting to work and live in Stockholm may solidify my particular brand of blackness, which may never be deemed as one of the authentic representations of our diverse community.
But if I return to my friend’s words regarding my protagonist, suppressing the nature of his voice and his aspirations will keep him flat and two-dimensional. I don’t want this for him. And I don’t want it for myself. It reminds me too of something that my mother used to say me: “Regardless of who you are and what you do, people are going to talk about you.”
I also remember a mantra a dear friend used to stay to me: “This is the only me that I’ve got. So I better start learning how to love him.”