Finally Owning My Blackness (Part 2)

I was about twelve years-old when I first started chemically relaxing (aka damaging) my hair. Before that, a small fortune was spent on every type of gel, spray, and hair product imaginable in an attempt to tame my afro—everyday plastering on copious amounts, trying my best to slick back my hair just like all the other boys I knew. Despite all my efforts trying to achieve an “LA Look,” I still never managed to look like the other boys. In no way did this hinder my attempts to do so however. Please for a moment just imagine me at age seven, walking into a barbershop with my tiny fro, asking for a “mushroom cut,” only to come out looking like a character from Super Mario Bros. I swear, I’ve always been so extra! The truth is though, I just didn’t want to have a “brillo pad” anymore. I didn’t think being different was cool, and I didn’t even know how to manage or style it. It wasn’t until I was fifteen or so, that my older brother took me to a barbershop that knew how to cut people with my type of hair. In the meantime, I wanted the soft, flowing, wavy, “good hair” too. The kind of hair that would blow in the wind, or that I could shake off when I got out of the shower. I was jealous and couldn’t understand why I had to be so different.

It was on one Sunday afternoon while sitting in our kitchen watching my mom “relax” my sister’s hair for the first time, that I made up my mind that I wanted to do the same for myself. I was fascinated by the transformation process, and after seeing the instant results and change in texture, I was obsessed with the idea of getting my hair straightened too. It took quite a bit of convincing, but eventually I was finally able to get my mom to agree. I was so excited for my new luscious, “easy breezy” hairdo, that I could hardly wait to show off in school and gloat to my classmates, almost as if to say, “Look! My Blackness is gone!”

As mentioned in my previous entry, I grew up in a bubble of sorts—the “happy valley.” And I can honestly say that yes, I grew up very happy! The only problem being that I wasn’t completely sure of who I was. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, and I didn’t know exactly where I fit in. This was therefore the perfect environment in which my identity crisis could thrive. The only thing I could think to do was take notes from the limited pool of people around me, and implement the examples of what I saw into my own lifestyle. I began wearing colored contacts (green & blue to be exact), listening to different music, dressing very conservatively and always in a fresh button down. I even went so far as to put natural sun highlighter spray in my hair one summer. Everyone had highlights, so I thought I needed them too. Unfortunately for me, that experiment went horribly wrong, turning my hair into a rusted copper color instead of a nice golden blonde. Even still, I rocked the hell out of it, because in my mind I had done everything necessary in order to blend in, and I looked good!

It was not until college that I was really exposed to different cultures from all over the world, including my own. It was there that I really learned that it was okay to be me. Columbia University was full of diversity. Being in the heart of New York City, I experienced so many new perspectives on life. In fact, I’d had no idea the extent of my naïveté, until I was finally exposed to the real world outside my bubble, even offending some in my process. Looking back however, even the offenses greatly contributed to my growth. Again, my hometown was so small, and I grew up extremely sheltered. I really didn’t know any better. It was mesmerizing to be in a big city surrounded by so many different lifestyles and backgrounds. As a point to myself, I immediately joined “the Black (W)hole,” which was a small off-campus based black student organization that was dedicated to open-minded and abstract inter-racial thinking. Whenever we got together, serious deep conversations always led to non-stop hysterical laughter. It was in this group that I finally met more people like me, which was so refreshing. I also met more women like my mother and sister. Strong-minded, intelligent, independent, achieving, powerful black women. I learned that life sometimes involves going against the grain every now and again, and that it is so important to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. I learned about all different kinds of religious and political beliefs that I’d never been exposed to growing up. I learned more about my own culture as well, and in that realizing just how little I knew about black history. I didn’t feel good about that, and made a it a point to change that!

People were quick to challenge my thinking and my belief systems, and they weren’t shy in doing so. Through deep intellectual conversations and debates, I learned that my ways of thinking were not the only ones to exist—the world in fact did not revolve around me as my pampered lifestyle had lead me to believe. In that same regard, this was the first time that I had really ever heard anyone be so openly accepting of alternative lifestyles. But people sure as hell weren’t afraid to tell me when I sounded ignorant or misinformed either. I felt honored to be among so many intelligent people from all around the globe, and to be given the chance to expand my own mind in the process of getting to know all of them. Nobody seemed to be hiding who they were. With that seemed to come so much honor and pride. To me, this was incredibly inspiring to see. I wanted so badly to be unapologetically black. So much so, that I then went to the complete extreme of feeling this diehard need to prove my ethnicity. Within weeks of being at school, I began twisting and braiding my hair. Caribbean flags and decals were hung everywhere. I joined several more black student organizations and associations. I started speaking more Creole with my new Haitian friends, which prior to that I never spoke outside of my home. I attended several Caribbean parties and festivals, and I’m telling you the music just hit my soul different. It felt amazing to finally embrace parts of my life that I had previously worked so hard to deny. Little did I know however, of the affects that bringing this newfound ethnicity back to my hometown would have on me.

For the first time in my life, I began experiencing moments of feeling like a complete stranger back in my own hometown. It quickly became evident that the underlying judgement people spoke of, in fact always existed. I was just never aware of where it was, until I finally let my blackness show. Even my parents, who remained very supportive of my internal crisis, I know were also patiently waiting for the “phase” to end. Which was all very strange considering this was the first time that I felt as if I was learning to embrace the roots of my true authentic self. I had grown a backbone and finally wasn’t hiding anymore. And the reality is that some people really didn’t like what they saw! The long stares and dirty looks were enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Imagine being repeatedly told to cut off your hair because it would look much cleaner that way. Imagine hearing racial slurs casually thrown around in your presence because, “you’re not really black black. At least not like the dirty ghetto kind.” Imagine being pulled over and harassed by the cops just minutes away from where you live. Imagine a competitive game of beer pong turning into my brother and our close friend being called half-n*ggers just because they won. Imagine having to meet my cousin down the street for my whole life, to explain to police that “what he’s doing here is visiting me,” just because his complexion is a few shades darker than mine. Imagine one of your best friends turning to you at a pool party and asking, “what the f*ck is that n*gger doing here?!” all while staring at your cousin. Furthermore, I love how people are so quick to point the racist finger at white people, when that’s so far from true. It was an Indian gentleman who followed me around the aisles of a store in my town for over 10 years. It was an Asian gentleman who asked me, “you have money?” as soon I set foot in his store. It was the Latino who shouted to my friends and I, “we don’t want you here, you go!” Racism exists everywhere!

I will tell you this, having a progressively deteriorating muscle disorder will do a lot of things to a person. For me personally, it has pushed me into a place of self-acceptance. I’m tired of making excuses and apologizing for who I am. And I’m tired of not being able to have the strength to talk about myself with conviction. And yet, when you’re left laying half paralyzed in a bed, letting sweet dreams of regret consume you as you think of all the healthier days that you sacrificed, instead of living the shit out of your best life…you quickly start to realize you just can’t give a f*ck what anyone thinks anymore.

I can’t even lie to you. A lot of these emotions came up in light of recent events. Watching the gruesome video of George Floyd take his last breaths as four police officers took his life, simply flipped a switch in me. No more! And yet, I feel as though I have learned and grown so much, in his honor. I have learned not to be fearful in using my voice and my platform to stand up for what I believe to be right. I have learned not to be scared to publicly embrace my ethnicity, and therefore not to hesitate when asked, “what are you?!” but rather to reply with enthusiasm, “I am black!” I have also learned to pause and listen. It’s so easy to jump to conclusions and point blame without stopping to understand others first. Yes, racism exists and yes it is very much deep rooted; this is not a problem that can be fixed overnight! It is important to note that there are also a number of people who just need to be educated because, like I was at one point, they simply don’t know any better. I understand and feel the pain, the sadness, the anger, the rage, and the exhaustion. I’d be lying if I said that if one of my family members was killed so brutally, that I wouldn’t want to burn down every city too. “I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying that I understand.”

Changes must be made! But we can only achieve that if we come together and operate cohesively. I do believe that already today, we are better off than yesterday because people are finally paying attention. But don’t fall into the trap of embracing hate and negativity, simply because of what you’re bombarded with daily on the news and social media. Take a break if you need to! Instead make an effort to listen to the stories of others and empathize. Some may never get it, but you can still acknowledge that the pain is real. Take action! Donate! Vote! As human beings we should already know that “all lives matter” because that’s a given. We simply need to get to a point where black lives are incorporated into the equation as well. I am proud to say that I have finally reached a point in my life that I am no longer conflicted about who I am. I am no longer hesitant. I am no longer ashamed. If anything, I now enjoy being so different while living in this crazy world where people do anything to try and stand out! Today I can say with assurance that I am a proud Black-American, disabled, bi-sexual man who embraces every element of what makes me, me! 💙💙💙

#Blacklivesmatter Text FLYOD to 551-56 to sign the petition and donate! ✊🏽🖤

In Loving Memory of George Floyd!

About 1 Man, 3 Hearts

After collapsing in my NJ home one night at the age of six, due to heart failure, doctors were convinced that I would not live to see my seventh birthday. Three decades later, I have defied all the odds that were placed against me. I will be turning thirty-seven this summer. Upon discovery that I was in complete heart failure (age 6), I was rushed to the NIH research hospital in Maryland. At this time, I had an emergency dual chamber pacemaker implanted. Since then I have survived two heart transplants, a kidney transplant, gall bladder removal, lung collapse, pain medication drug overdose, and a tracheotomy. Unfortunately my transplanted kidney failed two years ago placing me back on dialysis three times per week. At the age of twenty-seven, I was diagnosed with a rare muscular disease known as Myofibrillar Myopathy. This disease progressively attacks the various muscle groups of a person’s body over time. In my case, it was discovered that this disease was also responsible for initially attacking my heart muscle at age 6. In the last two years, I have lost usage of about eighty percent of my bodily function to my illness. I am currently wheelchair bound, sleep with a ventilator every single night, and require the assistance of a full time (24/7) personal aide who resides with me. My life is full of challenges, it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve had my share of dark moments. However, I refuse to allow this to keep me from enjoying life and living everyday to the fullest. I have gained a great deal of perspective and learned many valuable lessons over the course of my life. My goal is to be able to give back and share my story in a way that can help others who may be facing difficult circumstances and encourage them to keep fighting. I also believe it is important to raise awareness for rare diseases as well as the importance of organ donation. I have chronicled my life in a book, “1 Man, 3 Hearts, 9 Lives,” available for purchase on Amazon. I truly appreciate all your support, thank you! 💙
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15 Responses to Finally Owning My Blackness (Part 2)

  1. Jennifer Lafontant says:

    One week later , and another powerful read . The hair ! Chris , I remember all the phases , and yes I waited patiently for each one to pass , not knowing how much this impacted you and your struggle to identify . Growing up in Jamaica, I hated Monday’s . My Mom styled my hair in big curls , refreshed from Sunday . I was teased by the girls with darker skin tone whose hair texture did not lend itself to curls . I could not wait to have my braids to identify with them . I hated my eye color because I was tested that I had ‘ cat eyes’ You have lived through the phases and the struggles with your identity . You have overcome and now you are proud of who you are ! Your disability does not define you , but your strength , fine education , your courage , your kind heart , your zest for life , to name a few are what make you such an exceptional man . May your readers gain strength from you . God bless America ! We pray for peace , love and unity . I love you my son

    • Thank you so much Mom! You are my biggest fan and therefore, your feedback always means everything to me. It also feels so good to finally share things that I’ve kept secret from you for so long, through my writing; opening the door to even deeper honest communication and an even healthier relationship. It’s so important! I love you with all my heart(s)!

    • Thank you so much Mom! You are my living guardian angel. I love you so much!! 😘💙

  2. Loni says:

    I could not have said this any better. What a powerful memoir! I too wasted a lot of my youth uncomfortable with myself. Now, I’ve learned to embrace the skin I’m in, the curls on my head, and my unique features. My response to people who just don’t like me for me is, “I don’t f*** with you”. I say it confidently too. Thank you again for this beautiful piece of work. 🙏🏽❤️

  3. Radame Perez says:

    Another master piece and always so relatable. I wouldn’t take anything back from my childhood but I too remember the challenges of growing up different in the “happy valley”. My family moved from The Bronx in 1982 and from the first day at that new school, I noticed the differences. For one, my prior classmates were all either Black or Puerto Rican – so both places lacked cultural diversity but at least the other school made me feel less foreign because all the students looked a lot like me and my family. I guess that’s why I immediately wanted to welcome you and your family, when your older brother arrived at our school 4 or 5 years later. It was like I knew there would be these neighbors, classmates and friends that shared my cultural experience or at least that I could identify with. I had already made some good friends in town and at school but having been the first and only Puerto Ricans at the time, I felt good to see others that reminded me of that other happy place – my soul. Thanks for allowing me to feel nostalgic, happy, sad and proud all at the same time with your weekly blog entries.

    • Thank you so much Rad! I can’t even begin to tell you how much your feedback means to me. Every time, your words hit deep. I couldn’t agree more in that it was so nice to have your family come together with ours—a truly special bond that I will treasure forever. Knowing that you felt similarly growing up strangely puts me at ease and makes sharing my experiences that much more worth it. So thank you so much for sharing. You are for sure one of the main people who encourage me to carry on with my purpose and continue writing. You’re the best! 💙

    • Ahhhh thanks Rad, and thanks for sharing your experiences and views as well. So interesting and also comforting to know that you felt similarly. The Perez family has and will always be extremely important to our family—a bond that will never be broken. Love you so much man! 💙

  4. Mary Falkenstern says:

    Grateful to hear your voice and learn from your story yet again, Christophe. Thank you.

  5. gladys dorcilien says:

    My goodness, that story almost made me cry. Those officers could have done you like they Gorges F. So sorry. 😦

    On Sat, Jun 6, 2020, 12:23 PM Barely Walking is Better Than Not Walking! wrote:

    > 1 Man, 3 Hearts posted: ” I was about twelve years-old when I first > started chemically relaxing my hair; which is largely responsible for the > thinning that I am now currently experiencing. Before that, I had my mom > spend a small fortune on various gels and other hair products in” >

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