This evening, my mom told me that someone I knew, a fellow "Black kid", from my hometown high school days passed away. Really, he was found in his apartment in a nearby town, and had likely passed away several days before he was found. The family is keeping it quiet which indicates to me, it was either a suicide or overdose. Mostly because that's what families do, especially Black families.
I didn't know him well. I do know his grandmother though because my Jane of all trade-self, painted for her when she felt like her home was starting to look dingy and needed a refresh. I learned from my dad and on occasion needed the extra money.
I kind of knew him, because growing up Black, in a small town in the 1980s-1990s like I did, there weren't many other Black kids or families. In fact, in a town of of approximately 30,000, there were about five to ten black families at any given time. So it was more than likely we knew of one another. It was also likely that the Black kids we knew were being compared to each other, so it tended to become another type of competition (as if there wasn't enough competition growing up in a ninety-five percent White town).
Whether they were the "smart ones", or the one that was in sports, the one with a sibling that was disabled, or the one that was aimless, underemployed and wandered the streets, or the one who was adopted or the one(s) who dated the white girls... there was always a comparison and always a reference point.
I knew this guy in a few ways. As mentioned, through his grandma; one summer when I painted the front and random bedroom doors, kitchen and a spare bedroom where he slept while he stayed with her during what must have been a rough time. Not many guys in their 20s lived with their grandma, unless you were black or needed help in some way. I don't think that lasted too long though.
I knew he went to the only Catholic high school in town because when we happened to spy each other from cars, visiting friends at each other's schools, or if you had a mom like I did, we passed in the halls during summer school - not because I failed mind you, but because my mom wanted me to accelerate my education in high school - he wore the school's uniform.
I also knew his aunt was a principal at a special needs high school that connected to my high school but even then she wasn't overly friendly to me. We never ran in the same circles, even though our circles were likely virtually made up of the same type of people. Those on the periphery of society. Not quite accepted as the in-crowd, but not completely the "out" crowd either. It almost seemed we belonged nowhere.
Either way, when I saw him in close quarters that summer, I felt that we had more in common than we would have felt comfortable talking about. It wasn't even that long ago, but no one really spoke about mental health in those days. Especially if you were Black. It would have been just one more reason to keep you on the peripheral of acceptance and belonging. So those kinds of conversations were kept under wraps, only to be revealed and discussed in the privacy of a doctor's office. And preferably out of town, if possible.
There were things I wanted to say, but never would have felt comfortable enough to breach the boundaries of bravery and blackness in a White town.
Like how challenging it was to blessed enough to live in a prosperous town while being invisible to teachers and teammates. Like we should be so incredibly grateful for an opportunity for such a privileged experience. Like how our parents were seemingly thankful to have made it in and among the upper middle class even if they were fighting hard to stay there, at the low end. Like it didn't affect marriages and homes in ways others weren't. Like you weren't encouraged to talk about your background with pride, awe and wonderment, or god forbid your race, lest someone more educated than you was accused of being racist because they didn't understand the nuances of systemic racism. Unless of course, it was to exemplify a stereotype where others of accepted backgrounds could laugh along and joke about the latest song or movie that made them feel like they were allowed to wear invisible blackface; be a part of the tomfoolery yet removed enough to know it didn't actually affect them.
I didn't say anything. I barely interacted with him because it would have been a waterfall of words I couldn't hold back. The waterfall I write now.
Maybe he's freer. Maybe the pain in his soul is lessened or even gone altogether. Maybe his spirit has given him the chance to come to terms with what he was missing in this lifetime. Maybe he wasn't missing anything at all and it was just his time to leave this plane.
Being an intuitive, I understand on a soul level things I can't explain. But I can explain a bit of this and understand the various perspectives on a deep level: The confusion of being an outsider for physical reasons you can't change, the unnerving desire to fit in where you know you will never be fully accepted without question, the complexity of just wanting to be deeply loved by those around you because of that experience and yet striving to understand and value your place in a family that doesn't want you to be any more different that you already are. It's numbing, mind boggling and isolating.
And that doesn't include the individual challenges each and every family face; whether the death of a parent as he experienced, or familial sexual abuse as I, and others I know experienced, teenage pregnancy, physical or invisible disabilities and countless other life transforming events.
All in all, I can say this: Representation matters to an unfathomable degree. So does speaking your truth. It frees your heart in a way that nothing else does. Even if no one accepts, listens or likes it, your soul gets a bit freer each time.