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You're Not Living Your Life for Others

On the outside, it looked like my family had everything together. We lived in the suburbs in a mostly white neighborhood because the schools were deemed better due to the income bracket the county sat in. Everyone, excluding my father, went to church on Sundays and throughout the week for Bible Study and choir rehearsal. My mother made sure we were presentable: hair combed and braided, clothes cleaned and properly fitting, and because so many of the siblings were close in age range it was not uncommon for us to have matching or color-coordinated outfits. Ultimately, we were a reflection of each other, which meant that we had to be presentable in all ways so as not to make anyone within the family look bad. This also instilled an unsaid but deeply prevalent statute that we were not to discuss any personal business from within the household to anyone that was not part of the household, what happens at home stayed at home. Looking or being too different was frowned upon.

“You’re gonna go outside wearing that?”

“Don’t walk around with your head looking all crazy.”

“Don’t say ‘ain’t’ or people will think you are uneducated. Talk proper.”

Even in school, it became a masquerade on how best to fit in. I learned the art of code-switching early. In the classroom, I sought to be the student my teachers wanted me to be. Even in melanated spaces, I lied about my interests to make myself appear cooler and more relatable. I quickly realized that there was no place, home, school, or church, where I could be me—whoever that was. I thought one day it was something I would grow out of. Perhaps when I went to college I would discover the essence of who I was and become her, but the desperation to fit in, the lack of confidence to simply be me, and the unawareness of what it meant to shed the masks that I had developed over decades of time continued to layer. I did things because I thought it was something I was supposed to do.

Go to college? Yes. I need to do that to get a job.

Drop my southern accent so people could understand me better? Yes. It’ll help in the long run.

Get engaged? Yes, because that is what people do in their late twenties.

Get married even when my gut tells me to slow down? Yes, what will people think if I don’t go through with it after making the announcement?

It took therapy, a divorce, a move, and a pandemic lockdown for me to finally reach up and switch on the lightbulb I had been waiting to come on most of my life. As I sat in my new apartment, all alone with an air mattress that served as my bed, couch, and entertainment space, it hit me—all these people I’m so worried about aren’t here right now. Only I was left to pick up the pieces of the life of filters I had created. For so long, I had been living my life based on what others thought, but I was never really living according to the life I wanted. In fact, I didn’t really know what I wanted or who I was, and so began an authentic evolution of shifting perspectives and authentic evolution. This evolution would not be posted for the masses or facilitated by the number of likes at the bottom of my posts. It would be a quiet and steady transformation privy only to those on similar paths of self-discovery.

It did me no justice to hide myself or second-guess my actions and interests. So, I’m doing all the things I want to do: sewing class, yoga, swim lessons, creating my own style, dancing barefoot in the rain, doing cartwheels in the park, laughing hard and loud, choosing love, wearing my hair tangled and wild, and easily letting my tongue slip in and out of “ain’t,” “chile,” and “gonna” because that’s me. Whether I have it together or not, it is my life to shape and create. Because when I look in the mirror, all I see is me and no one else.


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