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The Experiences That Shape Us

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By Derrick Dawson
“…I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the front upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you…” ~ Audre Lorde, There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions

Have you ever lied when someone asked you if you’ve read a certain book? I have. I lied because I knew it was an important book that I should have read and was embarrassed because I hadn’t, or because I had never heard of it.

The latter was the case the first time I heard this Audre Lorde quote. I was in my mid 30s and had never heard of Audre Lorde. I am familiar with a Malcolm X quote that says something like “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

I grew up on the far south side of Chicago in an area called Burnside, around 91st and Cottage Grove. Street gangs were outside of my reality then. I never knew or feared them. My fear was from the ethnic white kids -- the Hungarians, Bohemians and others from the steel mills and factories east of the Illinois Central Railroad tracks where my elementary school was -- Oliver Hazard Perry; the tracks’s viaduct (or as we knew it, the vydock) we had to run to get through after school before they caught us and beat us.

Burnside of the late 60s and early 70s was one of the city’s primary areas of white flight. When my brother Dwayne and I started at Perry, we were among the few black kids at that school. By the time we left in 1976, our 8th grade graduation class was all black.

There were times when I hung out with other kids on the block. Vicki & Terri, Anita and Michael. But most of the time I kept to myself. Reading, watching. Wearing a perpetual scowl and mad at the world. Playing tennis and swimming at Tuley Park every summer day, and riding my bike.

And I was an explorer and an adventurer. By now my mother was a single parent. She always found responsible men to expose me to things. Some things, like the Boy Scouts, were good for me. Others, like baseball, karate and the Pentecostal church didn't take. My favorite thing to do was explore Chicago. I would steal quarters from my mother's purse, buy a snow-cone at 91st, get on the Cottage Grove bus and ride for hours.

"I somehow understood that while there was nothing wrong with my sexuality, there was also no place for it in my family, my community or the world."

By now, based at least in part on my crush on a 7th grade classmate I knew I was gay -- or whatever it was called in the mid 70's. But since the favorite words of my father and most of the black men around me seemed to be sissy and faggot, I hid this part of myself. When my mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles played Friday night poker in our cramped, rented apartment on 91st street, a regular poetic refrain was “happy as a sissy in a CC camp,” and I knew what and who they referred to long before I knew what a CC camp was. I somehow understood that while there was nothing wrong with my sexuality, there was also no place for it in my family, my community or the world. I understood early how to compartmentalize my life. I learned so well, in fact, that I have been trying to unlearn it, without much success according to most around me, ever since. Compartmentalization is an interesting survival technique. At first it feels empowering; something to be proud of; like a baker who masters a new recipe. But one day you realize the new skill is a recipe for loneliness and isolation.

These are the experiences that shape us. They shape us early and continuously. They come from our families, our cultures, our places. When the shaping configures us into forms we understand to be even slightly outside of normal, we do everything we can to normalize ourselves; easily intuiting that not to do so leads to marginalization, discrimination and isolation.

Colorado was also where I experienced a short but impactful bout with homelessness. I arrived at the University of Colorado at Boulder to study Architecture, which was my first and only love during high school in Chicago. After realizing my classmates were alien to me, I immersed myself in the world of Sullivan, Wright, Mies and Burnham and spent most of my senior year of high school ignoring the silliness of school and working for an architecture firm in the loop. Unfortunately, I was already in Boulder when I realized no one had told me that the study of architecture involved more than the romance of pretty buildings. There was math and science and I was not having it.

Presenting the world through the eyes of the marginalized

I managed to parlay that experience into a job in the English department as a tutor for often functionally illiterate black athletes. I was working at that job in the campus’ main library where I was first racially profiled when I was detained by the police while leaving the library after work one night. Apparently I fit the description of someone who allegedly stole a wallet out of a white women’s backpack. I know she was white because they brought her out to identify me sitting in the back of the police cruiser.

Within two years the economy sank into a profound recession. I lost my financial aid and scholarship money and could no longer afford tuition or housing. At 19 or 20 years old it never occurred to me to ask for help, nor did I think there was anyone who could or would help. I found a job that did not allow me to pay rent so I left my things behind and slept wherever I could for a few months. As the winter approached, I joined the Navy and became a journalist and broadcaster.

I spent my time in the Navy in the Pacific and South Seas, including a lot of time in the Philippines and Japan where work, relationships and experiences pried my eyes open.

By the time I left the Navy 10 years later, I still felt like there was too much I didn’t know. An American Indian friend talked to me about her background as a Karuk Indian. Not only had I not heard of the tribe but I knew nothing about Native American history or culture. I had seen Indians in Colorado, but I didn’t know anything about them and I never bothered to learn. Previous to that I knew that every black person I came across on the South Side was part Indian, even if I didn’t understand, until Dr. Henry Louis Gates taught me that that declaration was based more in an unconscious distancing from blackness than in any genealogical reality.

Another friend was Hmong. No idea what that meant either. With years of higher education at that point, I felt uneducated and ignorant. I had to eventually reconcile these feelings of inadequacy with the amount of things I did know and understand – most of which had to do with being black in America and black in the world, black in the military. Black in college. My subsequent travels through China and Southeast Asia were meager attempts to mitigate my ignorance.

It wasn’t just to me as an individual that these things were happening. They were happening to my identity as well as to women’s identities. Eventually I came to understand discrimination, marginalization and exclusion had everything to do with identity. A couple of years ago a University of Illinois at Chicago group called Bodies of Work held an event at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. It was a series of education and performance events by people living with disabilities. It was a powerful experience that helped me gain a deeper understanding about people with disabilities, their lives and the marginalization they experienced. But what most valuable was the proximity to people I would have otherwise been afraid to get close to, and their generosity in allowing my nervousness in time to dissipate.

"Getting used to my identity as a person with a disability is a lot like wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes as a kid. It’s real and it’s inevitable."

It was exactly a year ago that I began to apply my new understanding when my right leg was amputated below the knee after a series of illnesses. In a matter of hours I added disability to the list of identities I carried. I had a lifetime to integrate and internalize some of my other identities– black, gay, this would be my first opportunity to attempt to integrate dominant identities as an adult. It’s a work in progress, but I have come to clearly understand that my dominant identity is black American male, but I carry many other identities as well. Some I carry comfortably, some I do not. Getting used to my identity as a person with a disability is a lot like wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes as a kid. It’s real and it’s inevitable. I’m wearing it, and I’m sure I’ll get used to it. But right now that identity doesn’t quite fit. In public I do everything to appear normal and brave. But behind closed doors I’m faced with the reality of living in a wheelchair and on crutches; living within and attempting to challenge painful, physical and psychological limitations.

While working through that process I am learning what it means to be marginalized based on that identity – combined with all of the others. One of the tropes often heard in the black community is “damn, I’m already black. I’m supposed to deal with being black and gay? That’s too much to bear.” Black, gay, wheelchair. Yeah. No. Imagine brown, trans, undocumented, mental illness, fat, thin, etc. And as daunting a thought as that is the reality is that most of us carry some combination of those identities in a culture that wants to snuff out all of them.

I was well into my 30s when I was introduced to Audre Lorde and her work on identity and oppression. I was introduced to her in the unlikely place of St. Martin’s , in the Austin community on Chicago’s west side. It also took me a minute to understand what was meant by hierarchy of oppressions even though I was intimately and actively engaged with that struggle.

I had stumbled onto St. Martin’s because a friend invited me to witness his joining the church. He had concluded that he could no longer reconcile his homosexuality and Catholicism. That first day at St. Martin’s I discovered a community of people who had made intentional efforts to create anti-racist, anti-oppressive identities. Until that moment I thought those identities were antithetical to Christianity.

Rev. Juan Y Reed, St. Martin’s priest at the time, sent me to a Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training workshop. That experience was the beginning of my formal education in anti-oppression work. I was mesmerized and instantly committed. That workshop put my life to that point in context and gave me new understanding of the complex relationships with myself and my various and shifting identities. At this point I understood that I knew a lot about race, racism, oppression and marginalization. I also recognized how much I did not know or understand.

There are times when identity, like sexuality, can be locked up into containers -- not without dire consequences, but it has been done. There are other times when this is not possible. Many of us -- most of us -- wear marginalized identities in ways that won't or can't be hidden. The solution is not to devise more robust and creative ways to force those identities into a box of conformity, but to dismantle the false paradigm of normalcy altogether.

When writer and advocate Janet Mock talks about her transition, she emphasizes that her greatest transition was not in gaining the physical embodiment of a woman, but changing from a person who sought safety and acceptance by trying to fit in by hiding who she was to a person who asks and answers the questions "Who am I? Who am I meant to be? And how does one live fully into whatever that answer is."

Similarly, Ann Lamott recently wrote that she wished there was a website we could turn to called, "What it means, what is true, and what to do.”"StoriesConnect seeks to add a systemic, institutional lens to Lamott’s questions. We realize that there are any number of ways to approach these topics. As I write this in Chicago the city is reeling from the killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a Chicago Police officer amid an apparent cover-up by the city; leading presidential candidates are leading in polls by espousing blatantly racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric. Young people in Minneapolis were struck down by white-supremacist snipers.

If it is possible, oppression and marginalization seem to be expanding. Although the hate is palpable and a hateful response often seems reasonable, the late Maya Angelou said that “hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” Our commitment is to offer companionship on a journey toward a systematic analysis and understanding of identity, oppression and marginalization.

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6 Comments on "The Experiences That Shape Us"

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Chris Williams
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wonderful article

Daniel Sheranian
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Keep it up Derrick. Great read. Thanks for sharing.

Larry Nance
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This is an incredible piece Derrick. I like how you explore multiple identities and how difficult it is sometimes for them to co-exist.

Gary L Magruder
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Fascinating and informative read…….the next thing one knows ,you will be writing a novel , Sleeping With A Native Son or the like ….no small complement. Keep it up !

Carolyn Bavaro
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Thank you for so courageously sharing the journey of your life Derrick, and the wisdom gleaned from those struggles.

Bob Purcell
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Derrick, Thank you for sharing

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