“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Life is anything but linear. I’ve come to understand this journey (thanks to loads of mistakes and life coaching) as a winding road that loops and spirals farther and farther away from its starting point. There are moments we revisit and lessons we relearn as we hit adjacent truths, triumphs or traumas along the way. We muster up the courage to make a major career change—again. We make the same awful choices in partners. Or we finally break a pattern we keep repeating in friendships. Each time we come out a bit farther from where we began. My point of return (and return and return)? Appointing myself a poster child of blackness and queerness when no one asked me to play savior.
Don’t leave out the nuanced, ever-changing, ever-evolving, messy parts of yourself. Leave lots of space for it.
As an adolescent and adult, whenever I experienced some kind of dearth in my existence as a [insert socially marginalized identity here], my defense mechanism or mode of survival was to over-exemplify what it meant to be the very thing that was void. I had to be hyper-visible for myself and every other Black girl and woman that shared my story. Whatever I understood and internalized that identity to mean, I became that—to the tenth degree.
After short stints of conformity and being closeted, I became the Caribbeanest Caribbean student at prep school, the blackest Black person in college, and the gayest queer person at the office. I belonged to all the Black student groups and created the ones that didn’t exist. Semester abroad? I signed up for the Motherland, dropped Spanish and learned Kiswahili. In the workplace, I led with my gayness and proudly mentioned my partner before anyone could assume I was straight.
But here’s the thing about boxes (the ones we place our identities in and stand atop to declare we exist and matter): They can consume us. I lost myself before I even learned who I was.
Forming and embracing our multiple layers can be complex and deeply rewarding. Just as I discovered that being Black didn’t look one way, later in life, I had to learn that neither did being queer. In the very boxes I built as a fortress, I had to create room for exploration, expansion, growth, and, at times, contradictions.
Owning our identities can be affirming. They can represent rich heritage and resiliency or a common humanity that unites and mobilizes us in solidarity. It can become problematic when we allow our identities to erase or oversimplify our truths as activists, artists, feminists, queers…as individuals. Don’t leave out the nuanced, ever-changing, ever-evolving, messy parts of yourself. Leave lots of space for it.
I’ve learned that I cannot be the representative for any one of my many identities. But the biggest lesson was that no one asked me to. I put that burden on myself for myself—to exist and to thrive—because it was the only way I knew how. In many ways, it was easier to try to be a poster child instead of unapologetically just being me. It was easier to act from a place of scarcity and overcompensation, instead of acting from a place of enough.
Free Black Girl is a shapeshifter and wild seed. She is a writer, dreamer, self-healer, and freedom seeker.