Who Taught You to Love Yourself: Learning From the Ghosts of Gun Violence
As a general rule, I hate movie scenes that take place in the rain. Not necessarily because of the rain itself, but because whenever you see rain you know someone is sad, or in love, or sadly in love, or dying. I believe in the human capacity for imagination, and that we haven't come up with a better device to show melancholy or romance than some storm clouds and a light drizzle, kinda pisses me off.
Yet, there I was, a 21-year-old college senior, standing in front of his girlfriend, outside of her dorm, with dark clouds and a light rain falling down. I'd have avoided it if I could have. I'd have chosen a sunny 74 degree day with a slight breeze coming in from the northeast if I could have. But this was important. We had to talk.
I needed to hear what she had to say. She had to answer my question.
"Why does anyone care about me?!?"
We were on the cusp of graduation, preparing to be thrust into a real world being overtaken by a financial meltdown and global recession from which we still haven't recovered. I had spent four years thinking I wanted to be a lawyer, then realizing I had zero interest in law, then changing my mind and settling on graduate school and a life of the mind, then realizing I wasn't at all prepared for that because the time I hadn't spent working for the school paper and starting trouble I devoted to completely bullshitting. I had no plans for my future because I had never anticipated I would have one.
At 21, I had lived longer than I had ever bargained for and was disappointing everyone around me by not doing more. I was an underachieving know-it-all going through the second major depression of his life. I didn't know it at the time, or rather I chose to ignore all the signs. But the vodka knew. The sleepless nights and skipped classes knew. The one meal a day knew. The pants that started falling off my waist knew. My sunken face knew. Everyone that kept asking me, without prompting, "Mychal, are you OK?" somehow knew. And I needed to know: why did any of them give a fuck?
People have used a lot of different adjectives to describe me throughout my life, some of them to my face. I've been called smart, sweet, funny, sarcastic, asshole, immature, silly, articulate, intelligent, short, arrogant, cute, shy, spoiled, crazy, incorrigible, and a host of other accurate, complimentary, derogatory, and contradictory terms. Apparently none of that mattered. The only thing she came up with to answer my question, to tell me why anyone would bother to give a damn about me, was the fact that I was... me. How little self-esteem do you have to have to not even think of that as an option?
Malcolm X was my first hero. When I was seven, I stood in front my second grade class and delivered a Black History Month report on him that frightened half of the other kids. I barely understood it then, but I read his autobiography anyway, and then again when I was 10, and once more when I was 16. These days, I keep it on my nightstand like other people might keep the Bible. Like any devoted black radical, I've worshipped Malcolm's every word. There's this speech he gave, one not as famous as "By Any Means Necessary," but just as important to anyone learning about their blackness through the prism of Malcolm's growth, and it poses a question as poignant now as it was then.
"Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?"
Who taught you to hate yourself? You've got to turn it over a few times and really feel it out before you can even broach an answer. In all likelihood, before you heard the question, you probably never considered the idea that you hated yourself. You resented the question for putting the thought in your head and blame Malcolm for planting the seeds of self-loathing. The truth is that the question was there all along and you just kept it at bay with silly distractions.
I had no shortage of answers to that question. It was white supremacy; of course, as Malcolm's original question alluded to. But it was also that girl in third grade that called me ugly when she didn't think I could hear. It was my big cousins that made me feel like the ultimate herb when I didn't know the latest slang, or hadn't heard the new Tupac record, or because I squirmed and tried to cover my eyes, like my parents would have done, when we watched movies with sex scenes. It was that kid in sixth grade who called me nigger during a game of flag football. It was my "friends" in high school that let me shadow them in the halls, and even gave me a nickname, Fresh Mike, but never actually invited me to hang out with them outside of school. It was whoever shot my cousin Demetri when I was 12. It was my father who could brag about me in front of friends, family, and complete strangers, but made me feel like, even when I brought home straight A's, I wasn't living up to my potential.
It was my father who didn't spend a whole lot of time at home, but what intimate memories I do have of him all involve yelling about God knows what. It was my father who never missed an opportunity to remind me of my shortcomings. It was my father who, each time I failed to live up to his vision of me, would say, "That's not my son." It was me for believing everything anyone ever said about me.
Standing in the rain with my girlfriend that day, I came to the conclusion that I had spent too much time answering the wrong question. I knew where the hate came from, but knowing wasn't enough. Going forward, I needed to start asking myself the inverse: Who taught you to love yourself?
I force myself to ask the question, Who taught you to love yourself, every time I hear mention of Chief Keef, the teenaged rapper notorious for celebrating death, toting guns, and reveling in his gang affiliation. Chief Keef fills the newest popular incarnation of "young, black, and just don't give a fuck." Keef is every nihilistic impulse associated with growing up as black man in America rolled into a diminutive, bird-chested, foul-mouthed package, sporting medium-length dreadlocks.
I had heard the phrase ("that's that shit I don't like") that made Keef popular before hearing of him or the song. It's catchy, and in a world where a lot of shit can piss you off, it's a pleasantly concise rejoinder to it all. Chief Keef isn't doing or saying anything that hasn't been seen or heard in hip-hop for the past 25 years, but he's doing it at the most inopportune moment, in the most inopportune place. Chief Keef is from South Side of Chicago and the nation's eyes are on South Side Chicago because, well, the South Side of Chicago is burning from the inside out.
Every time I hear about another shooting in Chicago, I think about my cousin, Demetri. I don't talk about him much. Rather, I've learned how to talk about him without ever really talking about him. I tell people all the time my big cousin was shot and killed when he was 17 and I was 12. He was shot seven times. I cried at the funeral. We all did. Even my notoriously stoic grandmother shed a tear or two from the front row. I tell people his father died about a year later, due to complications from HIV, and it was the toughest period in my life. I don't tell anyone that it all helped me hate myself.
My therapist told me it was survivor's guilt. That's fancy psychology talk for hating yourself for being alive while seeing death all around you. I believe in fancy psychology talk sometimes. I also believe in ghosts. When everyone you grew up with, and everyone who looks like you, and everyone you love is getting murdered, yet you somehow managed to survive, the ghosts haunt you. Those ghosts haunted me and made death sound easy. And I know I'm not the only one.
Think of all the ghosts in Chicago teaching black boys to hate themselves. Now throw in local celebrity Chief Keef enjoying the success of a hit song where he grunts:
"A fuck nigga, that's that shit I don't like
A snitch nigga, that's that shit I don't like
A bitch nigga, that's that shit I don't like."
It's a Molotov cocktail of self-hate. Chief Keef's popular hook didn't pull the trigger, but the pervasive sense of self-hate that produced this song helped claim about 500 bodies in Chicago alone. Black boys are dying damn near every day in one of America's great cities. We need gun control. We need to end the war on drugs. We need to put a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline. We need more job opportunities and economic growth. All of those things are important and necessary, but it's getting rid of the Russians in Afghanistan and neglecting the infrastructure. Chief Keef and crew still don't and won't like those fuck niggas.
Honestly, you could substitute the names of various black men and boys you know into the song, and it wouldn't miss a beat. Chief Keef, that's that shit I don't like. LeBron James, that's that shit I don't like. Kanye West, that's that shit I don't like. James Baldwin, that's that shit I don't like. Malcolm X, that's that shit I don't like. Oscar Grant, that's that shit I don't like. Ramarley Graham, that's that shit I don't like. Chavis Carter, that's that shit I don't like. Jordan Davis, that's that shit I don't like. Trayvon Martin, that's that shit I don't like. Mychal Denzel Smith, that's that shit I don't like. Chris Brown, that's that shit I don't like.
OK, the Chris Brown one is personal. I wish I could tell you that my hatred of Brown is solely because I'm standing on my feminist principles and refusing to support a man who is capable of beating a woman so viciously and showing absolutely no remorse. I wish I hated him for that and that alone. But I don't have that luxury.
I hate him because my cousin, Demetri is dead. I hate him because black boys are dying in Chicago. I want to punch Chris Brown in the face because a whole new world of possibilities was opening up to him and he still found a way to hate himself. I hate him because he just won't ask himself Who taught you to hate yourself. I hate him because he won't find the answer to Who taught you to love yourself.
I hate Chris Brown because as long as he hates himself, I hate myself, too.
I see him, and in my mind I'm back outside in front of the dorm asking my girlfriend, "Why does anyone care about me?" It's a stupid question, not because it's stupid in and of itself, but because no one should ever have to ask. My girlfriend is answering, "Because you're Mychal Denzel Smith." I want to shoot back, "That's it? Then why didn't anyone tell me? Why did no one tell me that was enough?"
Sure, I'm grateful I learned, but I can't help but be a little agitated the lesson came so late in my life. I want those years back. I can only imagine who I would be with a twenty-one year head start on a fully realized love of myself. Maybe I would have become a lawyer and a doctor, the way my three year-old self told the world. Maybe I could have freed Mumia. I could have cured... something. I'm not totally unhappy being a broke writer, but that's the result of a little whiskey and a lot of therapy. I love what I do, and most days I love who I am. But what if (there are always those damn what-ifs) my whole life had been filled with the type reassurance, support, care, and love I never thought possible? And the scary thing, happens when I ask what if it wasn't just me that really learned to love myself. What if loving ourselves was the reality of every black boy across the country. Think of all the warmth and genius we're allowing to die, when all it would take is finding a way to say and mean to our kids, "You're enough."
No one teaches black boys to love ourselves until it's raining. That's that shit I don't like.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate whose work on politics, social justice, mental health, and black male identity has appeared in outlets such as The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, The Root, and more. Follow him on Twitter @mychalsmith.
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