My hidden pleasure is the craft of performance poetry. Late into my high school years, I developed the ability to perform poetry in front of dozens and eventually, hundreds of people. I label it as a gift because I have the privilege of giving myself and connecting with people in a unique way. It's a curse in that most of my friends and family don't believe that I can truly be introverted. They can't seem to understand that there is no correlation between having the courage to discuss your inner demons on stage and having a one on one conversation. On stage, I am in control of every facet of my world. In closed conversation, I am at your mercy and that has always been a fear of mine.
I first became aware of the reality of my outgoing introverted tendencies sometime between the first time I saw the Rugrats and the time I started watching Teen Nick. I remember being too short to dunk a basketball, but old enough for it to be a cool thing to say, “I can swim at the deep end. I bet you can't.”I was at summer camp at the YMCA during my adolescent years when I swam down to the deep end to approach my crush, Naomi. At that point, I had given up on my elementary school crush, Jasmine, ever noticing me, so I had moved on to Naomi. She was slightly shorter than me with silk Black hair and an affection for guys that looked like me. All of her closest friends were Black boys, so I thought, “What do they have that I don't have?” However, the only difference between me and her friends was everything. They were bigger, taller and deemed “cool” in a way that I wouldn't be. With that being said, I still grew up with the mindset, the worst thing someone can say is no. I soon discovered that I was outgoing enough to approach Naomi, but too introverted to impress her through conversation. Most importantly, I learned that “no” wasn’t the worst thing Naomi could say. When I swam down to her end of the pool during free swim at YMCA summer camp, she cut me off mid sentence and told me, “You’re cute, but you’re a nerd. You run fast and you’re pretty good at basketball, but you’re a nerd. I have a crush on Robert because he's tall and really good at basketball.” I still remember those three sentences as if Naomi had just sent me a text reminding of what she had said less than fifteen seconds ago.
Having been one to shoot my shot since I was a size six and a half, being rejected by a girl wasn’t new. By age thirteen, it didn’t hurt that much either. It was more so why she rejected me that sticks with me to this day. If you’re unfamiliar, “nerd” isn’t a term of endearment from anyone in any environment. More importantly, you’ll find that most kids considered modern day “nerds” aren’t unathletic or picked on. I was never picked on in school and I played sports too. I was the starting point guard for Robert’s basketball team three years later. All you needed to be considered a “nerd” was to either be smarter than the average student or have an interest in something that was deemed uncool. I happened to hit the jackpot. Excelling academically, loving Avatar The Last Airbender before it was cool to do so and having to wear glasses by the end of elementary school were the recipe for girls like Naomi to look past me, beyond me or even through me. In other words, I was cool, but not cool enough. To make matters worse, I was introverted and to top it all off, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me prospering as a “nerd” to give me confidence.
What came to the small screen were exaggerations of what I never was. There was Cookie on Ned’s Declassified and there was Urkel on Nick at Nite. Carlton was a closer comparison, but I didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills. These characters were no more kin to me than Will on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Romeo on The Romeo Show. There was nothing wrong with these characters, but they weren’t me. In a sense, I was looking for something that either didn’t “exist” or was tucked in a place I had not thought to look. I was not only a “nerd” in Naomi’s eyes, but I was a type of “nerd” that didn’t exist. Her statement was branded on my conscious for some time. I kept shooting my shot here and there into my early teen years, but I never forgot what she said.
Right around the moment I listened to So Far Gone for the first time, I stumbled into the “nerd” I was looking for. Rocking a blue and white striped sweatshirt and black jeans, I found myself at a party at a nearby private high school that I had been accepted to. Being that it was their accepted students day, they pulled out all the stops and about two hours in, it became the best decision I could’ve made on a Friday night. It was the first time I had ever tasted alcohol and it was the first time I had ever made out with a girl. As the night wore on, I met a friend that would introduce me to something I had been looking for. Her name was Amber. I thought she was cute and we connected on a personal level, so I shot my shot. I plugged her number into my Virgin Mobile flip phone and before I knew it, my Mom was pulling up around the corner to pick me up. To my surprise, she texted me first and what ensued was a friendship that has lasted nearly seven years. While we never truly became a thing, we did find that we were both Black “nerds”. Most importantly, she introduced me to our leader, Donald Glover.
Before I learned his government name, he was “Childish Gambino” or “Gambino” for short. He provided the soundtrack for a year in which I would be called “nerd” more than I care to remember. During my eighth grade year, I had tested out of my local public school and my Mom felt it would be best for me to transfer to an independent school for high school. In middle school, anything different or “othering” is unwanted, but that's what I had going for me. I was the kid to leave my northern New Jersey hometown and to head up to Connecticut for boarding school. Gambino’s music helped me through that. His comedy got me through the initial shock of being one of handful of people of color to enter every room on a regular basis. This fall, his acting, writing, directing and music transitioned me into the process of learning what it is to become a man. I have followed Gambino’s career since then tender age of fourteen and I can honestly say that he is one of a few public figures I see myself in. He is awkward, cool and talented in the way that I hope others will one day see me. At age twenty-one, when I tune into see the Golden Globes, I tune into see moments like Brian Tyree Henry crying tears of joy and Donald Glover accepting two Golden Globe awards.
Looking back at my childhood, I learned that Naomi didn't call me a nerd because that's all she saw me as. She just didn't know too many Black people that were complex. She didn't know too many Black boys that were more than one thing. She didn't know that we could be athlete and scholar at the same time. She didn't know that we could be a nerd and sit at the “cool table” too. She didn't know that being a nerd wasn't something to be made fun of. To be honest, I didn't know those things either until I saw Donald prospering doing the things I would love to do being the person I already know I am capable of being. Representation of black boys matter. Representation matters not because of ratings, but because it enables the progression of society. Moreover representation isn't putting a person of color on screen. It's them referencing a Migos song during an acceptance speech. It's letting masculine bodies shed tears without ridicule because masculinity is free. Representation is letting a Black boy with a Virgin Mobile flip phone and a pair of Adidas know that it is OK to be beautiful in a white washed world that may not understand his complexities. Thank you Donald. Thank you Migos. Thank you Atlanta and all of the Black people in it. Thank you.