I want to share some of my story of where I come from. As I continue on the path to liberate myself from external factors and stand completely in my truth, I think it’s important for me to be willing to reflect on how my past has shaped the way I view and think of our world today.
I grew up on Long Island, a little island that’s home to the start of suburban America. It sits in the shadow of the biggest (and greatest) city in the country, New York, and yet, living there is nothing like living in the city. Almost everything about me can be traced back to my childhood on Long Island—and I love it!—but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t see it for what it is through adult eyes. Unfortunately, this makes me sadder than I would like.
Though Long Island is known as the suburbs, it’s home to more people than some states in America has alone! Comprised up by two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, LI is home to some 2.8 million people throughout 195 hamlets, 96 villages, and 2 cities—all of which have their own unique identities. As a child growing up in a mostly single mother household, I was afforded the opportunity of living and going to three different school districts there. I’m grateful for the moving around we had to do now because I consider these experiences to be some of the first that allowed me to see the world with larger eyes than people expected.
My story begins in the 6th grade.
I just started middle school in a town called Bay Shore. I had been going to school there for two years prior, but middle school was significant because it meant the blending of the two elementary schools. Prior to middle school, the kids mostly on the north side of the train tracks in town went to one school and the kids south of the tracks, by the water, went to another. I liked 4th and 5th grade—I made cool friendships with funny kids, all of whom mostly lived around the corner from me. Looking back at old class photos from those two years, it’s clear my classes represented a diverse middle-class community. Middle school, however, was different.
Because I excelled academically in school, I was placed in a higher track honours class than most of the kids I went to elementary school with. In an instant, I was now one of the three or four kids from the north side in a class of kids mostly from the south. To make things even more different, I now became one of two Black kids in the class, with the other Black boy being raised by white parents for most of his life.
What I didn’t understand then was this was the beginning of a period in my life when I disowned the fact that I am, was, or ever could be Black.
Looking back on the two years of middle school I spent in Bay Shore are some of the hardest days to reflect on. An 11-year old me would have never admitted it, but I wanted to fit in so much with the cool kids from the south side that I did everything others around me were doing to seem like I was one of them. While doing that, I lost a part of who I really am.
I stopped listening to Black radio stations, disliked going anywhere there would a lot of Black people, and even created “nicknames” for myself that were really just names of white guys I liked on TV. I pretended to know everything about things my white peers seemed to love, like skateboarding, despite never even doing it, and worse of all, I practically deaded any conversation with my twin brother while in school. I was even put on in-school suspension once by a teacher who was a family friend of a Jewish friend of mine simply because she didn’t like me (this was admitted to me by said friend after returning to class). And yet, I still stood by my white peers because they were the “coolest.” My mom tried so many times to tell me that not everyone was my friend, but I remember thinking she had no way to know that.
But as everything happens for a reason, my next move after Bay Shore was a reality check for me. I now was in a middle school in Greensboro, North Carolina, with less than 10 white students in an entire school population of 800+. I no longer could pretend I was white. My time there, however, was short-lived—after Easter break of 8th grade, I was back on Long Island, this time in the town I consider home, Amityville, about 15 miles west of Bay Shore. School there seemed, to me, to be the best medium between Bay Shore and Greensboro in terms of race (though in reality, Amityville is still one of the few Black-majority school districts on LI). But when I went to hang out with my old friends from Bay Shore upon moving back, I immediately felt something different.
I was now able to see them more for who they were, and I didn’t like it.
After living in North Carolina and now in Amityville, everything about them made me uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable about how they talked about Black people as if we were from another country and they knew nothing about us. I didn’t like that the first question they asked me about moving to Amityville was if I now had metal detectors in school. I had been a new student in two schools within the year since I left them, and in that time, I gained enough lived experience to realise how I allowed my mind to be consumed with thoughts of others who wanted me to be a certain way. It was a cool that I was Black because “yay, we have a Black friend!” but if I actually acted what fit their description of Black, then maybe they couldn’t be good friends with me.
When I started using slang that I picked up from North Carolina, my “friends” gave me looks. I had been asked about the metal detector thing more than once and their responses when I talked about what my new town was always something to the extent of, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you live there.” I still remember the night I came home and made the decision that the people I considered friends for two years were nothing more than past schoolmates—from then on, I could only be friends with those who actually respected other ways of living that are different from their own.
I share my story because it’s an important piece in my identity as a Black man.
I am vocal about understanding and staying true to my Black identity because I almost gave it all up because of others. More than that, my story is an important piece of the larger Long Island identity. As a Black man who has grown up in several different communities on the island, I have seen the true realities of our small towns. Though we come from an island that’s in the shadow of New York City, our lack of equal representation of diversity is appalling. Either you go to a predominately white school, Black school, or Latino school—few, if any, school districts exist on the island that reflect fair diversity. As ERASE Racism stated in 2010:
[Black] Americans and Latinos are clustered in areas of such extremely high concentrations, that to achieve racial balance across the region, 74% of Blacks would have to move. That makes Long Island the third most racially segregated region in America. Segregated communities mean segregated schools: island‐wide, half of all Black and Latino students attend schools that are at least 95% students of colour. [source]
This disturbs me.
I think about a Black boy in the 6th grade who may be living in one our predominately white towns struggling to hold on to his Black identity. If we are to move on to a period of real Black empowerment in America, we must make sure our children are able to see true representations of themselves not just in school, but everywhere.
Long Island, I love you, but you’ve got to change.
We have got to start talking about race as exactly what it is and open our minds up to more than just our town and those weekend nights in the city. So much of what is problematic about race on Long Island stems from post-WWII era when the first towns like Levittown had clauses that forbade “any person other than members of the Caucasian race” to live there. For a while, whites on Long Island fought to stay isolated from non-whites, and forty some years later, we are still dealing with the remnants of this.
Having gone through my own conflicted identities of race, I share my story to teach others of the complexities of being Black on Long Island. My story does not represent everyone, but it’s mine, and it has influenced me to speak out on race as much as I can.
I no longer allow myself to kowtow my race or identity to please those of others, and my hope is that no other Black person should feel like they have to do so to make it in this country. Yes, we live in a tense racial society, but we must empower ourselves to stand strong in who it is we are, racial minority or not.
So to the island that created me, thank you. May my story encourage all of you to share your own anecdotes of growing up on Long Island in the comment section! The only way we can create change in our future is by understanding what the past means to us.