As a young black male, race has lived in the backdrop and forefront of my life. Buzzcuts, low fades, and pants pulled up to my belly button persisted in my childhood. I couldn’t stand out, my pants would never sag, and I would never fit the stereotype that makes white women clench onto their purses all around the world. No, I had to fly under the radar. Blend in if you will. Masquerade or, at the very least, suppress my blackness so that everyone can get along.
I was never taught to see color by my parents but rather by my classmates and teachers. Beginning my life in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida, did me no favors in easing my way into the reality of the world. Neither did Alex, my “best friend” since kindergarten. He was a reason that I woke up each day of the first grade, dreaming for a how-to on looking just like my classmates. I wanted the toys he bragged about, I wanted to be included, I wanted to play baseball, and swim at the Y. I wanted play dates, I wanted the life that Alex had. Two story house, bikes– couldn’t want for a single thing.
I had to walk back around the corner to my house after playing with Alex during and after school, home to my brother and older sister. Just us alone. My mother, a nurse, working through the night shift. My father, at work, on computers as an IT tech, being the natural nerd he is. At the time, my life didn’t look like Alex’s, and I didn’t value it the same. I didn’t value my parents long hours through the day and night to provide my brother and me an opportunity to go to the same schools provided for those in privileged neighborhoods. I didn’t value the one story house putting a roof over my head, I didn’t value soccer (a sport my dad’s family has been playing for generations), I didn’t value my little scooter, I didn’t value both of my parents being immigrants and coming here to make a life for their children. Until I woke up one morning and they weren’t there.
The eeriness of my hallway over my head was daunting, and there I was in bed. Paralyzed. None of the regular kitchen noise, no music: nothing was normal about this morning. No one woke me up for school, the only sound was my brother breathing deep in sleep across from me. I walked gently across the room, my oversized pajamas dragging on the floor. I opened the door to my panicking older sister, exclaiming, “Get up, we have to go to school now!” My brother and I went through our morning routines and got in the car without a word. My sister’s expression of fear and confusion had occupied her face since the beginning of the morning and did not leave once we entered the car, so I knew something was wrong. We pulled out of the driveway in my Mom’s Altima, and my sister didn’t make it out of the neighborhood before being pulled over. Red, White, and Blue. The colors of our “great” nation. The colors of the flag, the colors on a cop car. So when none of the three were present on the car pulling us over, a wave of confusion and interest took over the minds of the two nine-year-olds in the back of this Altima. My sister sat stone-faced. A white man and a white woman stopped us, stepping out of a car labeled ICE.
ICE was just frozen water to me at the time, not Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The man and woman paced slowly, approaching my sister as a viper before striking its victim. The male spoke first, “This car belongs to Mrs. Roberts, a fugitive in the word of the law, and you are aiding her.” My young mind and eyes darted all over, looking for something to distract me. Tuning out of the radio of thoughts in my head to the conversation going on before me. I tune back in to hear from this man say, “She has overstayed, and she must return home, or go to jail.” Nope, I didn’t like this radio station. My mind frantically searched for something to focus on as the steaming tears rolled down my cheeks. Staying in this country and having a family makes you a fugitive now? Making an honest living is wrong? My mental radio station was now broken, and my ears trained on the verbal threats that spewed from the immigration officers. “If you don’t tell us where she is, we will take you too.” The male officer forcefully grabbed my sister, and my brother exploded in tears. His rage, his sadness: I could feel that from anywhere and will never forget it.
The tears in my eyes had become relentless. My family was something I took for granted. My background and the cultures I had not accepted all came back at me at once. The officer finally let my sister go and left, saying, “If any of you hear from her or see her, you let me know.” I won’t let you know, Mr. Officer. In fact, I bet you don’t know that your raspy, taunting voice haunted me for years afterward. You threatened to break my family up, and for that, I will never forgive or forget you. You could have had the fate of my world in your hands, and you had every intention of crushing it. I no longer wanted a life like yours because you showed me how much hate was in it. Yes, your family is in a better position than mine, but that’s because your generations of hatred and “purity” would never allow it to be any other way. The cards were stacked against my parents from the beginning, and I had taken so much for granted.
No, I don’t wanna look like Alex. I don’t wanna look like those cops. I wanna look like me. I wanna play soccer, like my dad and the generations that preceded him. I love my one story house, or apartment, or wherever we were staying. Starting my life in that suburban area of Orlando, I now leave that part of my life out. My parents’ life before me was never something I thought of, how hard they worked for all of us was never a thought. Not to mention the fact they have to work twice as hard because, as black immigrants, they were never expected to succeed.
We have to stop traumatizing children. We have to stop keeping immigrants in cages. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human being and to have the opportunity to make a living for their families. Our cultural differences should be embraced rather than shunned. We have to stop painting this picture that someone is better than someone else based upon what they look like. All skin is beautiful; no one should feel like less than. And if I learned one thing from this all, Alex, I like what I have and all black people should like what they have too.
Copyright Jalen Roberts 2020