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MIT student blogger Ben O. '19

Don’t Change by Ben O. '19

A few lessons I have learned

I initially wrote this to my little brother. I debated for a while whether to share it with the rest of you guys, but I thought that this letter may be of benefit to some current student, or some future student. I hope someone might be able to connect or learn something from a few of my experiences.

 

I was waiting in line with my head more or less glued to my cellphone screen. I was moderately aware of how I looked, my 3M covered leopard printed Nike 97s, long black earring, and gold chain was in stark contrast to the brown almost reflective leather shoes, crisply ironed blue slacks, and a brown belt tucking in a semi-buttoned pink and white striped button down. I waited in line at Cava next to the white, brown and East Asian Google and Microsoft employees while across the chasm of a counter were those that looked like me were running around trying to make sure every order was fulfilled correctly during the midafternoon lunch rush.

“wassgood?”

A familiar question snapped me out of the monotony of my day and brought me face to face with the cashier.

“you good with just that?”

An orange cloth held together his seemingly infinite bundles of dark dread locks.  A coarse beard seemed fall endlessly down the sides of his face theoretically ending somewhere behind the cash register. His almost black eyes met mine and with that connection I could feel the tension I had subconsciously accumulated in line quickly melt away.

I knew him, and he knew me.

Not through any sort of historical meeting, or some mutual friend, but through a shared history. I had noticed his shift in tone as I approached the cash register. His moving from a soft and welcoming “How are you doing today sir?” to his deeper and brotherly “wassgood?” was exactly what Dad had tried to teach me growing up. Acknowledge those who look like you.

Those on my side of the counter may mistake this shift in tone, this “code switching” as you will be told, as a regional accent. However, I know that only people from the outside would mistake an entire language for a regional accent. The language we learned didn’t include apostrophes, or capital letters, or words longer than 8 letters. Anything close to that became “nigga you know what im talking about.”

People like to assume we lost all sense of language along with our ancestry during the times of slavery, only to realize they could not understand the language we now all speak so naturally. A language that we must learn to forget as we have to learn words like acrimony, vociferous, and herculean to replace our salty, straight, and swoll if we ever have hopes in passing the SAT.

“nah im good. thissit.” I replied quickly dropping my voice to match his.

“aight bet bet, thatll be $9.50”

In reaching over to give him the hard red “Bank of America” card in my wallet that replaced the crisp green cash which filled our shared homes, I was met face to face with innumerable paintings along the man’s arms.  Drawings of crosses, names of men and women alike, flags, and faces engulfed his arm from top to bottom. His body had become a canvas in which he could silently share his story with me.

My father and mother had engrained it in me that for me tattoos meant gang affiliation, criminal behavior, and general “hood nigga shit.”  However, as I grew up I realized people will think what they want when they look at me and spending my energy appeasing their premeditated assumptions was a waste of my time. So I decided to carefully choose those stories that had shaped me and immortalize them on my body in the form of tattoos. My tattoos are my connection with my siblings, my tattoos are a bond to the enumerable people I met around the world while I lived abroad, my tattoos are a solidification of my promise to Mom that I made back in 2007 when she passed away from cancer, my tattoos now are my connection to my best friend Connie who lost her life after an eight year battle with cancer. I wouldn’t give up these memorials of my connections any faster than I would give up the connections themselves.

As I was getting my food to leave the man in front of me reached across the silent wall between us and reached out his hand towards me. The response, as with my change in voice, came almost instinctively. I reached up, dapped up my brother, and walked out. Dapping is the unspoken form of our native tongue. If you know what to do you know what to do. If you don’t then you don’t. It is as simple as that. I remember back in school the seemingly infinite twists and turns, flips, bumps, and hooks that made up our unspoken connections with friends. Each dap had its place. A dap ending in a snap on your way to a party, ending in a hug when heading home, ending in a tuck when wishing good luck. The subtleties are often overlooked, but you know what they mean. It can’t be taught, but it can be lost. Knowing these languages is what makes us who we are and is what connects us together in a world trying to pull us apart. Hold these things close to you.

 

Hey little bro. I wrote this in hopes that you can learn from some of the struggles I had in leaving home and being on my own for the first time. You are now a freshman in college and as the oldest of the five I just want to impart some “older brother wisdom.” You are someone full of ambition and looking to make a name for yourself in the world. Every time I go home you have some new plan for expanding your lawn mowing business by employing kids from school or some new shoe design you are trying to sell to kids around the block. I always hoped you would go down the same path as me, something in math or science, but you have found your own path in entrepreneurship. I left Atlanta in hopes of finding myself and learning more about the world. You stayed because these are the people you know the best and these are the people that raised you, how could you ever leave those people behind. I appreciate your love for our home. You know everybody by name and are always trying to uplift people in the community. Even me, although I am all the way up here in Mass, you are always looking to send me encouragement and keep me going. However, I know one day you will leave because you always tell me that you are bigger than Atlanta, and when you do I want you to be ready.

Part of me is afraid because Atlanta and the rest of the world are two different places. Atlanta is a place of black excellence, a place of athleticism, and a push for doing things your own way. However, it is also a place of toxic masculinity, ramped homophobia, and a too cool for school mentality. I was unaware of these things until I left. I was born and raised in this mentality and it wasn’t until I moved away that I understood where the issues lay. However, I can see from time to time that you are still being shaped by Atlanta, both the good and the bad.

But that being said, don’t change Edward. I don’t say this in the sense of don’t grow up, or don’t improve. I say this in the sense of when you leave Atlanta, don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t let the world tell you who you have to be and what it looks like to be “successful.” Because the world will. The world will tell you that this is how you should speak if you want to be respected. This is how you should dress if you want to fit in with the elite. The world will tell you, “oh they are just doing it to themselves,” and that the reason they got so far is based on hard work, and if you work hard too there is no reason you cannot achieve what they did. I fell for the trap of the world, because I thought I had to. I thought I needed a pair of sperrys if anyone was ever going to respect me. I thought that I needed to respond to their “Hey, how are you?” with an equally proper “Good, wow, the weather today, let me tell you!” I tried to convince myself I was a part of them and in doing so I was not a part of us.

When I first got into MIT, I would hear statements like “it is so much easier for people like you to get in than people like us.” In order to fit in I would laugh and try to convince myself that what they were saying was true. I tried to forget how hard it was taking care of the four of you while Mom had to work and Dad was incarcerated. I tried to convince myself that even though I tried everything I could to win a Science Olympiad medal, despite the fact that our school had no resources or coaches and our team consisted of 8 members, that at the end of the day I didn’t win one, so I was not as smart as my peers. I tried to bury the fact that at math competitions when a disruption occurred the judges refused to believe I was a captain, so I was told to leave. But I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be just as good. So, I would just laugh and try to forget.

When you leave where we come from and move into places where we normally aren’t found, there is a culture shock, and my first reaction was fit in or get kicked out. It was what I learned when I started applying to schools like Harvard and MIT so that they got the educated black boy, and not the “black” black boy, because don’t let their diversity ads fool you. They believe there is a difference and they want one, not the other. But if there is anything I have learned over my time here is you cannot forget where you came from, because if you do when you inevitably make it big the kids who come from where we come from will look at you with confusion. You will no longer be someone that they can relate to, there will no longer be a connection between you and them. Don’t find yourself on the other side of the cashier unable to respond when someone that looks just like you asks you “wasgood?”