what i learned

I Learned Why You Never Talked About Your Pain

Blackout series. Illustration: Jules Julien

I was eating breakfast in the kitchen of the suburban Michigan home I grew up in, a temporary pandemic evacuee from my grown-up life in New York City, scrolling through my news feed, when I heard my parents bickering in the next room. From what I could tell, they were trying to find a news segment that my mother thought she’d saved. When I heard my father say something like, “Rose, they were talking about this kid that was killed,” I knew they were referring to Ahmaud Arbery, and I went into the living room to help. It was three people versus one remote, but eventually we found it and watched it together. Every time I tried to say something, my father would wave his hand in the air like he was swatting a fly. Silenced, I hovered behind the couch. His eyes were glued to the TV as he sat with his elbows on his knees, his hands clenched together under his chin. This was our first time watching the murder of a Black person on the news together as a family.

My father always told me growing up to be strong and to not let other people bring me down. As a kid, if I cried over someone hurting my feelings, he would squeeze my hand and say, “Devine, this is what real pain feels like.”

My parents had grown up in Detroit surrounded by Black people. It wasn’t until they were adults that they found themselves living and working among predominantly white people. But I was raised in an overwhelmingly white suburb and went to mostly white schools there. I didn’t think they understood what that was like for me. The times I remember bringing up my feelings about being the only Black kid in my classes, their response was always, “Don’t let them talk down to you. We paid for you to be where you are. You are no different than them.” That, to me, missed the point, and I resented them for not seeming to understand what I was saying.

I still remember the day when I started middle school and realized that my two best friends from elementary school had ditched me. “They don’t want to be my friend anymore because I’m the chubby Black girl,” I told my father. He responded in his usual way, making sure I kept eye contact with him: “Devine, what have I told you your whole life? ‘Start strong, stay strong.’ ” I didn’t find that all that helpful at the time.

I’ve always seen him respond to negative situations with a positive solution, even when I wished he’d leave it alone. There were countless times when he would come to the school because he thought he had to speak up for me. Sophomore year, after two years of training and being the only girl at golf camp for two summers, I didn’t make the golf team because, the coach said, I was too young for varsity. But after my father talked to the coach after tryouts, the next thing I knew I was on the team. The following year, there was a new coach. “Good,” my father said. “The last coach was racist.”

When I saw him sitting on the couch that morning watching Arbery being murdered, I saw something I’d never really seen from him. He looked vulnerable. The segment ended, and my father said to my mother, “Do you remember that time I was almost killed while out for a run when we first moved to this neighborhood?”

I hadn’t. When they moved to this suburb in the early ’90s, when I was 2, there weren’t many Black families, he said. It was a new subdivision. The backyard faced a giant cornfield, and there weren’t sidewalks yet. My father loved to run. And this area—still practically the countryside back then—had lots of room for exercise.

On his first run in our new neighborhood, a car driving the opposite direction swerved over to try to hit him. My father managed to jump out of its path. The car continued on its way, and my father knew he could never run outside again.

Growing up, I never thought my parents understood what I experienced by sending me to schools where none of the teachers or students looked like me. I’d thought they’d wanted me to have an upbringing so opposite from their own just because they could afford to. Hearing my father’s story, and reflecting on why he’d never told it to me before, allowed me to see they paid for me to be where I am today in complicated ways. They didn’t want me to move through my adolescence with anger toward white people.

They didn’t want me to feel that I was inferior to my peers for any reason, because it shouldn’t be about my skin color. They thought they were protecting me. And even though it’s been tough and sometimes uncomfortable, I’ve learned to work with and to be around people from different backgrounds since I was 5 years old. It took moving home in a pandemic for me to finally see, at age 27, that my parents feel the same pain as I do, and to realize it hurts them just as much as it hurts me. Maybe even more.

*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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