September 13, 2005
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana the day before Easter, and for most of my life, I was unaware of the divine significance of my birth. It wasn’t until I read of the life of Olaudah Equinao that my feelings changed. His autobiography moved me to question if I was one of “God’s favorite” too. Sure he was a slave who through remarkable feats managed to secure his freedom, and in no way am I suggesting that my life was as brutal as the whip of chattel slavery, but like him, there were pivotal moments in my life when all the world seem to conspire to thrust me forward, when I was certain that I felt God’s hand.
I was gifted they said. Smarter than most four-year olds, I was able to enroll in kindergarten a year early. At that age I had no I idea what it meant, but it became real to me when a classmate declined my overtures. Her name was Micherrie Giles. When I saw her smile, I was immediately moved to express my desires to marry her, so one day, I composed a letter and sealed it a small envelope bordered like a barbershop pole that I found in my grandmother’s dresser. She must have known I was up to something when I asked her how to spell Micherrie, but I didn’t consider these things. Neither did I consider Micherrie’s mother, one of two kindergarten teachers at my school who would smile at me every time she saw me in the hallways. Micherrie wasn’t so kind, and the sight of her embarrassed me to no end. In time my insecurities lessened as they are wont to do, and I realized much later that this moment began my life-long relationship with writing.
In the second grade, this notion of being gifted advanced, and I was regularly pulled from my classes to work with a special educator. This routine continued until I reached the sixth grade when a classmate wanted to fight me. The fact that I frequently raised my hand with the correct answers fueled his angst so much so that he accosted me one day as I walked home one day with my trumpet case in my hand and a bookbag full of books on my back while his friend followed to egg him on. I did nothing in return because I was confused, hoping that he wouldn’t assault me. I didn’t understand why until I reached the steps of my grandmother’s home. “Why you think you got to know everything, ha?” he screamed. When he said this, I was uncertain of why this would make him so upset. His friend eventually pulled him away, and as I climbed the top of the stairs, I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. I didn’t tell anyone what happened and cried myself to sleep that night. I vowed never to “act” smart again. In the weeks that followed, I was steadfast and stopped seeing my special educator. By the time I entered the seventh grade, I thought I was well on my way to being accepted because not only did I consciously suppress my intelligence, but I also became friends with both my antagonist and his provocateur.
But God works in mysterious ways they say. Abruptly, at the completion of my seventh grade year in New Orleans, my parents decided that I should live with them in Slidell, a rural suburb thirty miles northeast of the city. At twelve years old, I was devastated at the prospect of leaving my friends after I had successfully become accepted by them. Now I was staring at a multitude of white faces after having never known a white person, save of the brother and sister who attended my elementary school. Although I never completely adjusted to life there, I know now that I was blessed to receive a quality, public education. Had I stayed in New Orleans, my fate probably would have been bleaker. The paths of my three best friends can attest to this speculation. One fathered a child while a junior in high school; another killed himself with a gunshot wound to the head; another, whose mother was one of my science teachers, graduated from Southern University.
My parents had no grand plans for my future when I graduated high school. But I knew that I was more than just a high school graduate. Fortunately, it was the first year of the HOPE scholarship which provided full tuition at Louisiana state universities for students who passed a list of core courses and received a minimum score of nineteen on the ACT. Because I qualified, I enrolled in the University of New Orleans, and my gift resurfaced.
A majority white institution positioned behind the earthen levees of Lake Pontchartrain, UNO was a boring, commuter school with an open admissions policy. Yet it was there that my English 101 instructor convinced me to be a writer after I had written an essay championing the overseas production of goods by American companies. Even though I didn’t subscribe to my argument, I did effectively change the way he viewed the subject, and that feeling that I once felt in kindergarten when I wrote to Micherrie reemerged. Every English class that I registered for since then was approached with passion. This passion became irrepressible and made me uncomfortable again like it had in my youth. It was especially pronounced in my British Literature course when the voluminous Jane Eyre was assigned. Because I had already read the novel in high school, I was prepared for its themes and cycles and had no problem reading it. During the discussions of the text, however, it became apparent that only the professor and I were reading it. Although we had some engaging conversations, I expressed to her once the class ended that I didn’t think I gained what I could have because of my classmates’ laxity. What I heard was something I never fathomed. “Maybe you should consider transferring,” she offered. Then I began my search for a place where I could receive what I was beginning to think I deserved.
What I found was a place that became my utopia. There I found my identity, there I found Equiano, there I found my heroes, there I nurtured my passion, there I realized that I must be one of “God’s favorite.” This place was Morehouse College. Never had I been surrounded by such a powerful energy of scholarship than when I arrived at the Atlanta University Center. Had it not been for an uncontrollable conflagration caused by the derailment of a CSX Transportation train on September 9, 1987 in my childhood neighborhood, I may have never bathed in this energy and graduated from Morehouse.
The semester that I transferred to Morehouse marked the advent of a zero tolerance policy for unpaid tuition fees: if a student’s tuition wasn’t paid 100% at the onset of a semester, he was unable to register for classes. While I was informed of the new policy when I registered, I didn’t imagine that it would affect my classes if my tuition was 85% paid. To my surprise, they were dropped and my life at Morehouse was in jeopardy before it could begin. Determined to continue my studies, I enrolled as a part-time student and worked full-time as an assistant manager at a local Footaction.
That semester I rented a room in a home in Decatur, a thirty minute highway drive away from campus. My roommates were much older than me, one an alum of Morehouse, the other, a woman who shared my birthday. They were both devoutly religious and with caring hearts, provided a safe, nurturing space for me. They treated me like family and I will be forever grateful for everything they shared. Yet even with their security, I often felt alone and friendless, uncertain of my future. Many nights I cried to myself, wondering if I had made a mistake to leave New Orleans.
Then I received a $12,000 check. My grandmother called and explained that CSX had settled a class-action lawsuit which granted punitive damages to the residents of my childhood community. At six years old, I had no recollection of the incident, but thirteen years later I received something that I really needed. The money not only allowed me to register for the next semester and buy a computer, but I was also able to study abroad. What transpired when I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico in the summer of 2001 to live with a Mexican family for six weeks was beyond my imagination. One of a group of ten students from Morehouse and Spelman, I will never forget traveling to an Afro-Mexican village where we conversed in Spanish with elders whose families had escaped slavery. While this memory is eternal, my experience in the Costa Chicas, the small Afro-Mexican villages on the Pacific coast of Mexico, was further immortalized by a journalist and photographer from the Atlanta Journal Constitution who traveled with us to document our trip. Once we returned to Atlanta, I was informed that the story about our trip was on the front page of the paper and my image, swarmed by children as I handed out candy, was placed prominently in the center. The two years that followed this experience only bolstered my love for Morehouse, for she provided me with the opportunities that still shape my life today.
Whether I am one of “God’s favorite” because the story of my life is filled with fortunate twists of fate is debatable. Yet what is undeniable is what I feel—I sincerely believe that my life is a testament to God’s love.