Submitted to the AFRO by Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
Written by Kofi Elijah Whitehead
I have spent the last four years trying to find answers to the questions that were posed to me by my mother when I first entered high school: Who are you? How do you want to change the world? What type of man do you want to be? Important questions, I know, and I have spent more nights than I would like to admit trying to come up with answers. There are some things that I know like I am the son of Johnnie and Karsonya Wise Whitehead, and I am the descendant of enslaved Black men and women who chose to survive. I know that I love to read and write and that I want to become the type of scholar who fights for social justice and seeks to make the world a more just and verdant place. I know that I want to travel beyond Baltimore, see the world, and carve out my own academic path and journey. I also know that when I walk outside of my door, none of that matters because in the eyes of White America, I am Black and I am a man. And there are some things that I do not know, because at 18, a newly minted man I still have not figured out who I want to be in the world. I do not really understand racism or White supremacy, why they continue to exist or how to end them. I am still not completely comfortable confronting toxic masculinity in my peers, though I do believe that I will get there.
On the eve of turning 18, I sat at the foot of my bed and thought about what it meant to be a Black man in America. I thought about what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1967 when he told a group of high school students that they needed to say to themselves that they were Black and they were beautiful. I tried so hard to look at myself through my own eyes and not, as W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote, through the eyes of others. Du Bois wrote about double consciousness; but, I am wrestling with multiple consciousnesses: I am Black, I am male, and I am an American. I am the great-grandson of people who could not read or write, but who sent all of their children to college. I am the descendant of people who were enslaved, but chose to live so that I could one day be free. I grew up in Baltimore, but there are places in this city that do not feel like home.
Does my life matter? What type of man do I want to be in this world? I have so many questions. What does it mean to stand up for something I believe in? What is my purpose? Why am I here? How can I fix Baltimore?
In less than 150 days, I will graduate from high school. I will walk across that stage and get the diploma that I have earned. I will look back and remember who I was when I walked into high school and who I am as I walk out of it. When I walked in, America was in the second term of the first Black president, and we were talking about being post-racial and celebrating diversity. As I leave, America is halfway through the first term of a whitelash president who seems to have given voice and space and legitimacy to white supremacy and white nationalism. When I entered, the lunchtime conversations and hallway debates were about Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. Today, we talk about gun control, government shut downs, undocumented residents, and babies being held in cages at the border. When I entered, Baltimore had just come out of the Baltimore Uprising and had ended the year with 344 homicides. I was afraid. My parents were outraged. They were concerned, and they built this tiny little net around me to try and keep me safe. They laid out a city map and told me the neighborhoods and places where I could go. We had daily talks about the police and about my life. They smothered me, but they were trying (as best as they could) to keep me alive. As I leave, Baltimore has just come out of another rough year with 309 homicides. I am no longer afraid in or of my city. I now believe that tiny little nets are not designed to keep people safe, it is intended to keep them isolated. Baltimore is a place of immense contradictions, but it is my home. It is where I am coming of age and where I am trying to find myself. It is the place where I became a man.
My name is Kofi Elijah Whitehead. I am Black, and I am beautiful. I am brilliant because my genius has been sparked. I am, as my grandmother used to say, the dawn of a new day. I may not know where I am going, but I do know where I have been, what my people have been through, and on whose shoulders that I stand. I am a son of Baltimore City, and I will make my city proud.
Kofi Elijah Whitehead is a senior at Gilman School. Portions of this essay were used in his Senior Speech. He is oldest son of Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, her column, “Dispatches from Baltimore,” will return next week.
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