It’s the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” It is a media event but more importantly a reminder and celebration of the prime meridian on the map, so to speak, of our era. In an age of spectacular technological innovations and creative visions, these words still define us. We strive to define them.
It’s another anniversary for me, though not one I’ve ever made note of before. Thirty summers ago as a teen I had a suicidal episode (the most dramatic of several that year) that led to a series of stays in hospital wards, concluding in what was then called a sanitarium.
By swallowing 54 pain relief pills, I handily gained two numbers in the DSM: neurotic depression #300.4, and schizoid personality disorder of adolescence #301.2. An all too common trope, although I wouldn’t know about those now nearly meaningless numbers until many years later. I was lucky that I was a lightweight when it came to staring into the abyss. After subsequent precarious situations, I eventually admitted it wasn’t my time.
Is it trite, trivializing, for me to suggest a connection between my turbulent youth and one of history’s greatest scenes? Like King’s speech, my break was a singular event, the memory of which continues to provide focus for me. I had been the good son, a successful salvage by white society from a life of sure abjection among any potential black kin I might otherwise have been adopted by. An infant, only weeks after King’s death. I cannot but help see myself as a reflection or a result of that profound legacy; this is just personal experience. To say nothing of my biological parents’ experience, which will never be mine.
I frayed around the edges at puberty after an early career in scholastic excellence and socially isolated nerdery. Random anecdote: one teacher, despite me having been his top math and science student, saw me perform in a talent show and later proclaimed, “You’re bound to be the next Harry Belafonte!” That spoke to the visibility of lighter skin (mine), and the assumed invisibility of shadeism in Canada, a nuance I would miss then.
Every report card comment could have been summed up thusly: “a novel presence until becoming difficult,” though I wouldn’t necessarily let you know just when “difficult” had arrived. After a sheltered but sometimes sad childhood, I kept my observations largely to myself. I was fed up with the experience of constant scrutiny and sought to avoid it; when I couldn’t keep silent or “normal” any more I drew scrutiny and rumour in around me through catharsis.
There was a lot to sort out in my childhood that never really got sorted until much later, and which probably continues to get sorted. After my attempt and for months surrounding it, after I had headed both literally and figuratively for the belfry in our community church, adults and peers around me struggled to identify what had gone wrong.
Racism seemed obvious; one problem, no one had talked about race at all ever in my universe and I was not about to start talking on everyone’s behalf. Adoption issues as well seemed likely, though it was early in the process of understanding what those might be in the context, the great social experiment of closed transracial adoptions. And there was always just blaming my family for not being the Brady Bunch or the Drummonds of Diff’rent Strokes. Didn’t want to talk to that either.
The warm glow that the promise of King’s appeal and the March had created undoubtedly inspired my adoptive parents in their plan to have a multiracial family, but as with civil rights in the aftermath of King’s assassination, there was little momentum for sudden transformations of reality as it related to history. There was trauma written into my physical, psychic and cultural being, paradox as existence. A lineage of negation.
It was far easier to dismiss a few small town rednecks than to critique the “raised white with a tan” narrative I grew up in. Yes, some folks tried to kick my ass a few times, but it was mental and emotional aggression, the violence of being isolated and ostensibly deracialized, which did more damage than a sucker punch.
My suicide period spotlit but did not dominate my adolescence. Despite others’ attempts at compulsory pathologizing and guilt-based religious moralizing, I would learn my own coping/dealing strategies (as always, as the outsider) and move on from any potential career in institutionalization – at least of an expressly psychiatric designation.
I found music, something I knew I had some curiosity about and perhaps some small ability in, and then suddenly learned was something shared with my biological parents, both professional musicians. Perhaps it began as distraction, therapy; it became a core dimension of my person, an acknowledged gift even though I kept it somewhat protected from the world by not becoming a full-time musician myself.
Mine is the kind of story that people living with far more serious and overwhelming states of emotional and mental distress don’t need to hear, with its potentially dismissive “I got over that phase of ennui” quality. Yet I consider myself having survived my entire childhood as much as that interval of hyperbolic grief. In a lot of ways the latter woke me up to who I was, already that survivor. One year older than Emmett Till, with a responsibility to prevail and stay woke.
Life in these years is unquestionably, fully great, slowly built. I have struggled now and again with rumination especially around transition points or traumatic moments, it’s part of the expected landscape. I feel fortunate in that the initial deep depression resonates through the years like a tuning note; if it were clinical at all, it is not chronic nor overly present as the years pass. I can’t deny feeling more anchored than ever in a growing, loving family I am blessed to be a part of. I’ve lived to be able to share in the dream for our daughters, and there’s much more living to do, Insha’Allah.
“. . . We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics [and Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shintoists, Yoruba, Rastas, Pagans, secular humanists…], will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”