Carve Out Your Own Joy
When I was in 3rd grade, I attended an after school program for the development of young black boys called SIMBA. Many would’ve believed it was a reference to the Disney film of the same name. However, in swhali simba means power and Mr. Trent, the mentor who guided this program, made sure we understood that. He wanted us to know that it was deeper than the connection to Disney. It was about the power of us as young men, young Black men.
While participating in that program, it was evident I had a love for being center stage, speaking and singing. Mr. Trent took notice on several occasions, having me sing the Black National Anthem or give an encouraging speech to my peers when appropriate. Then lead to him assigning us quotes by Black history makers to memorize. I’ll always remember him handing out those laminated slips of paper with different one line quotes and then getting me, only to give me a whole paragraph. I’ve deemed it as the first time I’d been given sides to prepare. It filled me with so much joy, I studied that sheet of paper with the poem on it like my life was at stake. It was one of the first times I felt someone truly believed in me so I had to be the best and I was going to prove it.
The poem was by civil rights leader and minister, Benjamin E. Mayes and it read:
I have only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me
to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
but eternity is in it.
I didn’t know it then but Mr. Trent was laying the groundwork for my life’s motto. He was doing more than just trusting me to memorize it. He was asking me to instill it and apply it to my life. As a kid, those things don’t really register but when they eventually do, revelations are had. This poem became a sense of pride in my life. A point of success I could always refer back to and recite without hesitation. A time that I felt I was being wholly true to who I was at that point in my life. Little did I know that feeling would be afraid of me and refuse to visit for many years to come.
As a Black, gay boy growing up in the church, Pride was not something you wanted people to think you had. There should be shame in being prideful, I was taught, and there wasn’t much room for discussion about it. If I smiled too hard or did a few too many runs in my church solo, I’d be told by multiple adults I trusted that I needed to be more humble, not to distract, don’t become the focus, it’s about God. That confused me because isn’t God in me? Won’t he see my heart and tell people I’m not prideful? That I’m filled with love and I’m proud of that and that there was a difference? But I was never allowed to ask those types of questions, unless I wanted to be considered disrespectful for questioning authority.
I grew up really not wanting to be gay but never being able to avoid the label from pretty much anyone who met the free spirit inside me ready to show the world who I am. Eventually, I was broken down. “Don’t walk like that.” “Why can’t you play with the boys?” “Why are you holding your hand like that?” Everything I did felt scrutinized by other people until I began to scrutinize and judge myself before anyone else could.
The religious beliefs my parents thrust upon me taught me to hate myself but deep down I knew there was no way around my being gay. So, there was no pride left in me. Was this what it felt like to be humble? You know, since humble is the opposite of pride, was I humble now? Or did I abuse my time and now I must suffer? So many questions to and of myself were disguised as prayers because that’s all I had left to lean on or so I thought.
I found out during my freshman year of college that “Pride” was a thing. To see people actually be happy to be gay was mind-boggling to me, but it was the beginning of taking back my pride. By this time, I’d only been able to find a source of pride in what I was told was deemed acceptable to be proud of, my Blackness. I was made aware that even though I was very fair skinned, I was Black, and that it would be a disservice to my family and my lineage to let anyone think differently or deny that. I finally knew what it meant to have Pride in who I am. I learned that because I had been taught that very early on just like I had been taught that I shouldn’t be proud of my same gender loving attractions.
As Juneteenth is now officially a recognized holiday and we’ve just closed out Pride month, I’m reminded how my love of being Black led me to the love of my being as a whole, including my queerness. I knew there was a strong hate towards Black people for just being alive, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to be or loving being me. So, I knew there had to be life outside of the shame of my queerness also. I wasn’t ashamed of being Black no matter who hated it, I knew it was possible for me release the shame in all other areas as well.
Juneteenth is a symbol of freedom, a date etched in history as a day enslaved people received the news they were free and had been for some time. Pride is also a symbol of freedom, a celebration of being freely who you are without shame or fear. Both share the essence of what we truly desire: full autonomy of our lives and the direction therein. They also remind us of an important lesson: If you want something in life, you can’t wait on other people, you have to carve the space for it. Juneteenth and Pride started because people demanded to take up space and be celebrated, even if they have to celebrate on their own for a while, like we as a people have done with Juneteenth for many many years.
I’ve stopped waiting a while ago for other people to carve out my joy and teach me how to be proud of myself. It’s literally one of the main reasons I created The Antonyo Awards and Broadway Black, a platform dedicated to the love of Black theatre artists, because it’s time to stop asking permission to take up space. It’s no longer an ask, it’s a requirement for you to be your best self and achieve wholeness. And that goes beyond one month or one day out of the year. It’s an ongoing celebration within you which then transfers into everything else you do.
Remember, that you didn’t seek it, you didn’t choose it, but it’s up to you to use it.
Drew Shade (Actor/Producer) is a theatre enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity and excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. He is the Founder/Creative Director of Broadway Black, a digital platform designed to shed light on the beauty, brilliance, and talent that is Black Broadway. He is the creator and co-host of the Off-Book Podcast which features the incredible talent of Black people in the Broadway community from playwrights, to performers, to stage managers, and more. He is also the Creator and Executive Producer for The Antonyo Awards, an awards show that specifically drew attention to awarding honors to Black theatre artists across the Broadway community. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” – August Wilson