Ideally, home is comfort. It’s comfort and peace and relaxation. Home is escape.
That being said, I’m not referring to the buildings where our mail is sent. As a high school teacher and a human being who generally tries to pay attention, I understand that many people don’t have the luxury of letting their hair down at the place where they go after school or work. So, I’m talking about our metaphorical homes. The places where we take off our metaphorical pants, grab our metaphorical glass of Cabernet, turn on the metaphorical last season of MTV’s Real World Road Rules Challenge and sip while calmly and rationally explaining to the competitors where they have gone wrong with their strategies.
Home is where you have license to be the most uninhibited and unapologetic version of yourself that exists. You can do this without the threat of judgment or questioning. Home is ever-accepting and peaceful. Home is empowering.
If we’re fortunate, we have one such space in our lives. And if we’re really lucky, we have multiple homes. My homes are the places where I am seen for everything that I am, respected for all that I have lived, and appreciated for my expression of those experiences.
In my homes, as well as the spaces where I work to create homes for others, gender matters. So does language. Sexuality matters too. As well as ethnicity, and race, and religion, and other things. Because in my experience, it’s disregarding or “not seeing” these identifiers that deprive a person of ever truly feeling at home.
This is why I feel that the conversation about identity and identity exploration is so important. I recognize my identities to be fluid, complex, and ever-changing. I mean, obvi, right? I am not the same person that I was when I was fifteen nor who I’ll be when I’m fifty. This may come as a shock to you, but being a high school Latinx/Chicanx Spanish and ethnic studies teacher hasn’t always been my plan. From the ages of six through nine I slept easy knowing that I was bound for a career in competitive professional rollerblading. Bless my parent’s hearts for only pursing their lips a little bit when I practiced by doing laps around the island in the kitchen. By the time I hit twelve, I refused to wear girl’s clothing. I would not go near anything pink, short, tight or laced and instead b-lined it to the boy’s section in every department store. (Thinking back, this is one of the many reasons that I know that my parents loved me. Like really loved me. Because as much as my mother may have preferred that I shop in the little girl’s section, she preferred that I was happy and comfortable and free to express myself more.) So, my mother bought me the JNCO’s and other hideous mid 90’s oversized shorts, jeans, and shirts that I now realize I was just using as a way to hide my transforming pubescent body. Side note advice to young girls headed for puberty: don’t be the first one in the friend group to get boobs. Be second or third or fourth so that you can ask your friends what to do with them.
Am I off track?
Anyways, I think that the trickiest part about finding home is that you have to know yourself reeeeaaaaally, really well. And in order to do that, you gotta go back. Way back. Back into time.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that race was a thing. Which is curious because as a Black child who was adopted into a white Scandinavian family, one might assume that race was something that I’ve always noticed and considered. The truth is, our family didn’t talk about it much and because I was adopted at such a young age (six months), I rarely considered my situation out of the ordinary. Most of the time, I lived in a world where I would forget altogether that my sister and I were adopted, and the only things that would snap me out of it were a glance at my reflection when walking with my mother at the mall or somebody’s question about my knowledge of my birth parents.
Though race wasn’t a regular dinner table topic of conversation, my mother instinctively knew the importance of representation and how vital it was that I felt confident in my hair and skin. I remember always having Black dolls and books that featured strong Black female characters. I took for granted the way that she would draw attention to the beauty of my natural hair, worked to learn about different ways to style it, and assured me that it was just fine the way that it was. Yes, my White mother fully grasped the importance of Black female empowerment. What I don’t think she fully understood, however, is what she was up against.
I grew up in a small working class, conservative and predominantly white town where it wasn’t uncommon to see a confederate flag decal on the back window of an F150, nor was it unheard of for students to drive tractors to school. While outwardly I was happy and thrived socially, inwardly, I battled a lot of demons. My peers made sure to draw attention to the physical features of mine that they found to be ugly, comical, or a combination of the two. Whether it was my thick, kinky hair, my wide-set nose, thick lips or big butt, there were few days that went by when the out-of-placeness of my hair and body parts were not mocked, imitated, or made the butt of a joke.
“Hey, Don King,” kids would say in somewhere between a whisper and an inside voice on the bus while pointing at my head, “Everyone, look at that hair, it’s Don King!”
I remember children touching their fingers to their noses and pressing down slightly as a way to poke fun at mine. If they were really funny, they would simultaneously push their lips out and kind of bobble their heads from side to side.
Other sound bites from my adolescence (and adulthood, at that) go something like this:
“Have you ever straightened your hair?”
“Haha, you’re so white!”
“But you look so much prettier with extensions!”
“I mean, but you’re not really Black.”
“You should totally straighten your hair.”
“Wait, can I straighten your hair? It would be so much fun!”
Bullying is all too often deadly. This breed, the racialized kind, which is rooted in white supremacy and the simultaneous exotification and mockery of the Black body, had its way of doing near irreversible damage. Since I couldn’t do much about my nose and lips, my hair received the brunt of my self-loathing. This deeply-rooted internalized racism manifested itself in begging to have my hair treated with painful relaxers and/or spending hours in the hair salon getting braid extensions so small and tight attached to my head, they caused my scalp to throb for days and my hair to tear away my edges and fall out. To me, it was a small price to pay to hide my thick afro and walk through the world with long, straight locks.
So like I said, I wasn’t made conscious of race per se at a young age, but, despite my mother’s best efforts, the world made sure to make me abundantly aware of the fact that I wasn’t beautiful – and that beauty was something that I couldn’t achieve.
There was a place, however, where I felt like I could escape. A place where looks mattered far less than they did at school and on the bus and people who looked like me were lauded and revered for their gifts and abilities. The court and field were homes for me. Though I never felt like I measured up to my white girlfriends as far as looks and just overall goodness went, my speed, strength and power in sports allowed me access and wholehearted acceptance to what were seemingly exclusive groups that I otherwise couldn’t. Instead of worrying if my hair was too nappy, or my braids unkempt, I focused on the next play. When a ball was in my hand, the stresses of adolescence and pressures to conform to whiteness always seemed far away.
And, I was pretty good.
Grab a drink, have a seat, and humor me as I insert my athletic career’s VHS cassette highlight tape. We’ll fast forward to an eleven-year-old me in a white t-shirt with a vinyl blue number fourteen ironed on the back, and a gold TLK, for Trinity Lutheran Kings, on the front. It’s late in the 4th quarter of the big basketball game vs. St. John’s Lutheran School in Elk River. As the camera pans to the scoreboard you see that it reads: Home – 21, Visitor – 20. Seven seconds remain in the game and it’s our ball to take out at half-court. The ball is inbounded to me and I begin my high, awkward, eleven-year-old dribble journey to the basket. Being very dominantly right-handed I instinctively head to that side of the court and glance up at the clock. 3…2… my right hand and right leg simultaneously extend upward as I throw up a hook shot that, to this day, I have no idea where I learned. (No offense to the wonderful basketball coaches at Trinity.) The ball enters the hoop as the buzzer blares. I close my eyes and pump my little kid fist at my side. Yessssssss. When I open them, I’m surrounded by teammates who are pumping their little fists too and showering me with pats on the back.
Let’s fast forward again to…
Wait, how long is this highlight tape?
I mean, it’s long.
Alright. I’ll spare you the viewing of the entire highlight reel. But I will tell you that the rest of it includes a fourteen-year-old me hitting an over-the-fence home run in a fast pitch softball game, a handful of very right-foot-dominant soccer fast breaks and goals, track and field PR’s, and another basketball buzzer beating hook shot in tenth grade. The point is, when I think back to my career in athletics, I remember some of the most uplifting and empowering moments of my life. On the court, I could be a heroine. A Black, Don King-haired, big-lipped heroine. And I loved it.
As an adult, being an athlete has looked a lot differently than it did in my childhood. I have traded in my basketballs for barbells and gloves and bats for pull-up bars. Injuries have been limiting (which is a story for another time) and caused me to bounce around from gym to gym hoping that a fresh start would somehow magically help me to escape them. I’ve had no such luck.
Then, about a year ago, during one of my soul-searching, gym hiatuses, I walked through the doors of Solcana. I was immediately drawn to their conscious efforts to create a home for people on the margins. I was attracted to the way the owners at Solcana created a fun place to lift weights and meet fitness goals, but what I appreciate the most about the community that has been created is the effort that is consistently made to engage in critical dialogue.
When I head in to do a workout, I am reminded in a number of ways why Solcana feels like home to myself and many others. As I walk toward the front door of the gym I see the LGBTQ flag hang prominently in the front windows. As I grab the door handle and glance to my left, I see three signs. One says, Black Lives Matter, another reads, I Love My Muslim Neighbor, and the last, All Are Welcome Here.
Upon entering, I see a group of dissenters; they are people who, like me, work each day to destroy and rewrite the scripts that society expects them to read from. We do so because we realize that these scripts are toxic and steeped in whiteness and patriarchy and heteronormativity. The Solcana community is made up of people who, I have learned through this My Story series, have been called Don King or pressured to straighten their hair in one way or another. They exude a strength that is arguably more admirable than a 400lb dead lift or a 300lb clean and jerk. I see them and feel their calm exhibit of metaphorical middle fingers to anyone who finds the resistance of social scripts off-putting, scary, or threatening. It’s a middle finger that I wish the adolescent me had the knowledge, strength, and self-assuredness to display growing up. If they are as like me as I think they are, Solcana serves as a place to recharge and to garner the strength to continue to display that gesture even when they leave its doors.
Yeah. This is home.