“I write what I like.” – Steve Biko
I am a writer, and I write what I like.
It’s taken me eons to write that line. I know I’m not exactly spitting bars, but there’s a lot of trepidation baked in those ten words. It’s funny to think about, really. The fact is I’ve spent most my life engaging in literature and writing. I even went to college to study the craft, becoming an editor at a newspaper and a nationally renowned literary magazine. But here I am tip-toeing on the edge of declaration.
If I have expertise and experience with writing, then why do I struggle to identify as a writer?
The answer exists within the phenomenon of growing up. I was raised an only child, back when kids had to carry four quarters in their pocket to use a payphone. I’m not old, but I’m old enough to remember using phone books instead of Google Maps and the Dewey system instead of a search engine. Life was slower in my childhood, but the world seemed larger, more expansive.
Back then, I thought time was infinite, that the world stretched into new universes. I had imagination, wonder, and dreams. All the ingredients of childhood. I didn’t have siblings and I couldn’t connect with friends on social media, so I used those ingredients to fill my time.
As a kid, I spent countless hours morphing my favorite cartoon heroes into my own interpretations. The stories that manifested from those remixes made up a pretty dope canon of work, if you ask me. From comic books to cartoon scripts to colorful zines, my rat-tailed adorned head was spinning yarn trying to will reality to my imagination. I was Peter Parker before he became Spider Man. I was T’Challa before he became the Black Panther.
But with every superhero comes a villain.
Times change, and people change with it. There’s a point when children are confronted with their own mortality. I’m not talking about the death of their entire being; rather, I’m speaking about the moment when we realize we have to grow up and grow out of being a kid. This moment is crystalized for me.
I was sitting in my bedroom playing with a few of my action figures on a weekend afternoon. I feel like I was 10 years old or somewhere around that age. One of my remixes was to stage action figures around the house and set up epic week-long battles between the various factions of characters. This particular day, I was picking out some X-Men to act as the protagonist in my latest showdown. I happened to look out my window and saw my mom heading to the car to go to the grocery store. As I watched her, my world morphed into a different act.
I saw a reality where I too would have to buy groceries. A life where I would have to drive and make money for gas and pay for the lights and all the things my mom had to do as an adult. The fear hit me like a ton of bricks; these toys, the games, the playing, it would all end one day. Right then, I realized my childhood would have to die.
My villain became adulthood. The final boss. Our society teaches us that in order to grow up we must extinguish our inner-child. With every revolution around the sun, we learn to suppress our joy, our wonder, and our play, more and more. We stop seeing ourselves as explorers and begin to embrace responsibility and practicality as lifeblood. We stop becoming creators in service of getting on with the serious business of growing up.
I eventually grew up, too. I grew to learn that the impossible is silly, the mundane is boring, and clouds are just pockets of moisture floating in the air, not dinosaurs or race cars. As a kid, I walked on Neptune by looking through a telescope; I built forts in my basement that rivaled the Catacombs of Paris; I talked to ants and trees like they were my best friends. But I grew older, more mature, and learned to dispel my belief in magic. I learned to become an adult.
Adulthood relegated my inner-child to purgatory. I cared less about dreaming and more about waking up. I needed to make money, I needed to pay the bills. There was college and a career and investments and freaking retirement, even as I was standing squarely in my twenties. Washing dishes was just a chore. Going for a run was in service of slimming down for a woman’s gaze. Nothing held magic anymore. Where there used to be shine, now there was only a stale, numbness. I lost my battle with adulthood.
I’m not the only one who has endured this narrative. It happens for many of us, especially BIPOC and queer creatives. We’re taught by white supremacy to dim ourselves and not to trust our creative voices. We’re programmed to seek and want validation, and that validation is usually embedded in dominant white culture. It’s as if we’ve been trained to oppress ourselves out of our own childhood, out of our state of wonder and play. But deep down in our spirit, we know something is off.
As an education professional, I was forced to question my adult self and how I show up in the world. Where was the unbearable lightness of dreaming? Why didn’t I feel creative? Why did I stop looking up at the stars? The answers were wrapped up in the fact that I had killed my inner-child. Thing was, however, I was working with children. I saw in them what I once embodied – a supreme state of joy, of dreaming, of hope. They offered me permission to laugh, to be goofy and light-hearted. The young students I worked with became my new heroes, helping me to exhume my inner-child from it’s grave.
To kill your childhood is to kill a prophet. Each of us is born a visionary, a being with magical powers who has abilities to inspire, lead, and teach. However, we become our own villains and attempt to suppress our creative urges.
I am a writer, and I write what I like.
To say these words in an act of rebellion. By acknowledging my creative powers, by affirming them, I am rebelling against the villain I’ve become. I am saying yes to possibilities and hell yeah to iceskating on Mars.
This is the rebirth of my childhood. This is my inception.
Welcome to Self-Proclaimed, a blog-memoir exploring my own creative process as a form of self-reinvention. This series is a journal that acts as an ode to our creative voices and the inner-child who dares to write the world, as Paulo Freire says.
To exhume my inner-child, I’m tapping back into my original passion – storytelling. Whether from my family, from my upbringing, or from the world around me, my life is full of stories. There’s nothing more joyful to me than being able to craft those stories and share them.
To help me do so, I hired my good friend, Esther Milanzi, as my writing coach. Over the course of the last four or five months, Esther has pushed me to become the creative director of my own life, supporting me with reconnecting with my love for writing and grounding myself in authentic expression. Through this work, I’ve sparked my childhood memoir and a collection of stories revolving around my family and their worlds. My time with Esther has been priceless, and as I spend more time honing my craft, I see more clearly how I’ve leveraged creativity to respond to pain in other realms of my life.
I founded the Youth Empowerment Broadcasting Organization (YEBO) five years ago. Like all superhero origin stories, YEBO was born from trauma. While working as a dean of students in an elementary school in Denver, I found myself becoming a tool of white supremacist leadership. Per status-quo in urban education in Denver, I was the lone Black staff member in the school and centered as the chief policing role within our culture. I became angry and aggravated with kids, eventually finding my way to depression as I engaged in a daily practice of silencing the Black and Brown kids I worked with.
I observed that most of the students being sent to my office were Black boys – not surprising if you know a thing or two about how whiteness reacts to Black joy. Feeling down and out, I wanted to disrupt the pain and frustration the boys were experiencing. Hell, I needed that myself. So I brought a crate of comic books from my collection to school and every time a student (aka a Black boy) was sent to me, I had them pick a comic from the box and sit with it for 10-15 minutes. We’d talk about the characters in the comic, about the plot and the challenges they were going through, and then I’d ask the students to speak of themselves like a comic book character to articulate their problems and emotional state. From this process, I started to realize the power of pop-culture and how we can meet young people where they are to support their growth. Even more so, I saw a transformation in how they left our space. More smiles, more laughter, more hugs. Humanity.
Since then, YEBO has become a literal incarnation of my childhood. As a kid, I acted on my creative impulses regularly. I didn’t care if I had the right materials to build a go-kart; instead, I acted like there were no such things as the “right” materials. I just went on trying to build things. When I failed, I repurposed the mess into some new dream. This was play for me. And I did it with a crew I loved and who were like-minded creators. We explored the world on our Huffy bicycles, mobbin’ through streets, alleyways, and trails, our arms spread wide while coasting down hills. We were illustrations of tranquility.
YEBO exists as an embodiment of that world. In our organization, I feel safe to take risks and try things I’m not experienced with. We make things, break things, and tinker with it all. We work as a family and express love for one another. We inspire each other to our full potential. Most importantly, though, we play. YEBO makes joy invasive and invites us to reimagine our relationships, our work, and our futures. Arms wide, coasting.
That’s the genesis of this project: To curate a space that holds me accountable to engaging joy and dreaming, everyday.
Self-Proclaimed offers readers insight into that joy. I also hope to illustrate for you how reconnecting with your original passions can awaken you to see more expansive possibilities within your own futures and work. More than anything, however, I want to convey through my craft my affinity and love for what I get to do everyday, who I get to do it with, and where we’re going as a YEBOfam.
The dope part is you’ll hear and read from voices beyond my own. I’m a single voice in a choir, after all. I’m inviting young people to read and remix my ideas into something that’s relevant and hip, from their own voices. The result will be a TikTok accompanying each chapter of my project. We’ll post a blog every other Thursday, and then a young person will post a TikTok the following week to amplify and take my words to new heights.
And that’s what we’re doing at YEBO. We’re rethinking, remixing, reimagining how young people and adults can work more effectively together. This is pedagogy for us, much of which comes from our amazing partnership with Dr. Arturo Cortez and our fam at the CU Boulder School of Education. These folks are helping us think about how to cultivate deeper, more authentic relationships between young people and old heads like myself through our everyday practices and culture.
YEBO collaborates with youth to commit our everyday digital practices to personal and social transformation. Self-Proclaimed is a manifestation of this mission.
I am a writer, and I write what I like.
The word yebo comes from South Africa and is used as an affirmation and/or an agreement. This project is me saying hell yeah to my creativity and my love for writing. Yebo to being messy. Yebo to liberating the little boy inside of me.
Sharing these affirmations and my story is scary. It makes me feel vulnerable. That’s a beautiful thing, though. Because young people cannot become what they don’t see. I can’t be what I don’t see. So, in a real way, Self-Proclaimed acts as a mirror for us, helping us to heal the trauma caused by growing up.
For me, the greatest form of protest or rebellion is to manifest our peace and focus our attention on things that inspire us. The rest is noise from villains trying to distract us.
I am a writer. I write what I like. I write the world.
That’s my superpower.
Welcome, we are the Self-Proclaimed.
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