Mikel Whittier

There are many unforeseeable consequences faced by young black boys who are taught to assimilate into systems that were not designed for us. Even when your desire is to be a change agent, Eurocentric institutions intentionally ignore the fundamental needs of being for many young black boys. Well before the Black Codes were written, systems in this country limited the mobility of black boys who lacked the resources and opportunities to manifest their talents and gifts.

Our society ignores the emotional wellbeing of young black boys. We are taught that the display of emotions, except for a few, is taboo. The attack and neglect of young black men leaves us to put up shields to protect ourselves. We’re forced to repeatedly see ourselves on social media feeds and news outlets as lifeless, our bodies left on the ground for hours while our every mistake and old mugshots are circulated to normalize our extermination.

St. Louis has an overt way of showing us we do not belong: we have no safe spaces to share, reflect, and navigate the emotions that these situations provoke.

Before my first day of kindergarten I bore a scar on my forehead from being hit with a beer bottle. While my mom panicked, I stood there emotionless as blood ran down my face. I had developed the skill to internalize my emotions for protection.

I carry memories of observing drug sales and drug use, homelessness, seeing lifeless bodies in the street, taking cover in the middle of shootouts, and escaping house fires – all before my first day of school. Yet the system in place for me to learn, develop social skills, and cultivate my talents was not equipped to help me beyond the classroom.

Although I was constantly reminded of this, school always came easy. I finished homework assignments in class, never really had to do much studying, and I never bothered anyone. So, it was easy to ignore my unexpressed nor assessed needs because I was the exception.

Sports helped create solace for many boys like me. From Mathews-Dickey basketball to Kirkwood-Webster football, sports served as an opportunity to feel empowered because I was otherwise powerless. Sports became my way to manage the misfortunes of poverty and living in a city that was not designed for me. It was a way to determine my own path. The football field was a safe haven; it was the perfect place to release pain, frustration, and anguish and not be judged.

However, while St. Louis high school sports reporters saw a kid that was cool as polar bear toenails, internally I was at odds. I was living in a space that ignored my well-being but celebrated my talents. I was living out all the typical stories that ended in being held at gunpoint by police, searched, and subjected to less-than-equal treatment.

I still find myself in unfamiliar spaces with a familiar feeling of being powerless. There is a void of young black men working in places where decisions that impact young black men are made daily. So, I frequently bear the burden of being looked at to answer questions on behalf of all black men. While well-intentioned, this assumption neglects our humanity, as if we’re this one problem. So, no, I cannot help you develop a message to address all young black men.

There is space for more than one of us. However, there are many talented young black men throughout St. Louis with multiple degrees, talents, and experiences who are looking for employment but are forced to Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and many other markets. Even as we try to change the narrative, be more than a statistic, and be present in our home, St. Louis reminds us that it is not a place for us.

I have watched my family struggle to keep on our lights, gas, and water so we could stay in our neighborhood for a better education. I have watched my infant sister be denied care at a local health center; she now bears a scar from an open-heart surgery. I have watched cancer take a loved one. I was not calm, by any means. I was warring internally.

Our circumstances have changed, and I am still warring internally. News of my friends killed in carjackings, witnessing a teenager killed on his birthday, and knowing my family is here drive my devotion to change a place that does not want me.

Just remember, I love you. I understand how it feels to suffer in silence. When I walk by and give you that head nod, just know I recognize your pain and that I dedicate my three feet of change as a safe space for you. Despite our differences, we share the same emotional scars. We must understand this bold truth to begin to change and heal our region – our home.

Mikel Whittier is the Re-Entry Community Linkages (RE-LINK) Program manager for St. Louis Integrated Health Network.

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