August 27, 2014 was the worst and best birthday of my life. The night of that birthday I was furious. My face was stained with tears of frustration and pain at what had transpired in Ferguson just 18 days earlier. On August 9, Michael Brown was gunned down in the middle of the street. His body laid in the street for four hours.
An officer had again decided to become the judge, jury, and executioner of a young, black male. Mike Brown was 18 years old. He was a recent high school graduate with plans for his future. Yet the media wasted no time in dragging his name through the mud.
My indignation to this unjust death began to give way to fear, however, because I had just turned 17. I was only one year younger than Mike Brown. That night my tears froze on my face as I no longer saw Mike Brown’s body lying in the street, but my own. I lost control of my fear, and I soon began to imagine the bodies of my older brother Danny and my younger brother Marcus lying before me on the hot pavement. The pain was unbearable.
I was still in high school at the time, but for months I was lost in paralyzing fear and a deep depression that darkened each day to the point that I felt like I had fallen into a listless abyss. The only thing that occupied my time were burning questions in my soul.
How could the life of a black person be worth so little? How could the lives of young black men like me be tossed to the side and then be justified by narratives spun by media outlets? These questions needed answers. I needed to find a reason to climb back out.
The night and the following months were some of the worst moments of my life, but it also was one of the best birthdays because it started me on the path of constant intellectual growth. I found growth in reasoning out the answers to the questions that seemed to cloud my mind for a grueling semester. I started to ask new questions that led me into a higher calling of advocacy that compelled me to share my voice with the community around me.
I sought every day to bridge a connection to those around me I cared about to help them better understand the world we lived in and how it was changing and how it seemingly never changes for black bodies. I found profound joy in discovering the truth. I smiled every time I learned the roots of the ills that plague our society.
I wanted to share my love and passion with others, so I spoke in front of 1,700 like-minded individuals at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C. I dedicated myself to honing my public speaking skills, because I have major stage fright, but my passion for speaking this truth to others pushed me into the late nights with revisions and practices. My fatigue never grew, because I knew I had something important to discover and share. I felt my passion would guide me through whatever chaos might throw at me. But college seemed to be a new but similar weight.
I came stronger than most into my first two years of college, but there was soon a new battle with my mental health that was more grueling than the last. In the fall of 2018, I was challenged with day-to-day battles. Depression made it hard for me to focus on my passion for learning. Anxiety grew out of my seeming lack of having my passion. And panic attacks began to rock my body after the weight of my unknown future weighed on my chest all at once.
I did not know where to turn, because what drudged me out of my previous abyss was focusing on an outside problem and putting my mind and soul to work. But I no longer had this urge at my side. I was alone. I was forced, for the first time, to grapple with who I was as a young black man with severe depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.
I have come to realize many crucial things in this reflection period that I hope will benefit others. You are never done learning how to get back up from the weight of the world, but you will get stronger. You can have a passion that drives you to wake up every morning, but it means nothing if you are not at peace and in love with who you are on your worst day. You will fall and sometimes fall hard, but you must keep moving forward for yourself and those who care about you.
I still have my passion for serving and discovering the truth that I hope will liberate those who need it most, but I also know that all of this is for nothing if I do not love and take care of myself with the same passion and fire.
Brendan Underwood is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and completing his undergraduate studies at Saint Louis University.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.