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My Brother Was the “Other.” This Is His Story.

When my youngest brother died our family had to print two separate obituaries. On the cover of one, he wore a tie. Long, rope-like dreadlocks framed his smiling face.  But he wasn’t smiling on the second obit. In fact, he was not a “he” at all. The pensive eyes of a young woman stared from the page.  Tendrils of long black hair were swept back, away from her delicate forehead and cheeks.

Raymond was undergoing a sex change but not everyone knew it until that rainy morning in January 1996 when we all walked into an ornate, Buddhist temple to pay our final respects. That’s when select friends, co-workers and even some family members learned the truth about this sensitive soul who was born way ahead of his times.

Raymond read encyclopedias like they were storybooks, meditated in a lotus position and became vegetarian — all before the age of 13. So, my family shouldn’t have been surprised when we discovered something else about him was startlingly different.  His body was producing more estrogen than testosterone.  According to Raymond, a new “strain of humanity” was being created.

I was closer to him than anyone and the first to discover his secret.  It confused me for a while, and I worried about him constantly. When he drowned at the age of 40 in the San Francisco Bay, I became more determined to understand his need to cross over to another gender.  I recalled that he had once compared himself to a platypus, a mammal with the bill and webbed feet of a duck and the body of a beaver. He explained that transsexuals were hybrids who needed help becoming their true selves.

Society has a tough time classifying hybrids like my brother.  Case in point:  A South African female runner faced a gender challenge that disqualified her from the 2009 World Championships in London. Though she was born a female, blood tests revealed her testosterone levels were as high as a man’s. The dilemma left many unanswered questions.  Was she cheating? Or was she another example of that “strain of humanity” Raymond referred to years ago?

At the time of his announcement, Raymond was already morphing. His voice, which was never loud or husky to being with, had dropped a few octaves and he was speaking in a tone so soft people often remarked that he sounded like me, his older sister.  I loved my brilliant baby brother and had no reason to read anything into the way he talked. I took as much pride in our similar voice inflections as I did in our shared cheekbones and smiles. I saw us as shadows of one another, the two musketeers who used to stay up extra late on Saturday nights, watching low-budget sci-fi movies or giggling when absolutely no one else seemed amused.

Raymond was the person I went to with many of my concerns, a child guru who knew more about life and death than anyone I’d ever met. I suppose that’s why one of our babysitters gave him the label “the prophet.” Or why his friends referred to him as their spiritual teacher.  Admittedly, I, too, was one of his students, following his guidance and reading books he’d recommend. Our special bond was unshakable — even after he unveiled the identity he had spent years trying to mask.

But one thing was altered. My awareness. For the first time, I found myself pondering the limitations and demands of gender role playing. After a lengthy discussion with Raymond, I developed a better grasp on the inherently free state of our spirits, and I lost respect for a society that told people that their bodies, more specifically, their genitalia had the final word over how they should think and feel.

Then Raymond died and, as my family bore the pain of his loss, we also continued our struggle to come to terms with his unusual orientation. We saw it as a misunderstood phenomenon. A social taboo not to be shared with anyone.  A mysterious mountain we had to climb all alone.

So, when Bruce Jenner made his 2015 declaration, I was underwhelmed.  I didn’t bother to read the news stories, the zinging commentary, the potpourri of Facebook memes. The journey of a man becoming a woman yet still professing a romantic interest in women was old news to me.  My brother/sister Raymond had a girlfriend and planned to continue to have girlfriends. It was his physical form that made him feel imprisoned. He had no yearning to be intimate with a man.

My goal is to one day tell his full story and offer deeper insight into what is, perhaps, the most perplexing stigma in our society. This blog is the first step.  It was a long time coming, a revelation I considered making public 22 years ago, began to write more than a decade ago and didn’t have the courage to finish until now – March 2019.

That’s how difficult it’s been to sort through my fears and expose the quiet turmoil of an introspective man named Raymond Crittendon who evolved into a warm, deeply-intuitive woman known as Malaika Lawshea. It’s also how long it has taken me to remove my impenetrable shield. Opening up takes guts. Facing torpedoes of ugly criticism takes thick skin.

But I have conquered those insecurities now, and all I can say to the skeptics is: Bring it! I’m no longer vulnerable to childish name calling and bigoted, homophobic attacks.  I live in an inner world of peace, and I celebrate the right of all consenting adults to express themselves openly, lovingly and through the light in which they were intended to shine.  I’m not the least bit worried about what others think. For no matter how many negative remarks are made and how many insults are hurled, one thing cannot be denied:

Raymond/Malaika was brave enough to open the door and pave the way for others destined to walk the same path. He/she was a trailblazer who I am proud to call my sibling.

THE UNSUNG VALOR OF BLACK MEN

They don’t look like heroes.

They have doe eyes and baby-fat faces. Their smiles are shy, their expressions nonchalant. They seem like any other awkwardly innocent middle-schoolers on the brink of puberty.

But these kids have quite a story to tell.

On September 21, 2017, 13-year-old Devonte Cafferkey, 14-year-old Sammy Farah and 12-year-old Shawn Young spotted a stranger teetering on the edge of a London overpass. Yelling “it’s not worth it,” they raced to his side and grabbed him, holding on until a passerby helped them pull the man to safety.

Not a typical feat for a trio of black youths who just happened to be walking home from school. Still, Devonte, Sammy and Shawn are in good company.

They’re part of a wave of Good Samaritans of color – young and old – who have endured great peril and risked their own lives to save others from danger.  Some have braved oncoming trains, others have climbed to unreasonable heights, and a few have rescued people from burning cars.

In a society where they are routinely stereotyped and marginalized, black men are emerging as fearless saviors, undaunted by the threat of death and unfazed by the notion that their efforts just might go unrewarded. Call them foolish, humanitarian or urban angels. No matter the label, they are performing remarkable feats of courage and love ⸻all while being victims of a peculiar psychological phenomenon.

It’s known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when an entrenched belief remains long after that perception has been proven false. Example: MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters and other fanatics following the bidding of a leader who is guiding them to their own demise. Despite data and evidence to the contrary, those who see through the lens of cognitive dissonance are unable to recognize anything that is in opposition to their prevailing mental programming or their own stubborn attitudes. They cling to dead viewpoints. They tend to denigrate other ethnic or religious groups. They spew venom. They tightly seal up their minds. Never mind that the objects of their scorn may have made major contributions to society. Under the grimy microscope of cognitive dissonance, they are viewed as violent and untrustworthy.

It does little good to tell a person with this thought pattern that of the 154 mass shootings committed between 2012 and 2018, not a single gunman was black.  Or try to explain that the profile of the typical “lone wolf” mass shooter is a white male between the ages of 19 and 35.

Since 2015, more than 70 unarmed black men have been shot by the police. But from 2015 to the present, nearly all white perpetrators who were arrested for a crime (including Dylann Roof, the young man who killed 9 parishioners at a South Carolina church) were taken into custody – alive.

Meanwhile, examples of black valor continue to surface. They include:

The Subway Superman – On a cold, winter morning in 2007, Wesley Autrey, age 50, leapt off the platform of a New York City subway to save a stranger having an epileptic seizure. A train was approaching ─ its horn wailing and lights flashing – leaving Autrey only 22 seconds to hoist the man off the tracks. So, he did the unthinkable. Lying on the man’s back, he wedged himself between the rails and into the 21-inch gully beneath. Within an instant, the train passed over their bodies and both men survived.

The Unknown Hero – In 2010, an unidentified black man pounced onto the subway tracks and saved the life of a woman who had fainted and fallen onto the path of an oncoming train. Perhaps inspired by Autrey’s feat, he positioned the woman in a safe spot inside the trench. He finished this good deed seconds before the train came barreling through New York’s Union Square Station. Then he vanished without leaving a name or any contact information.

The Daring Young Bikers ─ During the summer of 2013, 15-year-old Temar Boggs and Chris Garcia, 13, heard that a five-year-old girl in their neighborhood had been abducted from her front yard. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania teens jumped on their bikes and tracked down a vehicle that fit the description of the kidnapper’s sedan. They pursued it until the driver stopped, released the little girl and sped away.

The Waffle House Hero ─ James Shaw Jr. had just walked into a Tennessee Waffle House one Sunday morning in 2018 when a crazed killer opened fire, murdering four patrons and injuring four others. Shaw refused to cower.  As the gunman paused, he tackled him and wrestled the assault rifle out of his hand. The suspect fled and Shaw is credited with saving countless lives.

The Paris Spiderman ─  Mamoudou Gassama didn’t think twice. A toddler was dangling from the balcony of a Paris high-rise apartment building and a crowd had gathered below, pointing and screaming. Gassama sprung into action – despite the chance of exposing his undocumented immigrant status. Without the aid of levies or ropes, the Mali-native scaled the building, pulling himself up four, steep stories until he reached the frightened child. His 2018 Mission Impossible-style venture was viewed by millions on youtube.

The list goes on, and it’s impressive enough to make a case against implications of black inferiority and rallying calls for white supremacy. But arguments like that state the obvious. Of course, flaws don’t recognize racial boundaries, and neither black men nor white men are perfect. No one is. But, if the selfless actions of these champions have affirmed anything, it’s that black men should not be underestimated.

At their worst, they are mired in poverty, soured by a system that has failed them and sinking in the quicksand of street justice. But when they’re at their best, they exemplify a faith, zeal and strength that is unparalleled.

Clearly, compassion was rippling through the hearts of those three, British middle schoolers. Sparks were simmering in the spirit of the acrobatic, Paris Spiderman. And a volcano must have erupted within James Shaw the moment he set foot inside that besieged Waffle House.

Black men are tired of backing down. They’re reframing their image and demonstrating their might. They know there are plenty of skeptics who don’t believe they can be heroes.

And they are proving them wrong.

 

MOTHER NATURE’S CLASSROOM

 

Trees crave attention. What else explains the clownish way their leaves behave each Fall, spinning like Ferris Wheels as they coast to the ground? Why else would they drown themselves in golden make up or wear fiery masks of red?

I believe they’re trying to teach us something.

As the trees transform, it might seem like they’re just showing off — rattling limbs and boasting new colors while undergoing their annual, ritualistic prep for winter. But look closer. There, lost in the theatrics of the changing season, is a profound lesson.

It’s called the art of surrender: The simple act of letting go.

Trees, flowers, shrubbery and even weeds don’t go into a tizzy, fighting against the inevitable. They roll with it. They let it happen. Leaves sail from branches. Petals scatter and stems wither. Tall reeds turn various shades of brown then die. All of nature flows in cooperation with the steady rhythms of life and the harmony of what is meant to be.

Humans do the opposite. We cling to the past far longer than we need to and often perceive the shifts that occur in our lives as threats to our security.  An uninvited transition is treated like a virus, an intruder we need to stomp out.We forget that a job loss could be an open door to something greater or that a failed relationship could lead to a better, more compatible match. Instead of yielding, we moan, we complain, we kick and scream.

Years ago, I had this notion put to the test. A job I cherished was yanked away and I moped for weeks, unsure of my next step and concerned that the industry I had worked in for years was about to collapse.  Then I noticed the silent messages all around me. I gazed at a weeping willow tree, its head bowed and long, fluid branches absorbing moisture from damp soil. I watched a squirrel successfully scurry along a tree branch that was far too thin to support its plump body. And, in silent awe, I observed a fluff of pollen float into my car only to be gently carried out of the window by a gust of wind.

This is trust, I thought. This is the kind of faith that nature will teach us if we’re willing to listen.

My circumstances improved tremendously but not until I accepted my experience the way spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, often instructs. Dass explains that problems don’t cause angst. He says “the resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.”   

Mother Nature understands this. She’s an invisible Houdini who quiets storms and makes dark clouds fade so the rainbows can rise. Life, according to Mother Nature, is not a static existence.  The shattered expectations we’re crying over are vestiges of fleeting realities. Like fireflies, these realities were never intended to be permanent. They flash into our awareness, then flash out to shove us onto a higher path.

Our joys and our woes are part of that path and, perhaps, just a series of ripples in a beautiful tide. When we ride the tide, we’re on our way to healing. By refusing to remain entangled in old dramas, we are opening our spirits to exciting new adventures. A good friend of mine once put it this way:

“You can’t receive anything when your fists are clenched. You must first open your hands.”

Autumn is upon us and it is screaming for us to open our hands. Appreciate what was and be receptive to the roses that have not yet bloomed. Let yesterday’s dead foliage return to the Earth. 

Tomorrow’s blossoms might be sweeter than you think.

At Aretha’s Funeral, A Late Poet Sighs

We remember the hat.

Nearly everyone who attended or tuned in to Aretha Franklin’s televised funeral on August 31, admired, discussed or wondered about the umbrella of ruffles that arched over the brow and sloped around the cheeks of African-American actress, Cicely Tyson.

In the process, they may have missed the historical significance of the tribute she gave to one of America’s greatest 19th century poets. Paul Laurence Dunbar.

When the regal Tyson performed before the worldwide audience (estimated  at well over 10 million viewers), she did more than honor Franklin. She gave a down-home salute of “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” to a man whose talent was diminished by white critics who referred to him as an “anomaly” and “freak of human nature.”  They proclaimed that blacks weren’t smart enough to spin phrases the way he did. He was an exception, they said. “An oddity.”

Then Tyson stepped onto the stage and proved them wrong. Dunbar, the son of former slaves, was a black literary pioneer. He wrote eloquent sonnets like “We Wear The Mask” and “By The Stream,” and he conjured up rhymes that echoed the despair of his people. His words reached deep into the throats of the anguished and borrowed their battered vernacular to create clever, entertaining ditties.

The one Tyson read, “When Malindy Sings,” is a lyrical work penned in the foot-stomping dialect Dunbar captured so well:

“G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy

Put dat music book away;

What’s de use to keep on trying?

Ef you practice twell you’re gray.”

How appropriate that Tyson, the godmother of black cinema, chose Dunbar to honor the Queen of Soul. After all, both Franklin and Dunbar could touch the spirit in a way it’s not used to being touched. They both knew how to prick those tender places inside of us, to make us tremble and ache and bare emotions we’d prefer to keep buried.

Franklin was feted for this prowess, but Dunbar’s contributions, though heralded by scholars, rarely received the fanfare they deserved. Then along comes a diminutive, 94-year-old thespian with a powerful voice. Cicely Tyson placed Dunbar’s classic work before Franklin’s grieving fans, and in doing so, exposed him to a new audience. A larger audience. Perhaps the largest contemporary audience to ever experience a poem by the gifted poet.

It was a glorious moment, and, for that, I will always be grateful to Tyson. But I’m saddened because so many just didn’t get it. How many realized the man Tyson was quoting was one of the first black poets to break through racial barriers? Who, among us, knew the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” is a line from a Dunbar poem? Or that, despite his vision, he was a broken man — a sensitive soul who drank far more than he should have, frustrated with a world that ignored his full intellectual capacity.

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872, Dunbar — the only African American in his high school graduating class — never actually spoke the dialect that became his trademark. He churned it out for one reason. It sold. Mainstream audiences loved it. It paid the bills. And, make no mistake about it, he was good at it. After he died of tuberculosis at the age of 33, others tried but no one could recreate that folksy style quite like Dunbar.

At the funeral, we were given a peek at his unique flair. Now, it’s up to us to open our minds and dig a little deeper. That’s much more important, I think, than what anyone was wearing.  Let’s forget the superficial and focus on the poetry:

“Ain’t you nevah hyeah Malindy?

Blessed soul, tek up de cross!

Look hyeah, aint you jokin, honey?

Well, you don’t know whut you los’

Y’ought to hyeah dat gal a-wa’blin,

Robins, la’ks, an’ all dem things,

Heish dey moufs an’ hides dey faces

When Malindy sings.”