Who taught me to not be free?
This is a question I’ve asked myself many times over the last month after reading Glennon Doyle’s “Untamed.” I fought reading this book. Another self-help book from a white woman that knows nothing about the plight of a black woman? Yeah, I’ll fucking pass. But I needed a read for my flight back to Massachusetts, and within a week, I had fallen in love with this very same white woman I was avoiding.
She didn’t need to know the deep struggles and dangers of being a black woman to get her message across, because she knew what it was like to not be free to be her own. She, too, felt caged.
At the age of 8, I had it all figured out. I was going to be a fashion designer like my Aunty Tai. I had a Micky mouse binder that kept all of my scantily clad designs safe. I had a special set of coloring pencils that I’d use to create said designs and a vision just as colorful. That vision didn’t take into account the costs or actual production of my designs, but I was 8, so this was surely enough. I was going to be a fashion designer!
By the age of 14, I had abandoned fashion designing for creative writing. Was I good at it? Probably not, but it brought peace to my anxious mind and helped me to find a resolution outside of self-harming and starving myself. I wrote myself new happy endings. I wrote myself the life I wanted to live. I wrote myself happy because happy just felt so far-fetched.
When summer came around that year, I prepared myself for another science camp I unwillingly agreed to. That was the cycle with my father. He’d lightly suggest something, and then before you knew it, it would become the law of the Ajayi-Obe land, and that was it. You were doing it. But with my newfound fondness for a hobby that was keeping me sane, I gained the courage to tell him that I didn’t want to go, that I actually wanted to write.
“Write what?” he said, not really paying attention. My father would come home every day from work and sit down at his makeshift desk (that was really our formal dining room table) and review bills and whatever stacks of paper he hoarded. The more he examined his stacks with annoyance, the more my anxiety grew. This probably wasn’t the best time to have this conversation.
“I want to write stories. Books and stuff. I think I can be really good at it.” I began to explain how I’d been writing short stories, and that my teacher said he would help me get published.
“Yetunde. People who go to school to study writing do not make money. You need to do math, science, and engineering if you want to make money. I don’t want to hear anything about arts in this house. Do you understand me?”
That was the day I was taught to not dream.
That was the day I was taught that I didn’t know what was best for myself.
When senior year rolled around, I decided I was going to study Biomedical Engineering. I was good at math and science, it was within the realm of topics approved by Daddy, and I was president of my high-school chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. This made sense. This was now the goal. But as I settled in as a freshman in college, those classes hit me hard and fast. I immediately sought guidance from a mentor.
He was the director of one of the offices I worked for and someone who had always given me sound advice, but that day was different. That day he expressed that he thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, and then he encouraged me to really consider transferring to the local state university.
“Yetti, this is a top-tiered engineering school, and honey, I don’t think you’re cut out for this. You failed two of your early-onset classes. That is a sign.”
That was the day I was taught that not even black men will believe you are enough.
Despite his discouragement, I ended up staying. I took his advice, switched my major, graduated with honors and secured a well-paying job at a Fortune 500. I had survived! I did good, I did what my father said to do and waited for everything thereafter to be handed to me with ease. Yeah, that didn’t happen, but what did happen was the universe exclaiming “hold my purse,” and outdoing herself with seasonal depression, heartbreak, and multiple jobs that would pay me well, but would never satisfy me as a career.
My 20’s were a rollercoaster on tracks headed in a direction I never laid out for myself. The more I did things the way others told me to – no, expected me to – the deeper my self-hatred grew. Yes, even while writing on this blog daily about self-love. I was more willing to disappoint myself before I would ever entertain the thought of disobeying them.
That is, until the summer of 2016. After a 6-week work trip to London, returning back to New York City, a place I had forced myself to call home for the last 4 years, felt like the world was ending. As my taxi weaved in and out of traffic to get me back to Harlem, I wept. The anxiety had returned and the depression was just as smothering as the NYC summer humidity. I knew down to my core that this shit just wasn’t going to work anymore.
I made plans to visit different states and cities. I applied to jobs all over the United States. I changed my mind a bunch of times and cried probably twice as much. But my decision wasn’t set in stone until a conversation I had with my boyfriend. He told me, frankly, that the only person standing in my way of moving, and letting go of this situation, was me.
The idea of doing something without consulting anyone else made me physically ill. Can you imagine that? The idea that trusting yourself is more daunting than putting your life in someone else’s hands.
This would be the first real life-changing decision I had made for myself. The idea didn’t come from my father, or a man I was dating, or friends I wanted to keep, or ex-friends who were (and still are) waiting in the shadows for me to trip up and fail. It came from me no longer wanting to feel like this life I was living didn’t even belong to me.
And so I did it.
I signed a lease in Connecticut, packed my belongings, hired movers, and did it all in secret. The idea of this decision backfiring terrified me. But it didn’t backfire; it instead fueled me because the anxiety and stress I had been holding onto in my chest disappeared. I felt lighter. I felt energized. This leap of faith, this sheer courage, brought me a happiness that I hadn’t experienced without the presence of medication in such a long time.
That was the day I was taught to trust myself.
The more I put my trust in myself, the more I felt confident making decisions with only my input. The more decisions I made for my betterment and my joy, the more my life felt like mine.
So, to answer the question, who taught me to not be free? Everyone. But who taught me freedom was mine for the taking? Me, myself, and I.4