There was this time when I was like thirteen or fourteen, I was hanging out with one of my aunts and a cousin. It was a cold and rainy day in November and my aunt was going to take me over to my dads to spend the weekend. Before dropping me off, she had some Christmas shopping to do. As we moved from store to store, she would purchase a couple of small things while swiping a bunch more. I was not participating. Yes, I had swiped things in the past but really felt that I only took what I “needed”. This particular night I didn’t need anything. We went to Grandpa Pigeons, it was Walmart before I knew what Walmart was. My aunt and cousin went around the store stuffing items into their coat like gang busters! I was just wandering around looking at random junk when my aunt approached me and asked if I would put a pink One Hundred and One Dalmatians sweater in my purse for her daughter. My answer was no, not at all. She was annoyed and tried her best to convince me, but I would not do it. She made some comments about me being selfish and then insisted that I at least let get this perfume for her. I don’t remember the perfume brand, but I said fine and slipped it into my purse and she put in the sweater. I walked out and went to the car to wait for her, she didn’t make it out of the store. Security had grabbed her and then came to retrieve me from the car. They called the police and we were arrested. My mom had to come to pick me up. What’s odd is, I don’t recall her being mad or yelling at me. She just asked when the court date would be signed the papers and we headed out. I would return a month or so to pay the fine but what I did not know was that a random night, a simple transgression, a single stupid act had profoundly changed the path of my life.
When I joined the Navy, I signed up to become a Cryptologic tech. I was going to be working with the Intelligence agency and would have Top secrete clearance. That’s the movie I had in my mind of who I was supposed to be. In my movie, when people asked what I did for a living I would say “It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”! I would say it all cocky in very Tom Cruz Top Gunish kinda way. The reality is that sometime in the middle of boot camp I had to pass a background check and interview with the FBI. Just the mention of the word background and I was instantly afraid because I knew my background and there wasn’t much there, but I was totally ashamed of what was. The idea of people digging around into my “background” was extremely unsettling. I sat for a day or so looking up things I didn’t remember like the names of every school I had attended (shit I don’t know). I had to name people who knew me from this or that time or place. This was nearly impossible seeing as how most of those memories and people now lived in the great unknown of the singularity. I think it was at the end of the week when I actually had to have the official FBI interview. I don’t recall his name or any distinguishing features or even what his actual voice sounded like. This will sound bad, but he is stored in my memory as this generic white male authority figure that looks like a mean and slightly dark version of the 80s era Tom Brokaw.
He wasn’t mean or disrespectful to me in any way, but his presence was extremely intimidating! He spoke calmly, and each word had importance and weight. I don’t know if I felt that way because of my perspective of myself (a dirty little black girl) or my perceptions of him (a powerful and respectful white man). His title, his maleness, and his whiteness were all in the room with little ole black dirty me. It was probably the combination of everything. What I had been raised to believe about whiteness and what I believed my own blackness to mean. These thoughts made it feel as if there was more of everything good and righteous on his side of the room and a maximum amount of bad nothingness on my side.
He flipped through my file and asked a few questions. The last set of questions he asked me were about stealing. I do not believe they were intended to be the last, but none the less they were. He asked, “Have you ever shoplifted or stolen anything?”. To which I replied “Yes”. He immediately looked up and followed that line of questioning until my inevitable end. He plainly told me that any theft after the age of thirteen is grounds for denial into the program. I remember his last words so clearly, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how this happened, but you should have never have been allowed to sign up for Crypt tech in the first place.” He knew, and he could not understand why those before him did not know. I was not enough. I was not good enough of a person and they should have known when they first laid eyes on me. “They” this unknown group of fucking assholes had given me hope, had made me believe that I might be able to shape this piece of shit life I had been given into my dreams. I was sooooo dramatic internally! Almost no one has ever known this about me. I give myself a set amount of time to totally melt down. I feel all the feelings and allow myself to plunge completely into the darkness. Depending on the situation it could last from minutes, hours, days, or weeks. This event got about an hour. That is all the time I could allow it to have this was a hard one and I knew that it had the potential to become an extended journey into the darkness. I was never officially diagnosed with depression and never thought of myself as being depressed. I would just say that I was in a mood. But I believe that I had what I call walking depression. It’s kind of like walking pneumonia. I was able to be fully functional and go about my day. Most people thought I was a happy go lucky goofball kinda person. Underneath that veneer I had a mild lingering depression, the kind that goes undiagnosed and untreated. At that point I didn’t really understand what it meant in a medical sense to be depressed and the thought that I might need help or to talk to someone about what was going on with me never crossed my mind.
I had one hour to try and choose a new job and make peace with this moment and move to the next one. I had to do this because I didn’t want to get stuck in the pain of it all and stay in a place of self-pity. During this time in my life I did not experience singular events of doubt or failure. Every failure or feeling of self-doubt came with my complete catalog. The emotions of every bad thing that had been said, done, or ever happened to me would break free from the paper mache partition that held them back. If I did not set a time for them to return it would be disastrous for me. The partition was weak and temporary, but I painstakingly reconstructed it every time.
I found a new job as and Aviation electronics technician (AT). After boot camp I would be heading to A-school in Millington TN for six months. I would be working on fighter jets! It was a great opportunity to still have the option to do something technical and cool. Some of the others that didn’t pass their FBI interviews were not as fortunate. I needed a title that people could respect, something that would help me wipe off at least a little of the dirt. I had to hype myself up!! This was it I would become an AT! It sounded good and felt good. With that decision all of the darkness and hostility were properly deposited behind the barrier.
Boot camp was officially over! I had done it! My mom and a few other family members were there at Pass-In-Review. This meant that I had succeeded that I was officially somebody of value! This was what I had been working for! No longer would I be my old shabby self, I was a Navy Airmen. I was about to embark on this long-awaited journey, my adventure was now! You would think I would be excited, you would think I would be happy, you would think I would have been proud. I was not. I smiled so many smiles and appeared happy to all around me, but my inner voice was always there to remind me that I wasn’t then and probably never would be good enough. It kept whispering, “you should have never have been allowed to sign up for Crypt tech in the first-place dirty little black girl.”
Much of what I felt during my FBI interview was self-inflicted. All of the thoughts I had about myself in those moments were based off all the negative and self-deprecating thoughts that had been rolling around in my mind for years. Mr. Brokaw didn’t say or do anything I did it to myself the instant I walked in the room I decided I wasn’t enough. He only confirmed my belief. Sadly, I would struggle with these types of thoughts for over a decade after this event.