When I See Me Smile


Sometimes people say the most brilliant of things, so much so that they make you stand at attention. On Thursday, former MTV Real World star, Vibe magazine writer and editor, author and political activist Kevin Powell (not to mention a 2010 candidate for Congress from Brooklyn) wrote the following on Facebook:

“Often people put you in a box, relate to a you that no longer exists, a you they may have met, seen, or heard about, rightly or wrongly, years back, a you that was trying to figure out who you are. But if those kinds of people insist on not seeing you now, smile, be polite, and keep it moving as far from them as you can. They are imprisoned by their own minds. Do not become an inmate in their prison.”

Powell’s pearl of wisdom said as much in eighty-two words as I’ve been saying off and on for the past three years on this blog. That despite all we may have accomplished in our lives, many folks tend to see us only in the ways in which they decide to see us. That’s too bad, more for those folk than for us, but too bad anyway.

In my case, the past five years of working on Boy @ The Window have revealed much of what Powell expressed in his short yet wonderfully well-written statement. During one of my interviews for the book, a former classmate said that one of her first images of me after we’d reconnected was my “great smile.” A good number of my former teachers and classmates, in fact, remembered me as someone who smiled a lot, as if I had much to smile about. I don’t recall smiling very much during the Humanities years.

I was deliberate with my facial expressions, like Rob Brown’s character Jamal Wallace in the movie Finding Forrester. I was so deliberate that they were second nature by the time I reached Mount Vernon High School. I had a sarcastic “No shit!” look when I sniffed bullshit. I cracked a smile when others were in a cheerful or unhappy mood, either in admiration or to help them smile as well. If anyone had cared to notice, the only times I truly smiled were the times I laughed out loud, or the times I couldn’t help but act goofy, or when something I had heard on radio had momentarily put me in a good mood. Otherwise, the “smile” I had on my face was an almost perpetual facial expression, a smirk really by the time we’d reached eleventh grade.

I needed to express as little emotion as possible back then, between my classmates — who I saw as self-absorbed and uncaring — and my family — where a flash of my anger could lead to a fist connecting with my face. So I wore a permanent weak smile on my face. I wanted no questions about my home life, no arguments or strife, no incidents with my now ex-stepfather to run away from. My true smiles were rare, and were reserved for private moments, for me and only me.

That may well be my loss as much as anyone’s. After all, it’s not as if anyone outside of myself would’ve known the difference between my moments of true emotional expression and my blank slate face, right? Well, my late teacher Harold Meltzer did notice. He told me once, whenever his lessons had caught my full attention, that I was fascinated, that “even though [I] never moved a muscle in [my] face, [my] eyes used to flash.”  “I could see that, ” Meltzer continued, “no one else could see but I could see . . . .”  He was right, as usual, that when I smiled, I smiled on the inside.

Now when I smile or express any other emotion, I think I’m pretty obvious about it. That much has changed. But in looking at myself through the eyes of others, especially others from my growing-up years, I see so much that they couldn’t see, and some who still can’t see me, the past or present me. It may be easier to remember me smiling above anything else, if only because my smiles were so rare, for them and for me.

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