By Jaren Epps
My best friend, Jason, and I sit at a table in a ballroom watching a parade of 200 high school students, all one year my senior, march to the microphone. The men wear suits and white gowns drape the women. They announce their names, the colleges they will attend, and waltz to Glory. Chills run through my spine when I see seniors that I know reach the same microphone I will approach next year. Then they become graduates of Jack and Jill, an organization of black families.
This graduation did not resemble the pictures of blackness that once made me ashamed to be black. The mere word “slavery” once frightened me. In fourth grade I covered my ears, refusing to hear class discussions on plantation whipping poles. I also shook my head or turned off the television when I saw news stories on black criminals. I did not want to be black.
My journey beyond this shame accelerated when a strange hand grabbed me and forced a blindfold around my eyes. Thrown to the cold floor, someone ordered me to get up and I felt chains on my ankles and heavy handcuffs squeezing my wrists. “I’m here to take pictures,” I fretted to myself. Instead, I walked with 25 young men in discomfort through a wooded area to the sands of the rivershore. I heard an elder scream: “Try doing it again and I will throw you into the river.” Someone must have peeked through the blindfold.
After trudging through the sand in 98 degree heat in a suit for hours, I heard the crinkle of the leaves and the clink of a metal key. My cuffs dropped to the floor. “Take off your blindfold,” an elder bellowed. Our surprise simulation of slavery ended. Lifting the fold, I saw my friend Marcus’ black shoes. I found the courage to look up. Rows of benches surrounded a bright campfire. At 14, I graduated from Blue Nile’s Rites of Passage Program, which builds character in black youth.
The program featured movies like Roots, focused on the strength of blacks through the horrors of slavery. I found myself empowered, becoming a history buff. I had been a member of Jack and Jill for years, but I never valued the organization’s alternative narrative of the black experience until I embraced my heritage. There were bigger lessons beyond race in forming friendships through both experiences. I saw the manifestation of this when my bestfriend, Jason, crumbled into my arms sobbing a couple of years ago. At the age of two, our parents threw us in the pool together to learn how to swim. We hung on to each other, crying. Treading water, we had to sink or swim. We always joked that, despite our floaties, it felt like the worst moment of our lives. We were wrong.
I was 16 when Jason sent the text.
(3:07) – Bro, I have some really sad news. My brother Steven passed away today.
I couldn’t believe it: the same Steven who taught me to shoot a basketball and snowboard. A Harvard Law grad. Our role model.
My pain compounded in learning Steven committed suicide. In the midst of a huge Valentine’s Day snowstorm, I left boarding school to join Jason’s family.
At home, Jason called me downstairs to play video games. In the middle ofCall of Duty, he broke down weeping in my arms. There was nothing to say. I simply embraced him for as long as he needed, hoping my silence comforted him.
Undoubtedly, Jack and Jill and Blue Nile strengthened my character in a way that helped me through the moment of a tragic loss. While both imparted an appreciation of my culture, they also conditioned me to see beyond self and value friendship through a challenging moment, a memory that will be with Jason and I when we approach the microphone next year.
Jaren Epps, a graduate of The Salisbury School, will be a freshman at Morehouse College in the Fall.