The Most High has blessed me all my life. I wouldn’t call myself a brat, but I can admit that I’m spoiled and I’m willing to bet that most people who know me well would probably say the same. Because of this, I choose to operate in gratitude and positivity—which probably only adds to the image of being spoiled. What I don’t often do is share the hard parts, something someone reminded me of earlier this year. A testimony isn’t just the success, it’s also the dirty part you have to struggle through to get to the success. So as we leave 2023—a particularly dirty year—behind, I want to share with you the price of the dream YHWH has blessed me with.
Generally I would say I had a perfect childhood; I grew up in a loving family—not just my immediate family but my extended family, as well. What I lacked in a sibling close to my age I gained in cousins. I lived in a neighborhood where only family lived and we roamed from house to house without concern. If we were outside playing and got hungry, whoever’s house was closest was bound to provide a snack. Fridges were always full (even if was just beans or whatever had been frozen from the garden). Lights were always on. I might have been born in to a family of short-tempered people but arguments were brief and never erupted in to violence. So while others sort through emotional wounds brought to them from broken families, lack of role models, poverty, molestation, drugs, and violence, I fully claim a perfect childhood.
However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t experiences in my childhood that weren’t “traumatic.” There are probably five events in my childhood that stand out as sources of trauma that shape who I am today. I think I’ve shared a few of them publicly, but not necessarily to the same audience.
“Those are n*****s”
When I was about four years old, I was going somewhere (probably Lowe’s) with my dad and grandmother. At the time he drove a black pickup truck with a bench seat, so I was sitting in my grandmother’s lap (we used to live life on the edge 😂) for the trip. We caught a light on the way. Sitting at the light between Oliver’s and the old lumber mill (#iykyk), I glanced out the window to see an older man in a car with a little girl about my age. The man pointed up at us and said to the little girl, “Those are niggers.” I didn’t know what that meant; I had never heard that word before.
In my adulthood, I’ve met a lot of white people who believe black people always bring up race or live in the past, but I didn’t give myself this label nor is racism in the past. A white child told me I was black (also around age four), and that white man taught me the word nigger. My first, second, and third experiences with the word didn’t come from Hip Hop or black people trying to reclaim the word; it came from white people using it in its original derogatory meaning. That minute at the red light where I was blissfully unaware of what it meant and asking my dad and grandmother for understanding, was just the first of many moments where white people taught me that I am what they call black.
Lunch Lady Lost Her Mind
Some time around kindergarten or first grade, my mom either miscalculated how much lunch for the month was or forgot to pay. So one day when I went to get lunch, the cafeteria lady told me my account was low. A grown woman told a five or six year old child very important information that the child did not understand. I didn’t know anything about money at that age, and she told me right before recess in the middle of the school day. By the time I saw my parents four or five hours later, I didn’t even remember she had said anything to me…
So the next day I got lunch like I always did, but when I got to the checkout line, she snatched the tray out of my hand. I wailed like a banshee—this is one of two of my only memories of ever publicly crying. I did not understand what I had done wrong or why I was being denied food—and I was hungry! Luckily, one of the teachers on duty was the wife of my mom’s boss; she recognized me. So, she found out from the cafeteria lady what the issue was and took me to the vice principal’s office to call my mom. The vice principal and my mom went to school together. Let’s just say my mom was not pleased to get that call and the cafeteria lady was not pleased after my mom walked off the job to come verbalize how un-pleased she was with the situation.
Not every one’s parents can walk off the job to fix a situation and a lot “middle class” families that don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch experience hard times too. Whether a child is from a filthy rich family or a homeless shelter, no child should ever be denied a meal (at a public school no less)! This may or may not be where my obsession with lunch comes from (anyone who has seen me miss lunch knows that ain’t the move) or why the topic of food waste resonated with me in graduate school, but it’s definitely why I support No Kid Hungry.
Another Brush With Racism
When I was eight, someone at my elementary school got the bright idea to take us on a field trip to Charles Towne Landing. It’s a historic park preserving the history of the first colonial site in South Carolina. Put more plainly, it used to be a plantation in the city that served as the major slave port for the state. Eight year old me did not extrapolate the second description from the first. Eight year old me was excited to go on a field trip because it essentially meant no school. My parents didn’t want me to go but I didn’t understand why. Eventually my dad volunteered to be a chaperone, and that was the condition of my attendance.
We made candles and took a tour of the grounds. It was all a blissful day away from the classroom… Until we came to some buildings—if you could call them that—barely standing up; shacks is probably a more apt description. The tour guide explained that these had been then slave quarters. So, one of the white students points to me and the two or three other black kids on the trip and says, “That’s where y’all would have been.” Before I could even process the comment one the black students responded with, “not Shiree, she’d have been a house nigga.”
This is probably the root of why I’m so anti-social and why I dislike being around people, regardless of their color.
Let Me Off the Bus
In elementary school, I used to ride the bus home with my cousins. Due to some incidents with our white peers dropping the n-word and some subsequent fights that broke out from their use of the word, we almost always sat together. However, any time there was a new bus driver, they’d assign seats and we were always split up. On one such occasion, I was seated the furthest back on the bus and thus the last to make it to the front of the bus at our stop. When I got to the front of the bus, the bus driver had already shut the door and refused to let me off (even though we were still stopped). Many of the kids on the bus echoed me in explaining that it was my stop, but he wouldn’t budge. This is the second time I remember crying in public.
I lived in the same house for 18 years, my parents still live in that house. Today, if you were to drop a pin on Google Maps from that area and show it to me, I’d probably know exactly where it was (minus all the new stuff they’re building, but I digress). Back then, however, I could barely see out of the car window when my parents drove and we almost always drove up the road, toward the school, not down the road where the bus took me. Once we rounded the curve past my house I lost my bearings and I didn’t know where I was in relationship to where I was supposed to be—and now I was the only black kid on the bus (the last time I’d been the only black kid in a room had ended with yet another episode of call the black girl the n-word and me getting kicked out of an after school program). I was terrified.
One of my best friends at the time was still on the bus, her older sister is the one who calmed me down. She sat with me until their stop. Another older girl, who passed away at the tender age of 19, sat with me until her stop, and another friend who luckily had the last stop, sat with me until her stop. These four girls still have a very special place in my heart! When the bus came back around to head back to the school, he finally let me off at my grandmother’s house.
Unbeknownst to me, my grandmother had a fit when I didn’t get off the bus with my cousins. She called my dad, who called my mom, and both rushed to the school. At some point they had radioed the bus driver and given him an earful. Needless to say that was both his first and last day driving our bus. To this day I don’t know why he wouldn’t let me off the bus or what would have happened if he hadn’t been contacted by the school or if I hadn’t had friends and cousins who could vouch for me being present on the bus.
Gone Too Soon
I was fifteen years old the first time someone my age died. His name was Johnny, and he lived down the road from me. He was actually a grade behind me. One day after school he collapsed during wrestling practice and like that, he was gone. That’s how I learned that you’re never “too young” to die. A few years later, when I was a senior and a few weeks shy of graduating, one of my classmates attempted to break up with her boyfriend before school. He got mad and stabbed her 22 times; she bled to death in front of the school. The media at the time painted her as loose for dating an older man, for being with him that early in the morning, for the content she posted on social media… That was my intro to sexism. Natalia (or Allie as some called her) deserved better.
The deaths of these two in high school, plus the death of so many more in college, are the reason that while I understand the concept of delayed gratification, I lean heavily toward living in the here and now. The auspices of an immortal youth didn’t come with me to college and seeing someone murdered two weeks before graduation taught me that no matter how hard you work, you’re not guaranteed to cross the finish line.
I have Dysmenorrhea; I’ve had it since I was eleven. First come the sharp pains and shortness of breath. Then comes the dizziness and the nausea. When I’m lucky, it stops there. If I’m not, there are hot and cold flashes. Sometimes I vomit. Sometimes I lose my peripheral vision. Sometimes I pass out. This has been my life, once a month, every month for the past 23 years.
I’ve been to more than a dozen doctors and none have been able to help. The most progress I’ve had is becoming vegetarian around 2015; since then I haven’t experienced the extreme symptoms as often and I haven’t passed out…
Nonetheless, my biggest fear when I went to college back in 2006 was what would happen to me during an episode. So many times, my parents had to pick me up from school or work because I couldn’t see or stand straight, and my words were blurred together like a drunkard. I remember one time texting my dad from the parking lot at my job, asking if he could come get me because I didn’t think I could drive home, just before passing out in the car. I passed out after a band performance and almost got trampled during practice once. There had always been someone there to take care of me in middle and high school, who would take care of me now?
I lucked out and had great friends in college. They came to find me passed out in the library, in the Math lab, in the Computer Science lab, in the amphitheater, and a few other locations on Clemson’s campus. When I went to UF, I learned not to push myself; that’s when I began calling out at the first sign of pain (though I did still end up having to take myself to the ER one afternoon because I couldn’t even drink water—0/10, never go to the ER by yourself, never let someone go to the ER by themself).
Fun fact: in December 2020, after I had been laid off from my job, the stress of it all triggered the more extreme symptoms. The room was spinning, I couldn’t breathe, and I spent the morning vomiting. I really wanted the job I have now, though, and I had to answer the other people I had offer from within two days so I didn’t have time to reschedule my interview. I didn’t eat or drink (so there would be nothing to vomit), plastered a heating pad to my back, diffused peppermint off screen, and did the interview anyway. That’s how I got my current job.
Digging in the Trash
Not many people know I have a PhD because I don’t introduce my self in social settings as Dr. Hughes (I still assume anyone looking for Dr. Hughes is looking for my uncle, even though he passed away a few years ago.) Even less people know that to get the PhD, I spent a lot of time inside trash cans. Yes, you read that right. The latter part of my research was on food waste, specifically how we could use sensor systems to reduce the amount of food we waste. The fun part was designing the sensor system; the not-so-fun part was going in the trash can anytime it malfunctioned and to change the batteries. Also, since the data had to be accurate during the cafeteria’s hours of operation for the research to be good enough to publish, there were multiple instances where I was on campus at 4am trying to fix things before they opened at 7am. Do you know how scary it is to be a 5’3” 110lb black female on a deserted campus when it’s pitch black outside? 0/10, do not recommend. (But shoutout to the FAU police officer who did not kill me that time I had to approach her because the card reader on the door was down!)
Separation From Family
The hardest part of success has been being separated from my family. I’m not going to lie to you and say there’s never drama in my family, but both sides of my family are really close, I grew up in that environment, and I love my family. I left home for a college 4.5 hours away at 18. I came home the first summer and after that I was doing internships. I would move out of the dorm in May, go home for maybe a week (if that), and then move somewhere else until it was time to go back to college. I lived in Clemson (4.5 hours away) and Spartanburg (3.5 hours away), Ft. Meade, MD (7 hours away), Gainesville, (6 hours away), Boca Raton (9 hours away), and Sunrise, FL (10 hours away). Now I’m outside of Austin, TX (20 hours away). That’s a big difference from being next door…
This year, I went home for the first time in three years to see my cousin get married. Also this year, seven members of my family died. I was not able to sit with or hug any of their immediate family members. I was not able to attend any of the funerals.
Behind the Blessings
In the age of social media, some people post their whole life for the world to see, while others remain more private. Over the years I’ve shared testimonies about what God has done for me. You see my garden, my cats, and my journals. I work from home most days of the week and have a boss who randomly decided to take us to an arcade for team building. I’m doing well, not because there aren’t hard times but because somehow I keep making it through those hard times.