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Globe Magazine

Growing up Black in all the wrong places

I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the nation’s whitest states. Returning to my childhood home during the pandemic has led me to a reckoning.

Images from Adobe Stock

Whenever I tell someone I am from New Hampshire, I almost always see a sign of surprise — a nearly imperceptible tilt of the head, a furrow rippling across a brow. The idea that a Black person could grow up in a place so overwhelmingly white seems to perplex most people I encounter.

But New Hampshire itself is peculiar to people, too, especially those from outside New England. I was born somewhere that sparks little curiosity in other parts of the country — it is invisible, even, save for every four years in primary season. It isn’t so much that I am Black, and that perceptions of me are the only problem I must deal with. No, I am Black from a place most people think Black people aren’t from. I’ve learned to prepare for everyday conversations being interrupted or even started by inquisitions: Are you really from there? What was that like, seeing no Black people ever?

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One of the most dangerous things most of us do is pretend we don’t believe Black stories from places we don’t understand. To be Black where I grew up — a state that was 94 percent white in 2010, and 1 percent Black — was to have to make split-second decisions about what was happening and how to navigate it. I got so accustomed to being followed in stores, I actually developed a script on how to de-escalate (it started with knowing the highest-priced item in any store and asking a question about it). If the overt racism didn’t get to you, the subtle manifestations of it did — like when the teacher in grade school confiscated my hats but no one else’s.

Growing up, I found myself always defending, explaining, thwarting, or ignoring. That left me little space for existing. I learned to hide my expansiveness, to make myself smaller. The places I wanted to go, the experiences I wanted to have, felt impossibly far away from New Hampshire.

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It’s hard enough having to fight for your own self-regard as a Black person, without also having to navigate an obstacle course of assumptions. Sometimes, people I meet do know the state, and they’ll comment about it. I usually don’t recognize what they’re talking about. A Black executive I met recently told me he “summered” in New Hampshire. I’ve never considered the state a place to go hang out, and I didn’t know seasons could be verbs. My summers were mostly spent working, occasionally going out of state to see family.

People also bring up New Hampshire’s fierce motto, Live Free or Die. My older brother and I thought that was for other people. Our motto was “Move quiet and get out of here.” And we did. Now a pandemic has brought me back.

Jonathan Jackson (left), parents Robert L. Jackson Jr. and Nola Jackson, and older brother Samuel Jackson.
Jonathan Jackson (left), parents Robert L. Jackson Jr. and Nola Jackson, and older brother Samuel Jackson.From Jonathan Jackson

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I have never been confused about where I come from or what that means. I just don’t happen to think of New Hampshire as home.

My parents grew up worlds away: my mother was born in Trinidad and Tobago and came to the United States to train as a nurse in frigid Minneapolis (she loved it). My father was raised in Rhode Island, but his mother hails from Trinidad, while his father is from Alabama. My father rarely spoke about his upbringing, but I knew there had been wounds inflicted when stories did slip out, about fights he had to have on the way to school or threats made that had to be answered.

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We lived in New Hampshire, but my mother ensured that we had connections to our aunts, cousins, and all the other people who make up the tapestry of a Caribbean village. They knew us by our names and our faces; we were seen and held by people who cared for us. Home for me has been with people and moments, but never a place. I remember a friend calling our house once and asking whether we had a visitor, because “someone with an accent” had answered the phone. That someone was my mother, who untucked her accent after work. Her voice, filled with sun, was too much for some. It still is. It was one of the little things that let me know where I was at all times.

I am grateful for how I grew up. If Nikki Giovanni’s treatise that “Black love is Black wealth” holds true, and I believe it does, then I was and still am rich in what can never be taken from me. As a boy, I was a promising gymnast, and my parents, excited that there was a place for my energy, let me explore it. I developed a voracious and insatiable relationship with the written word, thanks to my mom, who was my primary teacher during my formative years. I had space and woods to play in. My parents built relationships with people who loved them and, in turn, loved my brother and me.

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My family found areas of affirmation for us and did their best to keep us in them, even if just for a moment. These experiences should be commonplace for every child, but they are not, and not all parents are in a place to do what mine did. That is not lost on me.

Two other constants in my house helped me navigate the homogeneity outside of it: Jesus was never white, and questions were treated with respect. Faith for my parents has always been a matter of conviction, learning, a matter of dignity. Since God had given us whatever provision we had, learning was the necessary expectation. For the answers my parents couldn’t give, they said, “I don’t know” and encouraged us to go find out on our own. That humility has saved me countless times from feeling the weight of unnecessary conformity to an untenable standard.

In a way, that gave us a blueprint to resist whatever might try to debase us outside of our home. My mother’s favorite colloquialism was “your decisions determine your destiny.” She would repeat it as many times as she could.

After ninth grade, I was accepted into the private St. Paul’s School on an academic scholarship. This was still New Hampshire, but it created a new type of opportunity for me. It also taught me what being “good” does not provide you: the benefit of the doubt. Two months after I started, I got a concussion while playing football. I lost my short-term memory for 14 months and suffered frequent migraines. I heard the whispers, too, wondering why I got extra time on tests, that I was faking it, that people get concussions all the time, so why was mine different?

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Academic achievement had been normal for me. The concussion compromised that ability. St. Paul’s was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had to capitalize on it. My father had made it into Brown University, then left because the economic strain was too much for his parents. But he was ashamed of not finishing college. I applied to repeat my sophomore year at St. Paul’s and set out to salvage what I thought was lost.

There were still challenges, many of which were probably normal for any student at an academically rigorous boarding school. One that was not, that I remember most vividly, happened in my junior year. Almost all of the Black students on campus, about 40 of us, received a letter that said “Bang Bang Get Out” with a bull’s-eye on the paper. It was a scandal, and an act of hate. The former was acknowledged by the school, but the latter was somehow never solved. I learned what support was from the friends I made there, and what it wasn’t from some of the experiences we navigated together. But it was still a “great” school, so I never felt like I could fully talk about what happened, or I’d sound ungrateful. Worse, people would just remind me how happy I should have been to at least have the chance.

I graduated from St. Paul’s and went to a “good” university, got a “good” job, and helped build some “good” things, including a venture capital-funded business that focuses on the unique and varied experiences of Black people. All of these things confirmed to me how the world is inclined to see me no matter where I’m coming from.

Newly-minted graduates of the St. Paul’s School in 2009. From left: John Hamilton, Jordan Buxton-Punch, Brian Burton, Gbolawoyi Ajayi, and Jackson.
Newly-minted graduates of the St. Paul’s School in 2009. From left: John Hamilton, Jordan Buxton-Punch, Brian Burton, Gbolawoyi Ajayi, and Jackson.From Jonathan Jackson

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I often represent the modern manifestation of the “talented tenth” — a term coined in 1896 by the American Baptist Home Mission Society — an exceptional Black man. As such I am the typical white person’s preferred view of Blackness. It feels good, for white people, to imagine a Black person who engages in the norms that white people select, and the ways white people deem “good” and “appropriate.” A Black person who shows up in ways that are complementary, engages in activities that feel familiar, and responds to the same cues that white people do. Nowhere has that mythology been more substantiated, protected, and rewarded than in the soil and air of a New England upbringing like mine.

This ideal of Black exceptionalism as a racialized stamp of approval is a neurosis; I have spent my adult life working to unpack and let go of it. It creates trepidation that ebbs and flows depending on my adherence to norms I know do not serve me and will never protect me. I have started to see that I spent my life in a constant cycle of performing for an acceptance I once believed was a necessity. I was good at this game, but I also knew it could easily be a stupid game, with a stupid prize. I would forget that my focus was not about winning the game, but the process of working, learning to expand. As I accomplished more, and received accolades, I began to resent my own success. Success has a way of feeling like love, right until you get appreciated for everything you’re not.

I started to feel like a souvenir, placed on other people’s shelves to be examined, explained, and extolled as “good.” I was lauded, mostly, for my ability to both move with grace in places that are unexpected for Black people, and to not succumb to the perceived cultural failings of others who shared my hue. We are fond of things we collect, because of the warm feeling they give us. I have been that good feeling for far too many white people for far too long. Yet even in writing this, I have wondered, What if someone I know misinterprets my words? Will it impact things I have yet to do? Will someone show it to my mom? Why am I still worrying about this as an adult? I’m still embarrassed by how palatable I try to be in small and persistent ways.

The author at about age 3.
The author at about age 3.From Jonathan Jackson

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Back in my childhood home in New Hampshire, my parents and I are having conversations that we never had when I was growing up.

I am telling them about the moments of tension, things that I tucked away and never wanted to uncover. They have been surprised and remorseful. They thought they protected their children. They tried hard, the best they possibly could, and gave me a life that was better than theirs. But they were largely working through their own reckonings, while I was facing mine.

The stories of Black people go untold because the fatigue of writing them can feel insurmountable. Leaving them buried is sometimes a better cure than digging them back up. To learn how to recall pain, without risking drowning in a sea of trauma, is not always possible. “Issues” doesn’t seem to measure up to violence or discrimination. But indifference is a powerful weapon for me in dispelling the rebellion that wells inside of me when I realize that what people see when they look at me is a shell of who I am. Black people like me often choose to be complicit in being happy to exist, and not taking up space to live fully.

A maxim that I’ve held close in my career is: Get in the room, then lift as you climb. I agree, but I wonder, What if the issue isn’t just getting into the room, but with the air we breathe? There is an ideological struggle around how to talk about the experiences of Black people. For many, the racism must be overt, the hate compounded and explicit, the violence recorded and replayed, or its validity is questioned. You’re not allowed to tell a story about your experience unless you come ready to display a certain kind of wound. It needs to be visible to be valuable.

But there is no right way to display Blackness. There is a very clear way to damage and force someone into a consistent state of recovery: by letting an environment dictate the terms on which experience is allowed to be expressed or validated. I doubt I have the most compelling story inside New Hampshire. Imagine everything we don’t know about the Black lives we render invisible because we do not do the work to see them.

I don’t want to be good for consumption or excellent for someone else’s regard. I have no interest in being a magical Negro — just an honest one. I don’t want to be someone who needs the acceptance of people who praise my performance, then weaponize me as some kind of model for other Black people. The excellence I aspire to is about what I can give and do, not what I can simply represent. There are people who clap for me because they love who I have become, not just because of what I have done.

Back in my childhood room, I’ve spent the past few months sifting through countless experiences that I had once dismissed as innocuous, only to realize I had simply steeled myself against them. These encounters were meant to erode me, and I decided to be unmoved by them. I got good at pretending I was fine. I still am good at it, even though I sometimes get too tired to fight on every side at all times.

When I engage with the exhaustion, I also remember that someone like me will never get the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I have learned to always appease people, to fulfill their need that I should be grateful, instead of leading with what has hurt me over the years. My experiences have long been muffled by my acquiescing to the demand that, first of all, I be nice to look at and listen to.

I am in the place where I grew up, but it still isn’t home. I am not sure it can be. Still, it’s a part of me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never changed my cellphone number. I like when people ask, uncertain, “Is that a New Hampshire area code?” I’ve learned to love those moments where I don’t make sense and I cannot be palatable.

How do you “survive” invisibility? Maybe it starts by deciding not to be magical, so you don’t become complicit in your own disappearance.

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Jonathan Jackson is an entrepreneur and writer currently living in New Hampshire. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.