Our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult—that is, accept it.
“The truth shall set you free,” my momma always told me. But it was lying that gave me power.
The year is 1998. My name is “Debra’s Boy” to the Pentecostals, “Little Calvin” to my uncles. “Vacuum Boy,” my daddy will call me jokingly from the living room, before he adds, “It’s time to clean up.” And to my momma: “Boy.” She’ll say, “Boy.”
I am skinny. My feet are wide. Black Nike Air Force 1s are my shoe of choice come time to pick out the one pair of shoes we get a year. The white, dusty South Carolina dirt sits in the cracks of the swoosh. I wear my Carmelo Anthony jersey everywhere. White, red numbers, his name covering my own. Most days I’m on a dirt court, shooting a ball that is barely inflated. I’ll dribble in the thick, sweltering South Carolina heat. Sometimes when I shoot, I close my eyes and run into a future where I imagine myself as Carmelo. A name remembered, called.
The year is 2006. My name is “Church Boy” to my friends. They have heard that I had the Holy Ghost. They have heard that me, my family, and all the Black folk between my grandmother’s red brick house and our white-stained brick church speak in an unknown language, and sweat like we are on fire, burning.
In the morning, on the bus, I scramble to finish homework in my seat. We pass the Baptist church, the gas station where we’d get our chicken and livers and hot sauce, and my old elementary school that got shut down, on our way to Calhoun County High School.
I get off the bus and walk onto campus with my busted black book bag revealing busted black books. My hair is short, barely curly, barely brushed. I have on an oversized white shirt like we would see in music videos.
“What’s up, Church Boy!” my friend Jakeem says to me as I enter class.
I nod at him.
“Nigga,” Jakeem says, “we gon’ ball out or what?” We talk about all the yards I was going to get rushing. I am a running back who can never wait for Friday nights when the stadium lights are on and I think I am Reggie Bush. I think about all the ways Reggie ran, and all the ways I want to run.
“Nigga,” I tell Jakeem, dapping him up, smiling, “now you know we gon’ ball.”
The year is 2010. My name is “Stew.” I am bigger, older. I’m still Debra’s son and Church Boy—but I am also beginning anew, or so I think.
I step onto Clemson University’s campus where I’ll be playing football for the next four years. The day is hot. South Carolina’s furnace is unyielding, scorching. I barely know anyone. I barely know myself.
On this afternoon, we’re preparing for the Big Weigh-In.
“Ayeeee, my dawg,” another player says, as we walk into the weight room together. “Nigga,” he says, in a joking voice, his Atlanta accent coming out, “whatdehell you got on?”
I look down at my brown loafers, no socks, feet smelling like burnt rubber and baking soda.
“What?” I say, imitating his slow Atlanta drawl. “Whatyoumean?” We dap each other up.
“Who you is?” he says.
“I’m Stew,” I say. “Good to meet you, my nigga. What about you?”
“GP,” he says. “You hear about all the running them boys did in the summer? They say we gonna do a lot of running in fall camp.”
“Nah, nigga,” I say, thinking about how much I feel the sun beat on my face already, my shirt sticking to my body like I just went swimming. “I ain’t heard nothing about that!”
GP takes his hat off to wipe the sweat off his face and laughs. “Well, you better get ready.”
I am barely in shape. I know I am fast, but I am not ready to work out like that.
“Boy gonna need some Gatorade and some AC,” he says.
I laugh. “Nah, nigga, we gon’ be straight.”
I feel at home. I don’t really know who I am. I’ve been struggling with all these names my whole young life, running into dreams wherever I can find them. But for now, at least, I am home.
Clemson was green. Year-around the grass looked like someone spray-painted it. There are trees everywhere. Between the stadium and the classrooms that I would arrive to in my orange joggers and hoodie was nothing but hills. The winters are cold. Chilly. Dark. The summers are scorching, hot, sticky. The springs are unbearable for my allergies. The falls are, as they say, God’s country. There are tiger paws imprinted on the street leading up to the brick building bearing the name of a slaveholder; some are orange, some are white. We would make jokes that we were the actual university of South Carolina, though another school in the capital of the state bore the name.
If you travel the right way, you can see the Blue Ridge mountains, their hues a bit of gray, a bit of white, a bit of blue, in the background. It is an agriculture school, which means that you could travel any direction and pass country fields full of haystacks, and old gas stations that made you feel like you were in the fifties or sixties. That part felt like home.
Game days at Clemson were full of excitement. Everything would shut down. Traffic would make you feel like you were in Atlanta. Cars would creep slowly; there was hardly movement because of the sheer amount of people coming to see the Tigers play. Our buses would be led to town. The police cars’ lights would be shining. The place would become still as we’d creep over the hill to arrive for the Tiger walk. It was like nothing I had seen before. Hundreds of people would greet us, their hands reaching out to touch us, trying to get us to sign their shirts, their footballs, their faces, sometimes even their children. At the end of every game, fans would storm the field just to sing the university’s song. They would put their hands around our shoulders, sway side to side, as we lifted up our hands in salute to the paw that brought us both to the same place.
I loved every bit of it.
We were beloved. And why shouldn’t we have been? We gave fans stories to talk about with their families around the dinner table. We had given them reason to brave the long hills. We had given them tears. We had given them meaning. And in the midst of it all we had given them something they never deserved: We gave them confidence that the football field was the world and that the world was okay and what mattered most between both of our lives was our ability to run fast, jump high, and give them more things to talk about with their families.
“Everybody has a place here,” our coach would say. And I believed it. But not everybody had the home that we thought it would be.
Copyright © 2021 by Danté Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.