Originally published July 25, 2019
photo: Associated Press
I always knew how I was going to end. I didn’t know when or where, but I knew how and why.
I was taught at a young age to make myself as small and nonthreatening as possible. Never look my social superiors in the eye. Always respond with great deference. Yes, sir. No, sir. Never look at those people too long, especially not the women. Show respect, even if I didn’t feel one iota of it for them. Anything other than that might get me a beating. Or worse.
I wasn’t but a boy when I started to understand how afraid they were of us, terrified that one day we would realize that their power existed only because we allowed it. We believed they possessed it. We did not resist it. We accepted their justice as our justice even though there was nothing just about it.
As I got older I began to see their mediocrity and all the convoluted displays they devoted to hiding it. This knowledge changed the way I interacted with them.
My friends, my parents warned me: I’d better learn my place. I’d better swallow my anger. Yes, they agreed, my assessment was well-justified but what did that matter? If I didn’t learn to hide my feelings, I would only invite trouble on myself, and perhaps on them. Those people, they warned me, did not brook any challenge to their superior position.
I tried to bow and scrape to those of higher status. I tried to act as cowed as was necessary to ensure my safety. But there came a time when it was more important for me to be a man, Not a man by virtue of my age or my position, but a natural man. A man who knows who he is. A man who stands for his beliefs. A man who is true to himself. A man who does what is right according to natural law, not living by the rules of other, inferior men.
Defiance glistened in my eyes. This frightened them. They puffed themselves up to try to make me afraid, but I could see right through them, and that frightened them even more. I liked making them afraid, even though I knew it would lead to trouble. All they needed was the flimsiest excuse. I tried not to give them reason, but after a while, even the necessity of that effort stuck in my craw.
The defiance metastasized into hatred. I raged within. Forcing me to pretend I was inferior to them only served to prove their inferiority. I seethed that they held power for no other reason than a fluke of birth. I was furious that they clung to that power at the expense of my people. The anger bubbled and seethed and curled my lip. I could not hide it and they could not miss it.
I became less inclined to look away. Rather, I stood my ground and returned their gaze, unbowed, daring them to treat me as less than. The women found this particularly unnerving. They felt threatened by my considerable size and strength.
There was one young woman, however, the daughter of a man of some power, who teased and coyly flirted with me when she knew no one was looking. She was spoiled and privileged, and enjoyed the danger of skating on the edge of the forbidden, acting out a fantasy in her head, all the while knowing she was safe — that I would never force myself on her because of the inevitable consequences. She was of the age when a girl discovers the power of her sexual charms. She was practicing on me. Certainly she’d noticed my defiant demeanor. The challenge, the possibility, the unknown, excited her.
I was not a fool. I saw her game. She was exactly the kind of obvious trouble to be avoided.
Whenever she approached me, it was easy for me to slip into “proper” behavior. I never met her eye. I yes ma’med and no, ma’amed her. I knew she wanted me to pay her some interest; to flatter her; to initiate conversation. These things would prove that she was, indeed, irresistible to men. She loved the fantasy of having a man risk everything for her favor. She wanted me to act, in a small way – not to take her by force, but just enough to insist her brothers defend her honor. She was willing to manipulate me to enhance her reputation as an irresistible young woman, never giving a moment’s thought to the consequences for me.
I behaved myself carefully around her. I would not to give them reason to beat me or lock me up, as I knew they would at the slightest provocation. But eventually she grew angry at my lack of interest, and simply made up a story. For her, it served the same purpose.
Nobody doubted it. I’d unnerved all of them. Her story was entirely in keeping what they thought they knew about me. They were happy to give me what I deserved; to make sure I didn’t give anyone else any ideas. For me to deny the charges would be to call her a liar, and that would only make the consequences worse — a longer, slower, more painful end for me. So I went defiantly, even proudly, to the tree where they hanged me as a warning to others to know their place.
The girl never thought much about it. She certainly held no guilt. She sensed, like the others, that I was dangerous and that my ending was justified.
I felt no regret. It was better to die like a man than live like a slave.
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