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Be All You Can Be

Updated: Apr 29

By Janise Johnson, Virginia State University

“Cheyenne, why does this keep happening? Why do you always have to sit facing the door? No doors in the house can be closed. And on top of that, why can’t I drink beer from a bottle instead of a can? I am so sick of it. Talk to me.”

“Tony, I want to, I really do. I don’t want you to think I am crazy. You know I am trying to figure this out with the help of my therapist.”

Tony was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome—those were his most redeeming qualities. However, he wasn’t trustworthy with my secrets. When Tony drank, I had to hear about every secret I shared with him, so I stopped sharing.

“I know, but I want you to tell me so that I understand you. So, I don’t do things that affect you negatively. And I don’t want my kids growing up with the same issues you have. I know there is something wrong, and I am a problem solver. But you won’t even let me help,” he said emphatically.

“I get what you are saying and have those concerns. I need time to process everything, and I am asking you to continue to give me that time, Tony.”

I looked out the window as tears streamed from my eyes. I desperately wanted the paranoia to go away. I was taking my meds, journaling, and doing all the things my mental health providers prescribed. I hadn’t had an edible in months. However, just going outside among people gave me anxiety.

When Tony walked away angrily, I sat frozen on the couch. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I felt, as I always did, alone. Details of that day came flooding back into my mind once again.

“Nigger, nigger, nigger” as beer bottle caps come flying under my door. My eyes bulged, and my throat got dry. “Nigger, nigger, nigger”, as I went to and from the bathroom through the corridor. My hands shook, and I was about to cry. “Nigger, nigger, nigger” as I tried to sleep through the night. I got to pee. Why don't these good old boys let me be? “Nigger, nigger, nigger”, as I grew more afraid at their sight. I ran past them like a panther in the night.

These three white boys were of different statures. Haney had dark hair, was about six feet tall, and was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. Mallon was a blond-haired, thin-lipped, musty white dude. Raymond was a fat, short dude with a lisp.

What did I get myself into? What did I sign up for? Surely it wasn’t this. So far from home, no friends yet. I was stuck in a weekend sequence of racism from some white men I didn’t even know. I hadn’t even seen them before. But that didn’t matter. These were supposed to be people I trained and worked with.

But the next day, it was more of the same. “Nigger, nigger, nigger” and they got started early. “Nigger, nigger, nigger”, they said throughout the day.

Then came the night and more of the same. The bottle caps kicked under my door, causing more fright and even more difficulty figuring out my flight. I was stuck in my barracks room for hours.  

Really? No one else heard this on my entire second floor? Geez!  Twenty-five rooms full of men and women. No one to rescue me from this fate. I could not get out. I could not escape from being called, Nigger, by those I was face-to-face with see daily.

I was recently sent to this place last summer. I had been here before just a year ago, albeit under different circumstances. It was nice for the summer months. I was in my junior year of college. Things went well then—no issues with anyone, especially nothing like this.  

This time it was different, though. It’s been raining since I got here seven days ago. I haven’t seen the sun or the mountain they speak of. I don’t know anyone who lives even close to this place. I’m fucked. I feel fucked. Fuuucckkkk, this could cost me in ways only Black people understand.

Sunday morning, the rest of the people on the floor show up. Finally, more of “my” people are here. I can move more freely. I am still afraid, though. What should I do about what happened this weekend? My first weekend here. Damn, let me call my mom and talk to her.

I don’t even know what to do. I never experienced this amount of in-your-face racism. Sure, I have been called the nigger by white guys driving past me at night as I was walking. But never this. My stomach was in knots, and my mind was everywhere. What a welcome. 

Fuck, my mom was no help. She never has been. Who tells their child to learn to deal with being called a “nigger.” The fuck?

My mind is racing. Being trapped in a room and afraid is not what I expected. I thought going to the hall bathroom would cost me my life all weekend. What if they would have raped me and killed me? I had to open my door to them standing there. I wanted a place I could escape to. I wanted to belong to something. I went from running from bullets and fights in my old neighborhood. That was combined with parents who never paid attention to me. Then I went to college and was forced to leave because of financial issues. Now I am wondering if I will end up dead or hung from a tree one night. I can’t go back home, but I can’t have another weekend of being called “nigger” and in fear for my life. How am I going to survive and thrive under these circumstances? 

Think, think, as I pounded my hand on my forehead. Monday will be here, and I need a plan of action. I can’t stay in this area of the barracks, even if I’m stuck there. I am not even free to go back home if I wanted to. I can’t let them weaken me and live my life in fear.

As I am pacing my room, sweat is running down my forehead. My hands are shaking. I have never been this afraid. I don’t even want to go into the hallway again. I don’t hear them out there, but I am still scared.

 These motherfuckers, these assholes. They will get away with it, and I will be labeled a troublemaker. I will be the one ostracized. I will be the one paying for the effect of how my “dark skin” made them feel and react. I will be the one they come after to force me out before I can get out. I will be the one left with paranoia because when I open a door or when I am forced to interact with their group. I came here to be all I can be. Isn’t that what the motto says?

Monday morning, rolled up on me quick. It was 5:30 am, and we were standing in formation. This was my first physical training exercise with my new unit. And guess who was in my platoon? Musty, Dusty, and Crusty, the three racists in my aviation unit. The three people who made my life a living hell for an entire weekend.

They gave me angry stares as we started stretching and other exercises, and I realized I had to tell someone.

After training, I showered and got dressed. I was still unsure who I needed to report the incident to. I knew I had to follow my chain of command. The only people I was introduced to on my first day were my first sergeant and platoon sergeant—one white and the other Hispanic.

At our next formation at 9 am, I was sent to my new office with Specialist Carter. Carter was dusty but a good brother. His uniform was discombobulated (wrinkled and very worn) from day one. We talked some during the day as he trained me. I confided in him about what happened. I had no one else I felt comfortable enough to tell.

Later that day, my first sergeant moved me to a room down the hall. Our unit only had one floor in the barracks, which was as far as they could move me away from them. That tells you how things went.

The investigation was composed of my statements and theirs. It took about six months or more. The result was my word against theirs. They denied everything.

Two years later, as the blond dusty one, Mallow,  before being discharged, came to my room. Another soldier, Andy, saw him and immediately told him to get away from me. Mallow’s face was red, and I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He kept telling Andy, “I want to talk to her.” Then, he finally gave up and walked away.

The therapist the military sent me to, told me that it should only take a few sessions for me to get back to normal after this incident. She did not approve any additional sessions. I was left to figure it out until recently.  

I now have a good therapist who validated my feelings and helped me to process the paranoia and anxiety I deal with long term. I guess my paranoia about being in a room with the door closed, constantly feeling like someone is trying to sneak up on me, and my fear of being alone with white men is standard.

After reliving that night's details, I still did not want to share my story Tony, so I slept on the couch. I was having a nightmare about the weekend when Tony shook me. I jumped up, ready to fight. I was trembling and crying. He looked at me with frustration and no compassion. “I will get the boys ready, and we will head out for the day. While we are gone, I expect you to get it together.”

I hate that many Black people like me who have encountered these situations or worse are expected to get over it. There is no actual mental health treatment aimed at our healing. I guess it is what they say, “Get over it.”

About the Author

Janise Johnson, Virginia State University

Janise Johnson is a senior transfer student and Creative Writing major and Virginia State University. She is an Army veteran, a mother, a grandmother, and a retired federal employee. She is also a business owner and has written the first edition of her monthly newsletter, “The Black Veteran.”

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