I’ve withheld this story for quite a while now. Mostly because the wounds from it were still too fresh. Plus, as anyone knows, I’m a “strategically” private person. I also held onto the belief that some of the people that are involved would do the right thing by me; and my silence was thereby a goodwill gesture. But… as experience has taught me, some things don’t change unless they’re compelled to.
I am what’s called a “critical thinker,” but I don’t believe myself to be any kind of revolutionary. Because, for me, I felt there was no cause worth fighting, since it seemed as if we’d long since relinquished this world over to evil. That’s why I knew I wouldn’t have ever been a good fit for any gang, the military, a political party, or even some radicalized organization.
This, however, hasn’t stopped me from having many SMH moments throughout my life; instances that compelled me to blurt out “This is bullshit!” at otherwise inappropriate moments. But as I got older— if only for the sake of embracing that beautiful mistress anonymity— I learned to bite my tongue; slowly defining the parameters of who and what I would die for. Nowadays, I’ve relegated going to war over my immediate family.
Life certainly has a way of making you reconsider such convictions…
From about 2007 to 2015, I was employed by one of the more recognized and established corporations in the country. The pay and benefits were unbelievable. I was afforded the opportunity to travel the country. And as my seniority grew (along with the provisional revisions per the subsequent collective bargaining agreements— yep, a union job!), it placed me on a track of qualifying for even better positions within the organization as they became available.
To demonstrate my ongoing and deepest appreciation for having been accepted into this position, I worked my job to the best of my ability (as was evident by the six-year anniversary into what I all but considered an indefinite tenure). Suffice to say, this was a pretty big deal for me; not only because I was [barely] a high school grad, but especially given the fact that I was hired right before the birth of my first daughter.
It was work I could take pride in. Work that required building… with my hands— oftentimes creating something out of complete nothingness; which I seemed to naturally take to. There was also navigating the complex and oftentimes outright baffling issues that presented themselves along the way. So in order for my work to be successful and sustaining, I had to apply empirical knowledge that was similar to a structural or mechanical engineer. (Critical thinking…) Oh, and I also worked with computers, so… People used to usually ask what my major was in college, and were surprised to find out the truth. All on-the-job… It was a skilled, blue-collar trade; and every year being there not only afforded me more experience, but the implications of a higher earning potential.
However, at that time I was adequately providing for my family; so well, in fact, that my wife took the opportunity of going back to get her master’s degree. When my daughter became of age, she also got to go to one those “fancy” schools you paid for. My credit was at the point where there were a few cards and a couple of pretty sweet automobiles financed; all with reasonable APRs. I even took the love of my life on a much-deserved vacation to the Bahamas for a job well done in grad school. Plans to finally get into a house were beginning to come to fruition— since, along the way, there had come a welcomed addition to the fold (daughter number two). Much as I downplayed it to friends and family, I was proud to be employed by this company.
I was living the quintessential American dream [right…?].
As with any job, there were demands. It was physically taxing; lugging gear and having to deal with, among other things, the environmental extremes. Psychologically, it could also take its toll; as there was once a period where the work was so abundant, that a ten-hour, six-day work week became the norm. But, I didn’t care… Like I said, given my level of education, this was the best money I ever made.
As far as the interdepartmental day-to-day went, notwithstanding a few minor— what were called— action steps (related to personal metrics whose benchmarks seemed to fluctuate like the weather, and was otherwise a common demerit given to many a worker) upon every annual appraisal, I was deemed to have met the company standards. Furthermore, there were loads of satisfaction surveys (because nowadays everything comes with a survey, right?) that colored me in a favorable light.
No superior had a bad thing to say (if anything at all) about me personally or with my work. I made myself readily available to assist any peer who may’ve struggled. Drafted emails that I sent to my team of the tips and tricks I’d developed along the way. I field tested new methods and procedures that would’ve ultimately saved the company millions had I a chance to present the data. In short, although I was supposed to be flying right below that proverbial “radar”— just where I (or, anyone who especially looked like me, for that matter) wanted to be— my penchant for not resting upon laurels compelled me to want to build… with the company.
I think a lot of my drive also came from the fact that given the circumstances, like many people such as myself [African-American], there was this… “thing” in the back of my mind constantly reminding me that I had to work twice as hard just to break even. But this was a common mantra many of us had rattling around in our head. This often meant being perceived— by your own people, no less— as an “Uncle Tom.” It was whispered my way many a time. Plus there was the fact that I was a tattooed and dreadlocked individual; which meant I also had to prevail many perceptions by my mannerisms, professionalism, and most importantly my work. I allowed the latter to speak loudest of me. It, too, had nothing bad to say about me.
Unfortunately, what I’d worked hard to cultivate over the last several years would dramatically come undone in 2014, whereupon becoming the subordinate of my latest supervisor.
This “changing of the guard” was nothing new to me, for I’d been under a number of them over the years. And, regardless of their varying personalities and/or what “notorious” reputation preceded them (i.e., horrible bosses), I made sure to have no issue with any of them. No brownnosing, mind you, just an application of this simple philosophy that had sustained me throughout the years and evolution of this job of mine:
One’s personality is immaterial to me. Above all, I respect their authority. So long as I’m given a directive that is aligned with the rules and is uniformly enforced, I’ll unquestionably follow. For let us be on one accord in favor of the needs of the business.
Kind of poetic… But I’m sure that’s what any employer would ask for, yes?
However… and for whatever reason, I seemed to be unable to get on the same page with this particular supervisor no matter how [unreasonably] hard I was pushed. Ultimately, this resulted in the growing preponderance (in both number and severity) of action steps being taken against me; which, thereby placed me on the wrong side of that proverbial radar. All the incentives and goodwill I’d amassed over the years began to crumble. The prospect of qualifying for a promotion was appearing all but unlikely. The threat of even staying in my current position now loomed over my head.
In an effort to get a handle on this, I first tried to gain an understanding as to why it was happening. Surely it couldn’t have been for any personal reasons, because of the aforementioned philosophy. I was also very reflective and critical of myself; examining what actions I may have contributed. But when that wasn’t fully reconciled, it led me to then explore the possibility of if this person’s regime was affecting anyone else’s quality of workplace life. Superficially, it seemed that everyone took issue with this person’s methods and idiosyncrasies. However (and, curiously enough), upon closer scrutiny, when it came to African-Americans (he is Caucasian by the way), the consequences upon us were more evident… and severe.
Furthermore, I began to suspect there was an additional element of this supervisor being friends with a few of the workers; which was not out of the realm of possibility since, not too long ago, he was “one of us.” If this were true, then such an association presumably afforded those fortunate few a far greater level of protection. Suffice to say, these were no-no’s according to the company policy. But, of course, this was also all speculative. So… until I had something more tangible to present to the proper people, I had no other choice but to keep digging, keep adapting… and keep enduring.
However, to my dismay, I also had to watch as many a kindred cohort was either terminated, had chosen to resign, or elected to transfer to another area within the organization, without anyone so much as calling this pattern into question (although, amongst us there were the collective murmurs of discontent). Furthermore, this was contrasted by “others” who seemed to be given a pass in spite of, say, responding to a directive with their very public, audibly conspicuous, undermining, profanity-laced lamentations— much of which could somehow be traced back to (or coming from) this one, particular, person.
Unfortunately, it would all come to a head for me in late 2014. After having suffered the consequences of the aforementioned action steps— some of which, in turn, resulted in a total of seven days’ worth of suspensions (which was the first of its kind for me in my nearly twenty years in the workforce)— in utter desperation, I went to upper management. “I only had suspicions, though,” I thought to myself. “Would it be enough…? Would this person somehow find out? And if so, would I then face their retribution?” It didn’t matter… I had to take action. For the preservation of my livelihood, I had to take action.
To my absolute surprise, that conversation didn’t go well. Furthermore, it led to inadvertently placing myself in an invidious position with, now, this person. They kept tabs on my every move in order to factually contrive the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” And, seven days later, I would be brought into what was described as an “investigatory” meeting that was headed by this manager.
Completely blindsided, I was made to answer for the laundry list of violations alleged to have occurred over the previous days. But I was given little opportunity to actually refute them; and furthermore, none of my responses were recorded on official records (as is customary). The verdict— which I’m convinced my accuser pre-rendered way before the meeting ever began— was a suspension… pending termination.
To be unceremoniously escorted off the property… It was the first time ever experiencing that degree of disgrace.
Luckily, the first place I thought to go to was my father’s. My… father… Granted, our start together in life wasn’t as glamorous as I would’ve liked, but damnit if he hasn’t made up for it in this latter half of ours. In his attentive, assuring, but mostly quiet presence, he helped me process, and administered a much-needed transfusion of confidence that’d continued to hemorrhage out of me. Without so much as a single word, he advised me of what I now had to do, further reminding me there was no alternative.
Keep digging, keep adapting… and keep enduring.
Over the next several weeks— with no pay, and furthermore ineligible for unemployment benefits— I waited in agony for what I believed to be the prospect of a reprieve in the form of the review board hearing; which was attended by, among others, my accuser. I didn’t necessarily grovel— because I wasn’t ever going to give anyone the satisfaction of wielding that type of power over me. I, instead, first attempted to appeal to their reason by reasserting the core issue of which inevitably brought us here: My attempt at reporting such long-held suspicions of the person responsible for my recent history of “poor work performance.” I furthermore attempted to appeal to them personally, reminding them of a time— in those flourishing years— when I was a direct subordinate of theirs.
Yes… This person was once one of those number of supervisors that didn’t much worry about me. Not only was I a trusted subordinate, through many an informal discussion we got to know each other beyond work. They were familiar with my wife, my daughters… They knew that I loved to write. The fact that I aspired to [finally] enroll in college despite the work hours making it nearly impossible. During my exercise craze, I used to get on them when I noticed a lit cigarette on their lips. When they were promoted— during such brief moments when I entertained the possibility of becoming their subordinate once more, as a supervisor— I leaned to their mentorship. Upon confiding in them about how close I was to home ownership, they even wrote me a letter of recommendation to give to the prospective mortgage company. This is what I reminded them of: our history.
Despite all of this, their resolve was apparently still very much galvanized; evident by the fact that they wouldn’t even extend the me courtesy of looking up from their phone long enough to regard the statement I’d spent the better part of a week pouring myself into. By the way (and, sadly ironic) this accuser of mine is African-American… and a woman. I would’ve thought this person, of all people, over-stood my plight when I came to report to her. But, then again, who were the ones that led those ship owners to the villages…?
I know I stated earlier that I try and extract personal feelings when it comes to my superiors…
It is just a philosophy.
Five days later… I would be advised by my union (these so-called “advocates” to whom I’d spent years paying dues, and not once ever needed them until that moment) that I had indeed been terminated; and furthermore, they weren’t going to send my case to arbitration. I was crushed. Especially given the fact that this would be just one of a series of life-altering events that occurred within that period.
My maternal grandmother— who, admittedly, I didn’t have the best of relationships with, but was still able to make peace with her right before she— passed away. I had the strong suspicion that there was a potential copyright infringement I needed to deal with between a movie that had just come out and a manuscript I’d tinkered with for nearly a decade.
Not only that, this drastic reduction in household income also imposed the decision of moving from the place my daughters had ever known. I mean, that was an inevitably, but nonetheless premature; and we were surely not moving into the “dream house.” Instead— albeit not in the best of conditions or neighborhood (but a blessing all the same)— by the grace of very generous in-laws, we were able to move into their rental property without the need of worrying about rent or utilities until I got back on my feet. My credit had become decimated; which, in turn, had us facing the threat of repossession of an automobile that was close to being paid off, and another I was well on to the half-way mark.
This strain of being unable to financially, emotionally, physically secure my family in the way in which I was once accustomed took a toll on my marriage; which led to— although but a brief period— a separation, with the prospect of divorce. All of this naturally lent itself to the obvious psychological scarring; which invoked on several occasions considerable contemplation of robbery, retribution, and suicide. I’d shook my head in disgust many a news report on those who had taken one of those three routes. By virtue of my life at that point, I was made to see through that ignorance and now understand all too well that life can sometimes be an absolute motherfucker.
Watching Maurice Clarett’s ESPN: “30 for 30” documentary one evening showed me that, in a lot of ways his and my life mirrored. Tearful by the end of it, his story brought me to one of many “ah-ha” moments, and was the first gentle pull away from the edge. It would also be the glimmers of my old confidence returning in the form of gaining employment that pulled me even further back; one of which, was at a call center.
What can I say…? It paid weekly, was Monday through Friday, was soul-crushingly boring… But, it got me out the house. Granted, between shoring up my negative account and trying to keep abreast of any bills to which I could possibly contribute, I barely had gas money to get there everyday.
It wound up being a temporary job, in any event…
Ironically, just two more weeks and I would’ve qualified for unemployment (that would’ve also paid more).
After another period of job (but mostly soul) searching, I was hired as an overnight package handler; and I’d apparently come aboard at the absolute best time: summer. In order to laugh through this… new form of abject misery, I looked no further than my peers: drones who had been there longer and— through their varying degrees of discontent— found a way of dealing. The best part about the job, was discovering that I loaded packages for drivers who got paid about three times as much. I didn’t necessarily look at it as if it were unfair, just recognized the irony of the gaping divide.
Despite the pay, hours, lack of benefits, and even the personal stuff I was still very much working through, I worked that job; worked it as if I was back at my old one. Better than everyone that had come with me through orientation, better than some of those that had been around longer.
Among others, it certainly got the attention of my supervisor: a young, lanky, Caucasian guy who came off as down-to-earth, and kind of talked with more of a “street” inflection than I did (when I wasn’t code-switching, of course); which, strangely, didn’t seem affected or pretentious. Despite his congenial nature, I always found myself remaining on-edge around him and the other two who managed this huge team I was a part of. It was latent PTSD; I knew this because I was familiar with the feeling. Despite being gripped in fear, I saw it as a form of protection from being lulled into a false sense of camaraderie. I mean, they were three white guys who each had a hand over the button of my fate. And, even if a speculatively adverse outcome weren’t ever to come from the one I reported to, I wasn’t entirely sure about the other two.
One of them was a straight-laced, crew cut fellow who— I don’t know why, but— I got the impression was an active service member. He usually headed the mid-shift meetings which were held after the (paltry, ten-minute) break, and was mostly responsible for keeping the team on task. Then there was this— for lack of a better way of phrasing— “meathead,” hyper alpha-male who absolutely fit the description of the one who greatly contributed to killing my career. Around him especially, I relegated myself to “keeping my head down” (although, I have to admit, at times I felt… very slave-ish for doing so). I remember, when coming in for my shift, I used to joke in my head as I oftentimes passed him, “I’s don’t want nooooo trouble…” So long I was under that radar, even the meathead seemed to have no issue with me.
My supervisor was a good person, though; made genuine attempts at being affable and helpful. As time went on, he came to me with information that a temporary driver position opened up; for which he vehemently urged me to apply. Clearly he was a real-life example of why I couldn’t hold heated racial arguments prefaced with the “All white people are devils…” trope. He and I got along so well, that he seemed genuinely disappointed upon hearing I had another job prospect on the horizon. However, he gladly offered a letter of recommendation.
Yes, thankfully I was able to put down the packages. As a matter of fact, I literally put in my two weeks after only having gone through the first interview.
I remember entering into the room of my prospective employer, seeing that I had to speak before an audience of three middle-aged, starched-pressed white men. Another divide, another irony, another three of them with a hand over that button… Preliminary questions were asked, to which I volleyed back answers as if they were written on cue cards. But, sooner or later they were going to ask the “big” question. Whereas the other jobs could’ve cared less about my past, I knew they would be very interested.
Days before the interview…
While talking about it with my mother, she recommended that I try and artfully dance around the subject. And while I understood she meant well, I knew that wouldn’t be an option. In fact, I knew what I was going to do… what I had to do: tell the truth. I didn’t compromise my integrity by shamelessly groveling for my former job through the mitigating or all out renouncing of that truth, I wouldn’t now wax fantastic like a charismatic politician amidst a scandal.
When the question was asked, I took a long, thoughtful pause— just enough to order my words so I didn’t find myself otherwise passionately meandering. Their otherwise stone-faced demeanors betrayed their true impression of me after having finishing my statement. Micro inflections are a heck of a thing…
My current job… no… career, was a blessing; especially in, among other things, its timing. Similar to how my old career came just before the birth of my, now big girl, this one arrived on the cusp of this new, other birth. It was undoubtedly gainful employment. The work was super easy but not stagnant; a pleasant mix of the trifecta: desk jockey, technology integration, and manual labor. The hours were a straight 9 to 5; off on weekends. The pay and other perks, although short of being comparable (but I chalk up the difference to having paid a piece-of-mind tax), officially put me back as an equal contributor to the household. Much of my confidence— what I identified by— had been restored.
I worked around, and have been inspired by, those who I consider the “salt of the earth.” Furthermore, I was seeing more of my wife and daughters than ever. For the first time since… the inception of my family, we all had the same schedule; the same routine. And with such stability, I was finally able to go to school. I recently took a math prerequisite (a subject which I absolutely hated) as my one and only course for the semester, just so I could focus on passing it. And although I was shooting for “a strong B,” my efforts led to getting an A out of the class. (I further found it surprising that I was actually discontent with the 92%!) It was beginning to become a… blissfully ordinary existence. The true version of the American dream.
I— no, my family and I— prevailed!
Not only that, I’d since taken stock of my situation regarding this obviously unjust discharge from my former longtime employer, and thereby pursued the most prudent course of action.
There was an investigation conducted by the EEOC (which is a whole other story) where they found no wrongdoing on the company’s behalf. The next level of recourse was then to file suit in Federal Court. To my surprise, not too many lawyers were interested in my claim. And, with the statute of limitations running out, I had no choice but to go at it alone.
In preparation of what may come, I then dove head first into the prospect of self-litigation by:
- Researching the laws in relation to the dimensions of my particular claim.
- Looking up, and thus comparing, my story to similar cases.
- Following the chronology of a given case through the system.
- Studying what made a compelling case from what made a bad one.
- Learning the Federal and local rules of civil procedure.
- Deconstructing the anatomy of, then replicating, an example pleading.
- Reading blogs from attorneys across the world.
- Reading reports on, and compiling spreadsheets containing, various settlement awards for my claim.
- Watching a bunch of YouTube videos of actual court proceedings.
- Watching a bunch of movies like “A Time to Kill” and “A Few Good Men.”
- Learning a bunch of Latin.
- Reading a bunch of John Grisham novels.
- Spending a weekend or three binging on “Law & Order.”
(Some of which, I obviously kid.)
Surprisingly, this part of the process turned out to be the most straightforward, unintimidating, and especially empowering. The way I’d taken to it reminded me of the job, way back when. What’s also [slightly] ironic: upon the first trip to the courthouse (since, I’m assuming, this wasn’t like what comes through small claims, traffic, criminal, or any other State or local jurisdiction) after confidently stating my business to the security— an assurance that I was in the right place— it was almost as if I were then given the VIP treatment. I knew where I was supposed to be, and was therefore allowed to be. (Although… maybe they thought I was an attorney by the way in which I had all my files organized, my penchant for answering questions with a clear “yes” or “no,” and my moderately casual attire…?)
The clerks were even more giving, despite being enjoined not to offer legal advice (and they didn’t). It all just felt as if this was what I was supposed to be doing. Furthermore, despite my preconceived notions, the Court came across like an open and available resource that was otherwise (and unfortunately) being underutilized— unless it was absolutely necessary— by people such as myself.
Although I don’t now purport as even a competent paralegal, I have prevailed milestones such as the initial filing of my complaint, and having any warranted motions executed. Very recently, I also completed the pretrial meeting, where I got to see for the first time counsel for the defense. The attorney seemed genuinely surprised (and obviously underprepared) when I began to address the presiding magistrate. Regardless of these benchmarks, every step of the way, my former employer has seemingly expressed not so much as a moderate opposition to my averments. It was as if they were hoping I would’ve become by now discouraged by their apathy, or encumbered by the process, or actually fearful of taking them on.
My father used to call me a knucklehead, so…
Usually, pretrials included settlement conversations. As expected, they weren’t prepared with a counter to the demands outlined in my complaint. “Not even a nuisance payment…?” I remember remarking to the attorney. In light of this, I remember also impressing upon the attorney— very respectfully, but in no uncertain terms— that it would behoove him to advise his client that, short of a reasonable settlement offer, I was willing to have this case seen before the Court. For which, even if it resulted in my defeat, I would at least ensure that it be for them a pyrrhic victory. I was a pro-se litigant who was resourceful, working with little to no overhead, and a lot of spare time to play…
Not to be arrogant, but… I. Owned. Him. Despite what game face he attempted to affect, I believe he clearly understood my resolve. (Micro inflections…) I guess that’s what happens when you’re so positioned in your truth; no matter the opponent, you’ll fight to the very last swing in order to bring it to light.
In the wake of my termination, I also began to reflect over my entire life; scenarios which now seemed to signify many of the “code phrases,” off-glances, stifled laughter, heightened hostility, heightened security, heightened vigilance, justifications for why I wasn’t afforded certain opportunities despite getting those “‘atta boys” from the powers that be, that I’d otherwise ignored and never once even remotely ascribed to there being an element of race, until now. Add to that, there was already an almost daily example of African-Americans being served “outlaw justice” during something as innocuous as a routine traffic stop. For as long as I can remember… I’d been exposed to— but until very recently, never knew how to define— this… systemic form of racism.
Notwithstanding what should’ve then been a “duh” moment, it was still initially hard for me to reconcile. See, I’m not one who would pull the “race” card at every example I had but an inkling of a feeling was as such (which, more than likely, it wasn’t). I was revulsed by those who chummed the waters with such bating. I once had a friend who did this exact thing. Although I don’t intend to paint him a villainous shade, being so close to his overutilization of this absolutely precious call-to-action in many ways desensitized me.
And— as I now think about it— I believe that is what kept me, even in the time before it all went south, from exploring my musings of why Caucasian workers who may’ve been poorer performers were still somehow more eligible (and thus promoted to coveted positions) than some of the better African-Americans (cough, cough). This… reluctance of mine is what probably also kept me from reporting these suspicions I had for as long as I did. Presenting as the resounding confirmation, throughout the litigation process, upon every rejection of my case given by the most liberal attorney, every err on my behalf which brought forth a procedural roadblock that threatened dismissal, and certainly as the staunch, vanilla-irritation maintained by the company.
It caused me to second-guess every action, and led to many instances where I stared into the mirror to try and see if I was not just some jilted ex-employee whose made this bigger than it really is. Replaying every event, examining what I contributed to exasperate the situations, actually considering these setbacks and subtle warnings of well-meaning family members I all but ignored as in my best interest…
And then I snap back to reality.
Fights weren’t meant to be easy. And more often times than not, they’re fixed. The company is supposed to act this way: highlight every negative aspect of me in order to rest easy in their justification; while all but ignoring the disproportionately numerous positives I contributed. Plus, they’re hit with lawsuits almost on a constant basis; by those in similar positions as I, to— much like that former friend of mine— those who are joined at the hip with “ambulance chasers” looking to capitalize on a cash-grab.
I know what happened, and what I didn’t want to happen. What I then had to deal with in the aftermath of what had happened. This accessible, transparent, and— every once in a while— just system was established for this very purpose. And, despite at many times feeling very 3/5ths myself, I was entitled to utilize this resource. I’m not one to abuse the system; I didn’t even want for it to end up at this level. But damned if I’ll let them believe I’m too fearful or not intelligent enough to use it.
So, game on…
Slowly, I am beginning to embrace what (according to my wife) appears to be my calling. Although I’m still “undeclared” regarding my major— as it teeters between “something in computers” and “something in communication”— I can feel myself gravitating toward one of those poles. Maybe I should seek justice for the disenfranchised? Maybe I should become an instructor, so that I then make plain the resources for those that are seeking justice on their own? I would still only be helping out family… albeit the extended brothers and sisters. It would surely be something revolutionary…
Am I hash tagging #BlackLivesMatter now…? No. Something more than that maybe. I’ve been “woke” for a long time. I am, however, just getting out of the bed.
They should’ve made me an offer…