Hypothetical writing prompts are typical in elementary school. They’re supposed to teach students critical and imaginative thinking skills to help them make the world a better place. When I was a 4th grader in the small town of Erie, Pennsylvania, I remember my teacher Mrs. Larkin assigning these prompts to my class for our journal entries. These questions made us consider life if we had superpowers, were an animal, or had all the money in the world. And they all seemed to ask us to change something about ourselves. In fact, I remember receiving the latter prompt (or something to that effect) and writing that a supposed reincarnation turned me into a girl. I kept my dark skin for the prompt. I just wanted to know what girls knew that I didn’t.
I continued to write and journal that year in Mrs. Larkin’s class, and after a few months, I had drafted two 30-page books and a comic on lined paper, all of which I read to the class. I enjoyed exercising my imagination and creating alternate realities. The “what if” invigorated me.
In many ways, writing has pushed me into these alternative spaces. But, more than that, my parents’ constant moving brought me into areas that juxtaposed my social upbringing and class. This dynamic was clear to me when, at my new, wealthy middle school, a girl asked me, on my second day, if I spoke ghetto.
I think every Black person realizes they are Black at some point in their lives. Of course, I don’t mean that we learn the color of our skin at a specific moment because every seeing, non-colorblind kid knows what skin color they are. But the term, the “Black,” capitalized in its contextual weight and cultural history, is an acquired knowledge. Although I learned about my Blackness before “speaking ghetto,” this was the first time I discovered that others knew about my Blackness. And imagining an alternative to this harsh reality was difficult.
I received another prompt like Mrs. Larkin’s in middle school just a year before learning other people knew I was Black. It asked me to draw and write myself into an altered version once more. I wrote hesitantly on my grandmother’s wooden table; I didn’t want to change anything about myself as a joyful adolescent. But if I must play pretend, I felt, I would be a stringy-haired blonde boy with a British accent. I stared at the drawing by myself, my brows knitted and slightly lifted; what have I done? I was unsure whether I should have started over or turned in nothing, using a generic excuse about being sick.
Middle school is an odd time for kids. It is a period of life riddled with dynamic changes and sprouting desires, both permanent and momentary. As a 13-year-old who grew up just streets away from the projects, attending one of the United States’ wealthiest counties was a cultural shock. I learned what rich people wore, what they valued, what they detested, and what color their skin usually was.
Being Black and seeing how others see my Blackness compelled me to write self-interrogative, identity-driven stories. And at 21 years old, I imagine worlds and question other people’s perceived realities. I use my love of language to explore these alternatives and hypotheticals: what if I wore nail polish and cuffed my pants to the calf? What if I wrote poetry about longing and friendship? What if I watched cooking videos and cute cartoons for fun? What if I did all of this while still identifying as a straight, Black male?
Life is just as full of these hypotheticals as it is confused with the unpredictable flux of inconsistency. I welcome inconsistencies, and I love alternatives to how others perceive me. I’m curious about possibilities that remain uninhabited. I’m curious about the accuracy of my perceived and accepted contexts. I like questions that ask me to consider this. I like prompts that force me to inhabit these uncharted spaces, so I can see what I don’t know. But more than that, I enjoy speaking ghetto and being Black while non-Black people wonder if I’m Black and speaking ghetto.
Joe Hughes III is a writer and poet studying undergraduate creative writing at Virginia Tech. His self-interrogative work explores alternative notions of Blackness, masculinity, and love through the lens of vulnerability and honesty. His work appears in Dudefluencer.com, Virginia Tech’s Undergraduate research magazine, Philologia, and more. You can find out more about Joe through his website: www.joehughesiii.weebly.com