Who Do You See in the Mirror? LEVEL Readers Weigh In
Photos courtesy of the contributors

Who Do You See in the Mirror? LEVEL Readers Weigh In

Growth can’t happen without loving yourself, so let’s celebrate us

To say 2020 has been a tough year is an understatement, and that’s even more pronounced for Black men. Between external pressures like systemic racism and a global pandemic, the internal pressures we bring upon ourselves, and the toxicity of some of our own brothers, it’s felt at times like we were under siege from all sides. Recently, LEVEL asked its readers to look within, and to share with us what they see when they look at themselves. Growth and evolution can be sparked by many things, but the processes can’t continue without self-love and confidence. So here’s to you, Black men — may you see someone capable, empathetic, and beautiful every time you look in the mirror.

Ralph Bristout, 31

There’s a responsibility that comes with this crown of ours — whether it’s stepping into work, walking down the street, driving down the boulevard, or picking up your child from school. Within that responsibility is power, one that is strengthened as we collectively continue to navigate through the hall of the shattered American dream, while using these scattered shards to carve out a new beginning for the next generation.

When I look in the mirror, I see a father, a brother, a husband, and a son. I see a man of many responsibilities, who continues to thrive off the history of his ancestry, while attempting to fulfill the unfinished business that trails our every day.

Kareem Ferguson, 41

When I look in the mirror I am proud to know I am my unique version of Black maleness/manhood. I am proud that I stand, live, and move in my authentic self.

So I am proud to be Black. Proud to be a Belizean who immigrated to the United States and is in a relationship with another beautiful and talented Black man — together 19 years, legally married for four. I am proud that I can still be loving and vulnerable and not live in fear of other people’s perceptions. I am proud that I do not have to wear the mask of the hardened face I see on so many of our brothers. In my life and work, I strive to model the behavior that we can throw off that mask of pain and oppression this society has conditioned many of us to accept as our way of life as a Black man in America.

I am proud that I am a licensed airplane pilot and I am proud that I have the freedom to create the art I do. I am proud when I look in the mirror and see the color of my skin, my lips, my eyes, and my smile.

Reggie Kee, 42

As I reflect on who I was as a child, I can’t help but focus on the things I allowed to limit me. The reason I can see them so clearly is because my children show them to me every day. Granted, my son and daughter reflect the good traits I have — but that’s not what makes me proud when I look into the mirror.

What makes me proud is seeing my ability to adjust and adapt to my limitations. Limitations that my father didn’t get around to overcoming in his lifetime. Limitations that, upon becoming a generational stumbling block for me, were primed to cut off the generational blessings due for my children to inherit.

It’s not so much what I see in the regular looking glass that makes my eyes swell with tears as my chest swells with pride. My children are my true reflection. So as I use my greatest asset (the ability to repent and set a new course from a wrong turn I’ve made) to improve my life, I can see the new course calculating in the images of my son and daughter. I can see them processing Daddy’s choices to press through the mistakes. I can see them processing the resilience and flexibility needed to get out of bad habits and complacency. I can see them making better decisions after making the wrong decision.

I see nothing missing and nothing broken. When I look at the mirror reflection of my children, we realign the shattered patterns of the image and likeness of God. This is what we’ve been afforded: the chance to reestablish for generations to come.

Miles Marshall Lewis, 49

“I’m the only one who knows that this guy here is someone you invented,” Woz yells at Steve Jobs in a 2015 biopic. Watching in a pitch-black theater back then, I laughed at the dis because I could relate. “Miles Lewis” (sans the “Marshall”) got bullied in high school by tormentors who eventually went to jail, got murdered, or became police officers. My childhood neighborhood, Co-op City in the Bronx, always described itself as a “cooperative housing development” — i.e. not a public housing project like Queensbridge or Marcy Houses — but roaches still roamed my kitchen after midnight with full autonomy. My father beat all of his substance abuse addictions eventually, but I grew up smack-dab in the middle of his struggles, and it wasn’t Good Times.

I’m currently having a gold Gordon Parks ring made; the photographer’s example of a Black renaissance man was one of the greatest formative life models I ever had. Parks produced books, films, poetry, even symphonies. What makes me proud to be myself when I look in the mirror is that I lived in Paris for seven years; that I have a book (my third) about Kendrick Lamar dropping next summer; that I’m directing my first film, a French rap documentary; that I graduated Morehouse and law school; that I carved out a 25-year media career through force of will and good luck.

That is to say, despite whatever decks are stacked against African-American men in this culture, I still found a way to self-actualize and turn myself into the grandest version of the greatest vision I had for myself. Things were hardly guaranteed to turn out this way, so I’m grateful—and, occasionally, proud.

Quanie Thornton, 28

I am most proud when something I’ve created or been a part of commercially impacts people personally. When I look in the mirror, what makes me most proud is my ability to see my own progress — internally and externally.

Wayne Wallen, 30

The thousands of stories that my eyes tell, how what I’ve carved inside sits and seeps out into my structure. My reflection almost sometimes sees what you see, so I’m juxtaposed between me and you. Cultivating the beauty that you and I both see — if you so choose.

What makes me proud is that growth that you and I call aging is a map of beauty and rigor, born from inside. My ancestors sit somewhere inside my cultural memory.

Devon Warren, 46

Looking in the mirror as a Black man in 2020, I have a lot to be thankful for and proud of. Being under quarantine and having extra time to reflect has made 2020 the year that I have learned the most about myself.

As a Black man, born in 1974, I am proud to say “in spite of.”

In spite of a school-to-prison pipeline and the majority of my childhood friends being incarcerated, I am proud that I was able to navigate my way through my hood without being a victim of it.

In spite of a lack of resources and funding for Black-owned small businesses, I am proud that I have been able to successfully run my company for the past seven years. I am super proud for being able to find creative ways to navigate through the pandemic.

In spite of running the risk of not being accepted or liked, I am proud to bring my whole self to whatever situation I find myself in. I don’t laugh if I don’t think it’s funny, and I don’t agree if I think it’s wrong. I may have lost some business and relationships due to this, but I sleep well at night knowing that I don’t compromise my beliefs and morals.

In spite of my dad not being a “good” father, I am proud that I was able to forgive him, realizing that he was just doing his best. In spite of not having the best example, I’ve tried to set my own: My kids, my family, and my peers think that I am an amazing dad.

In spite of it not being cool or seen as masculine, I am proud to tell my male friends and family that I love them.

In spite of the odds being stacked up against me, I am proud that I am here — and doing pretty damn well.

Terrence Watson, 34

When I look in the mirror, I see a man who’s not afraid to believe in himself, even when the world says he shouldn’t. Someone who tries to uplift people around him, and push himself to learn and grow no matter how uncomfortable the process of progress might be. I see someone trying to take full advantage of his God-given talents, and develop new ones along the way. I’m proud of that.