When you first meet Tristan, the first thing you’d probably notice is his beauty. But behind the warm smile and brown hue is a man with a story of not feeling accepted and always feeling a bit too different.
For the Black community. For most communities. But that isn’t where his story ends.
A man steadily becoming and continuing to embrace the beautiful man he sees in the mirror, Tristan has a lesson for all of us: if we would only dare to start on the path to learning, discovering, and embracing who we are, we can sooner learn to love the person we meet on the other side. The one hoping, praying, and rooting for us all along the way. Our best–and beautifully imperfect–self.
I was born in Guyana in Georgetown in 1985. I lived there for three years, and then my mother sent for me. But she sent me back after I was in the states for a short while. I don’t really remember why she sent me back, but like every kid who is young, I thought everything was my fault and assumed it was related to an incident with my cousin.
We were playing and somehow I drop-kicked him in the chest. I don’t remember what led up to it, but I do remember he started crying and that I was sent back to Guyana shortly after that. I assumed she thought I was too wild and couldn’t stay with her anymore. I was disappointed because all children at that age—I was about three or four—want to be with their parents.
We were playing and somehow I drop-kicked him in the chest. I don’t remember what led up to it, but I do remember he started crying and that I was sent back to Guyana shortly after that.
Back in Guyana, I don’t remember much of the day-to-day life. I do remember I had this babysitter who was a much older woman. She used to watch me during the day and she was very nice. She would sing to me a lot, and only one song—it was “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
I don’t know if it was a popular song back then or if she used to sing it because she needed someone. Then I went back to the states, and I stayed with my mom in New Jersey when I was five years old. My brother was there already. When I think back, I think she could only afford to take care of one child at a time because he was never sent back.
We lived in an apartment with one other aunt and our grandfather. It was a small place, and all of my family members came at the same time—there were five aunts—so we were cramped in this two-bedroom apartment for a while.
She would sing to me a lot, and only one song—it was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ I don’t know if it was a popular song back then or if she used to sing it because she needed someone.
They eventually started to spread out, renting other apartments in the same building. It was very similar to what you might consider the “projects,” but it didn’t feel like it. It wasn’t how I view “projects” today—we liked it. We only stayed there for five years, but it seemed much longer than that.
We didn’t have friends that came home with us from school and where the parents built relationships with each other so you could all hang out a lot. My mom worked too much. And, to this day, she still doesn’t have friends like that.
She had her sisters and I had my brother and six cousins. With them, I could behave however I wanted instead of having to be worried about acting a certain way when going to other people’s houses out of fear of shaming or embarrassing your family.
And in high school, there were very few opportunities where I would end up at a friend’s house hanging out. I don’t know what it was. I just didn’t feel that I needed it. After high school, because I was more of an adult, I could pick and choose when and where I wanted to hang out. But I still didn’t do it often. I was okay with being by myself.
She named me “Lil Mack” because of the way I tried to flirt and “run game” on her. The biggest accomplishment was that I got her number and we talked on the phone a lot.
The first time I remember someone describing my level of attractiveness, or realizing that I was attractive was when I was younger in summer camp. Every year, we’d go there between the time that I was eight and 11. There was a counselor named Nancy. In a way, there was a competition of beauty between me and a kid named Wakeem.
He was Spanish and black, and he was very attractive because he had the caramel skin tone, even complexion, and the curly hair. Nancy would say, “Oh my god! You two are so beautiful!” That was the first attention I remember receiving at nine or ten years old. Deep down I didn’t want to be him, but I wanted to be as attractive as he was.
Because I received that attention, I was able to express myself at that age. I craved more of those compliments. I tried to stay or play near her so she could tell me more. She named me “Lil Mack” because of the way I tried to flirt and “run game” on her. The biggest accomplishment was that I got her number and we talked on the phone a lot.
Deep down I didn’t want to be him, but I wanted to be as attractive as he was…he had the caramel skin tone, even complexion, and the curly hair.
I used to think “I got this!” and that I could get anyone in the world. At one point, I guess she realized it was wrong or weird to talk to me on the phone while I was so young because she changed her number or something, or maybe even moved. She didn’t come back the following year.
When I was younger, I was told that I had pretty, long eyelashes. And more recently as an adult, I’ve heard that my complexion is very even and that people like it. But it wasn’t something I heard very often growing up.
For example, I didn’t get much attention in high school because I was pretty much the shortest person there and the darkest person at the school. Skin tone was a problem in the sense that young children didn’t like it. They didn’t find it beautiful. I was called darkie and other slurs associated with being dark-skinned.
He yelled, “Get out of here blackie! You little cockroach!” I wanted to fight, but I realized no good would come of it.
For example, the first memory that comes to mind is when I was in high school. I had left class to go to the bathroom, but because we were switching classes and I saw one of my other teachers, I just wandered into her classroom and was hanging out.
A ridiculous question came out and a student who often picked on me was struggling to answer it. So, I whispered the answer. He yelled, “Get out of here blackie! You little cockroach!” I wanted to fight, but I realized no good would come of it.
At first I felt angry and embarrassed, and then hurt. I don’t remember if I said anything, but if I did it was more along the lines of “fuck you!” But when I was by myself, it really hit me.
I wondered what I could do about it. I knew I couldn’t change my skin color. But I did look up how I could grow taller. Ultimately, I realized there was nothing I could do and that it was who I was, and that I had to accept it and defend it.
If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, I’d say: “Acceptance isn’t about them accepting you, but you accepting them.”