Educate to Elevate /ˈe-jə-ˌkāt tu̇ ˈe-lə-ˌvāt/ phrase. – 1. to provide information necessary for preparing individuals to develop the skill-sets needed for life and a career. 2. education that increases success in various social settings.
My name is Cornelius Lee and I identify as a cis-gendered gay Black man. And I think my story starts with my name — I was named after a Greek warrior that was known to fight on behalf of, sort of the downtrodden and in the name of love and peace. And I was named Cornelia after my father, who is also a Cornelius, and my grandfather named my father. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher in Southern Louisiana and, so, in a very small town. And he preached about love, kindness, forgiveness — in spite of adversity that you faced. And I think watching him, as a young boy, on the pulpit and with his small congregation, like literally next to a swamp…I think that instilled so many of the values that have molded me to be the person I am today.
So, I grew up in Louisiana, in a working class family, with a household full of love, joy and kindness. And what we lacked in sort of monetary wealth, we were wealthy in so many other ways. And, you know, my parents unfortunately, they got a divorce when I was around nine years old. And I had siblings that were all much older than I was. My parents liked to say that I was planned, but my closest sibling in age is like 10 years older than I am… So, my siblings had already went through the Baton Rouge public school system and I was just sort of beginning in the school system before I moved to Texas with my mom. My mom ended up getting remarried a year or so after her and my dad split and I landed in Plano, Texas. Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Plano, Texas are like night and day. Like, literally…one’s a very Black community, one’s a very white community. And I think that changed my perspective on Blackness in a way that I wouldn’t have imagined at such a young age…. You know, growing up in a primarily Black community in Baton Rouge and then kind of being planted in this foreign land of Plano, Texas and very white Texas suburbia…. Uh, you know, that was an interesting experience.
I think that I knew I was Black growing up and there was such joy and satisfaction that came of being who I was in my own skin and I think I felt that that was very challenged when I got dropped into the school system. What I mean by, like, having a complicated relationship with Blackness…The reason why I mentioned the schooling… My older siblings didn’t end up going to college. I think they were in a school system that lacked resources. I know that now, you know, looking back on that experience. But at the time…it’s,like, we were all happy, we were all loving, but there were institutions at play that did not believe in my brothers and sisters and me. But, I was able to benefit from being surrounded by whiteness and the resources that afforded me when I was going to school in Plano…there was so much that I was able to take advantage of in terms of enrichment and academics and that wasn’t afforded to my brothers and sisters. And I wonder how much of that played into the decisions that they made. When there are literally social institutions that are compulsory, you have to go to school, that didn’t believe in you, didn’t believe in your potential, didn’t see it….and when you get those messages every day…no matter how much love is in your family, it cannot save you from the reality of the world — a world that does not believe that you can be great and does not want to invest in your greatness.
And I think when I was in Plano — I dunno if it was investing in my greatness, necessarily, but I was ancillary to that, so able to take advantage of it. And I definitely had to be scrappy, I definitely had to kind of fight my way into tapping into those resources, but they were available to me and I was able to take advantage of them in a different way than what was afforded to my siblings. We have lived such a different life. I love them and they love me, but we live completely different lives. And I think that is because of those experiences we have had from early ages. But…you know, I have an incarcerated brother who passed. My siblings… at best some of them have gone back and gotten trade degrees. But we just…we live in two different worlds. And, you know, I think about that all the time. It’s why I became a teacher. It’s why I became a teacher on the West side of Chicago. It’s an experience that is with me every day — how me and my siblings grew up and that early introduction of understanding my Blackness through institutions. It was an interesting experience for me that I think very much informs how I show up and the work that I do and the person that I am as well as kind of the lessons from my home life of growing up with my grandfather around.
I think beauty isn’t, like, something you can see or it’s not always seen and typical, it isn’t always physical characteristics. I think beauty is an experience. Beauty can be a moment in time or even the moments in between. And I think beauty is the construction of your own reality when it is going in a way that you feel that it is positive and soul filling. Um, and so yeah, I think very that’s what I believe beauty is, very much, something that can be within your own soul.
But I can tell you what I don’t think beauty is. Cause I think beauty for me can be very conceptual, but it is not always physical characteristics. I think that’s attraction, to me. What I’m attracted to might be physical traits, but you know…I can find someone maybe not that physically attractive, but then they can be one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.
So I was writing this bit a little while ago and it’s kind of incomplete, and it’s kind of along the lines of… how you see yourself versus how the world sort of sees you. And I was having this moment, it was not too long ago, I kind of woke up and my morning routine is like… wiping the like crusty accumulations off the corners of my eyes. And I’m like, Okay, like, I’m in my thirties but still not half bad looking…and there’s still this residue of sleepiness below my eyes… But you know, I don’t know if I necessarily see Blackness…but I see ambition, I see fear. I see all of these things sort of in the morning when I’m looking at myself in the mirror. Um, and it’s interesting to know that when I go out in the world for work or whatever…it is so apparent when you have that moment where you switch from your own reality where you see yourself as like, Cornelius, to the realities of others. And it’s so subconscious at this point, or so automatic…. Whether it’s a white woman grabbing her purse while I’m walking to the train…. or it’s someone being kinder to someone else that has a different skin tone than I do….or the fear of someone…
Even…I fly a lot for work….And so I’ll get to the airport, you know, in a hurry and I’ll sit down and there’ll be people that actually avoid sitting next to me. I fly really early so you have a lot of business folks, a lot of white folks, on the plane and you can see the eyes kinda like register who I am and they’ll keep going. It’s in those moments that can be so defeating because I do think when I wake up, I see myself and I see my skin…I see beauty in my own self for the reasons I said before, It’s internal.
But I also think that Black is so beautiful because it has been through so much adversity because it’s been able to be resilient. There’s beauty not only in the mahogany of Blackness, but in the experience of it. It’s just such a juxtaposition when you then have your own reality perceived through other’s eyes and then shot back to you. It can be very disheartening and a bit of a shock to the system.
I think doing the work that I do — I’m a diversity equity and inclusion consultant — I work with organizations to figure out how to create places and spaces for people that work for them where they can feel whole, healthy, included, a sense of belonging. And when you think about who belongs and who doesn’t belong in organizations…that tends to be people who hold identities that have historically been placed on the margin — people of color or women or the LGBTQ+ population. And so, sorta as someone who holds two identities that’s on the margin, it becomes this thing where…it’s not a monolithic experience. And I feel that when I do the work I do sometimes, that Blackness or queerness or Black queerness is seen as this monolithic experience on which I am the expert on. And there’s such a burden that comes with that. And I’ve talked to other folks who, you know, do sort of this social justice type work within institutions that weren’t necessarily built for them and they’re trying to sort of dismantle this dominant culture that has placed people with these marginal identities on the outskirts of these organizations.
And so I think in ways it is challenging…I love what I do and there’s such a cost to what I do. It becomes this balance every day and I do it for work and so I have some tools that I’ve built up, I have some resilience that I’ve built up, a really good support system. But I imagine folks that don’t do this as a career and have been able to build an arsenal of tools, build a support network…Like, what do they have to go through when they have this lived experience where they are treated as if you are the voice of your race, right? You’re the voice of this particular identity that is not of the dominant culture. I think that’s a real challenge if you have to carry that on your shoulders every day and you’re trying to do your job. Like…if your job is something completely different, like being a designer…you’re always going to be a Black designer, right? The way that the world we live in, you’re never just going to be a designer, right? And so I think that is a challenge — knowing that you’re going to always be like the Black athlete, the Black professional, the Black doctor, right? So, I think that is inherently something that we have to carry.
I mean, it’s on a micro and macro level. I think that the micro ones are the most harmful. These are the everyday slight snubs that you experience, that kind of accumulate over time. So people think this sort of macro discrimination as like the tough shit, right? Being called the N-word… that is tough, it’s the devil, you know? And that’s become largely socially taboo, right? Like people aren’t going around doing that. And so I think that because they’re not doing that, people are like, Oh, then you’re not a racist. But it’s actually these smaller things….
When I told the airplane story…I was telling other people about how it is to sit on an airplane and people are kind of passing you by…and then, a white colleague was like, You know, I hate sitting next to people on the plane, so if I were you, I would try to look really scary so you can definitely ensure that they don’t sit next to you. And I know and I love this colleague…and I think it hurts the most, discrimination hurts the most, when people are unaware. And that the new normal is that it usually is subconscious and people aren’t outright calling people the N-word…. I mean, people are still doing very, like, overt acts of racism, don’t get me wrong….But I think it’s the more insidious stuff. And for this woman to say that…I think she would say she loves me, I think she would say she cares for me… Yet, she said that and had no idea the implications of what she said — You just told me to look like a scary Black man to scare white passengers from not sitting next to me and you thought that was funny and you said that in front of a group of my colleagues. And that’s not funny.
And there’s numerous things that have happened in that vein of like, Oh well it’s just a joke or whatever. And I kinda compare it to mosquito bite — so you get one mosquito bite, you know, it’s not bad…but if mosquitoes keep biting you, it becomes actually really irritating over time. And so if you think about just the constant being stung by a bee or being stung by several bees…or several mosquitoes…and over time the kind of an accumulation of those experiences.
There is one that was actually in high school and has been pretty formative. I was kind of a precocious kid, if you can imagine, and I told a history teacher, Hey, it’s cool, baby, calm down…You know, totally inappropriate, shouldn’t have said that. I think her response could have been more appropriate, but what it was is that You better watch it, boy, or you’re going to end up like Emmett Till. And this wasn’t like, you know, the 60s or the 50s. This was, like, early 2000’s, right? Where a teacher said that to me in front of a class of students and that teacher is still teaching in that district today and I’m sure teaching Black students today. But once again, it’s like institutional protection of whiteness, right? Or institutional perpetuation of Blackness not being good, not being right. Trying to somehow weaponize it or think it’s wrong.
I’m not thinking of a specific event because I think when that question is asked it could be interpreted as like what are the particular events or like a professional moment or something. But I think of it more as like…I am most proud of or I feel most successful at being 100% me. And what I mean by that — I spent a lot of time navigating and negotiating parts of my identity to fit in, to assimilate, cause I thought that’s what I needed to do to survive. I thought that’s what I needed to do to actually be successful. And I’m happy to say at 32 years old, I can be as fierce and fabulous as I want to be in my Black skin and all of the complexities and all of the implications that come with that, I’m okay with now. The good ones and the not so great ones.
I was thinking about the Black male experience and how fraught it is, what a lot of complexities about sharing and being emotional and really understanding our place within our own community. And what it means to actually be vocal about our trauma, which I don’t think that’s a normalized experience in our community, right? Like, if we think about movements that are led — like the Black Lives Matter movement was largely started by women, trans women, right? And so I just think about when we are explicit about how we feel…I feel like our women are at the forefront of that…and what does it mean for our men to do that? And what does it mean for our Black gay men to do that?
And that is what I think I am most proud of or feel most successful, that is that I get to do that. And it took a long time to get here, and it doesn’t mean everyone has welcomed me with arms wide open, but it feels like the right calling to do that. So yeah, I think that is what I’m feeling the most successful about, particularly at this point in my life.
That is a complicated question for me because I think I always go to…like my personal dreams are just connected to community. I think that’s back to my grandfather being a preacher and the thing that he loved the most is building a congregation of people so they can love one another, go through pain with each other, build each other up. So I think one of my dreams is not totally for me, but it’s for kind of the collective consciousness of Black queer folks, especially Black queer men. You know, a dream of mine is to elevate that experience in some sort of way. whether that be politically, socially, organizationally, but definitely more visibly.
I’m just getting started, like I said, it’s taken a long while to get to the point that I’m at today and it only goes up from here. I think I’ve done a lot of self work, but just given my roots and my values, I want to transfer the work I’ve done on myself to help build community for others and elevate folks, especially the Black queer community. So, I think that is like a dream of mine. Like I said, like maybe that’s politics or maybe that’s some sort of more like nationally visible type of situation, but who knows?
Institutional and structural racism is still such a challenge. Um, and is something that has always been a challenge, but I think it was easier for some folks to wrap their mind around Jim Crow laws or even The Voting Rights Act because it was such a visible denial of Black rights. It was very visible. People could see that, you know, Black people were not afforded these rights. I think when you think about institutional racism — like housing discrimination or how this shows up in organizations with the pay gap, or even career mobility — these things are invisible largely to folks. They can’t really wrap their mind around it like they could, you know, someone not being able to use the same bathroom as someone else or someone not being able to go to the voting booth (that’s still happening really, in some states).
So, when I think about what is the next challenge and why I go and why I’m doing the work that I’m doing now is to make those invisible things visible for people. And not only visible, but digestible, cause, right now, I feel sometimes that when there are like intellectuals that talk about this — I love it, but sometimes I even get a little lost in some of the wording, the language, the nomenclature — and I’m like, how do we bring it down enough so people can really understand what we’re talking about when we say institutional racism? How do we make it real for people… just as real as it was when folks would rally behind the racial injustices of, like, the 60s? Cause I feel like we are at a time, a point of inflection, in our country where I think we’re going to see some similar movement happen in that way. And it is going to be about these more insidious and invisible systems, that are working underneath that disenfranchise people of color.
We would live in a world where we could see each other’s collective humanity. We would believe in each other’s best. We would make connections across lines of difference that were authentic, deep, not surface. And through getting to know each other at deeper levels, we would have more empathy for one another. We would have a deeper level of understanding of each other’s perspective, even when they’re contrasting, cause that is when we as a society are at our best.
I think listening to one another. Rooting our experiences in narrative. I mean, storytelling is one of the most ancient forms of creating pathways of understanding one another. And you know, I’m not trying to dumb it down…I know we just can’t put around and just tell stories to one another…but I think we’ve lost something in this kind of shitstorm that is the reality of what we’re going through as a country…of actually knowing what we go through, our own personal experience, and being able to share that in community with one another. And I find that when I am working with clients, especially clients that have a different identity than I do, being able to share my own experiences, it always strikes me that there are some similarities. You know, even though I might say it through the lens of race, I might say it through the lens of queerness, as I talk about my upbringing, as I talk about things I’ve experienced, though they are not identical to the experiences of others…there’s so much commonality.
Um, and so I think that is like the first step — how do we begin to be in mixed groups of community together? Um, find a way to share journeys, share narratives, find that commonality. The reason why we start with organizations working on the interpersonal first is because the interpersonal drives the institutional, right? Like, who we know, who we care for, who we root for, who we think are the heroes, who we think are the villains are inevitably going to drive the decisions of who we hire, right? Who we grant loans to for housing, right? And so you can’t just change this by saying we’re going to change law. Law doesn’t change sentiment, right? Policy doesn’t change sentiment. But human connection and understanding changes sentiment.
You know, I’ve had to treat my intersectionality as a superpower — not because I’m bad ass, but more because it’s a way to defend myself, right? And what I mean by that is, you know, I’m Black, so them you know, I’m discriminated against by, non-Black people….and then I’m queer, so then there are people who aren’t down with the queer thing. And so historically the Black community, as well as many other communities, have had a complex relationship with homosexuality…and not always positive. And so there have been moments where I have a bit lost.
Unlike Black women — and there’s no comparison. I want to be clear, like no comparison — but Black women, though they face an extreme immense amount of adversity, I think in large part by the Black community they still feel part of it, right? Notwithstanding the complexities of the complicated things they have to go through within our own community, but, I would even say they’re the bedrock of our community. Whereas I think queerness in the Black community…it’s always been present.
And in fact some of the most prolific people, successful people, I would say identify as queer or were queer. Like some of our historical figures were queer. Um, and so I think that’s complicated for me, in a way. When I think about Bayard Rustin, how we don’t know really who he is cause he was gay…but there would be no Martin Luther King in the way that we know Martin Luther King if there was not a Bayard Rustin. Right. Or James Baldwin, being just such a prolific writer, but like the gay thing maybe turning us off to him.
And so, I was nervous about that. And especially when I was in the earlier years of my adulthood, so you know my younger twenties, I would try to suppress that. So whenever I went home to the South, I would, like, lie and say I had girlfriends and silly shit like that. And, you know, I wasn’t out to my parents, though when I was at college I was out, but I was mostly surrounded by — and it doesn’t mean that they’re more accepting, I know there’s like tons of homophobia that goes on in the white community as well. Don’t get me wrong. — but with my experience, I was mostly surrounded by white folks in college. And it wasn’t my family, it wasn’t close to home.
And so then for me, it’s been like balancing being true to myself and all my intersectionalities. Not just true to… I felt that I would have to either choose to be Black in some situations or I would have to choose to be gay…but I could never really be both. And I think my, my mindset has shifted around that because it is so exhausting to be sort of like a double minority. You’re getting it from all sides. And I’m like, if I don’t treat this as a blessing, if I don’t treat this as a superpower, it will be something that consumes me.This anxiety around it will consume me. So I just stopped caring. I’ll show up in Black spaces now, like when I go back home, and it’s like, it is who I am, you know?
Intersectionality is one of my favorite words and favorite ways of being. And it’s like, people get it also confused. People that are like, Well, I’m white, and a mother, I also am whatever, and I’m an intersectional being… This term was originated by Kimberle Crenshaw and it was first coined to describe multiple identities that are historically marginalized, folks that hold multiple historically marginalized identities — Black woman, gay Black men, for example.
And the reason why I think it is a beautiful life experience for me… like I said, it took awhile for me to get there is like there’s something so special about if you take two really great things… It’s like a cronut, right, like a croissant and a donut and they mash it together and it’s like two things you love and you put them together to create something super awesome… And that’s how I view being queer and Black. Like, my Blackness is super awesome and I think my queerness is and then you get this, like, really interesting mesh when you put those things together. And like… the Black queer community is very different than just like the Black heterosexual community and very different than just the queer community. They have a connection along those lines of intersectionality that then creates a really just beautiful experience. So yeah, I think that’s what we can gain from it — you’re coming with no deficits because you’re a double minority, you’re actually coming with double assets, is the way I like to see it.
This question kind of ties to what I’ve been thinking throughout this interview… I’m answering these questions through the experience of one Black individual, knowing that another challenge that we face is that Blackness is not monolithic. I think it is relational. I think there are related experiences, common experiences. However, I do want us to move away from Blackness being so narrowly defined. I think society has narrowly defined it for us and we have, in some ways, unfortunately perpetuated that. And so I don’t think I can give advice to the sort of like Black diaspora, but I think if I think about ways in which we can collectively become better… I think maybe that is my advice then — we leave space for each other to be different in our perspective, different in the ways that we show up.
Because I think if we embrace diversity within our own community, then we can leverage the strength of that Blackness that can be defined in a million different ways. And if we started embracing that, accepting that, elevating that, and embodying that in our own experience as a Black collective, I think that too will give us agency to show up in all sorts of different ways. I don’t think we’re there quite yet, I think we’re getting there, but it still is tricky for us to navigate spaces where we show up as not traditionally — whatever that means — like Black, what traditional Blackness might be, the culture that we ascribed to, or you know, the ways in which we have value. But, we are such multifaceted human beings and I want us to get there more where we are owning that and making space for that in our community in real, like, authentic and loving ways.
You got to do the self work, right? Like, I actually wouldn’t give advice to white folks because I think that is what sometimes the default is…Oh, well teach me more about the things I’m doing wrong or the things that I should be doing better. But I’ve been such a good student of white culture for so many years and no one had to say, I’m not going to white people and say, Teach me more. It was a survival technique I had to learn right? In order to survive some of the experiences, I had in order to navigate some of the institutions I went through. So my advice would be: stop asking by people of color and start doing the work. There are so many resources at your fingertips, there are so many ways that you can observe, listen, and understand — Which is the same thing people of color have had to do for generations in order to understand how to survive, how to thrive in this country. So my advice is hold a mirror up to yourself and do the necessary work that you need to do and don’t lean on people of color in a way that burdens them to do the work that you need to be doing.
Interview Date: November 22, 2019
Story posted on July 1, 2020