By Jacob A. English
Not your typical origin story.
"Why is your skin so dark?" I was five years old. I didn't know how to answer the question launched by my classmate. No one had ever asked me that question. I never consciously thought about the complexion of my skin until that moment. The question was followed by statements, statements that were demoralizing in tone and cadence. "Your skin is dark. Your skin is darker than mine." When my mom came to pick me up, I was visibly upset. She asked me what was wrong, and I shared with her the shocking discovery about my skin, its' flaws, and the burden it placed on my classmate (in my five-year-old vernacular). My mom looked at me, and with love only a mother knows and the power of a queen, she said, "You are dark. We have the same skin. Our skin is beautiful. You are my Darkness." From that day on, that was my name - Darkness. I wore it like a badge of honor. And sometimes that affirmation helped, and sometimes it didn't. On that day, it helped.
Also, at that moment, I was not only exposed to the concept of difference, but I was made aware of a byproduct of acknowledging differences - comparisons. The comparison seed was planted, and unfortunately, it bloomed in silence until it planted roots and became a permanent fixture in my life. It wasn't until my late 20s that my mother's words surfaced and contributed to a paradigm shift. Thank God for her seed. How many people know that multiple seeds can be planted at once?
At this point, I am sure that you are wondering about the title. Why is this article titled "Introducing, For Chambers"? This is not your typical company introduction. Well, I'm not a typical person, and this is not a typical company. Through my lived experiences and the stories of others, I created For Chambers with the hopes of creating a community of folx, like entrepreneurs, educators, artists, creators, athletes, and students, who 1) understand the negative mental impact of comparisons, 2) have decided to celebrate their journey now (not waiting until its "perfect"), and 3) need a reminder and be empowered every now and then.
For me, my journey includes colorism, racism, homophobia, and privilege (and lack of). Your journey may include insecurity, bullying, depression, guilt, intrusive thoughts, or food insecurity. I believe that you must name these uncomfortable topics to take away their power. And although those areas are a part of our journeys, those things are not all that we are. Our journeys also include love, peace, happiness, success, victory, healing, forgiveness, friendship, self-acceptance, and giving. We are divinely created. I want to share how my journey thus far led to the creation and launch of For Chambers. So, if you stay with me a little bit longer, I will tell you my story.
My complexion was frequently under attack. In fifth grade, one of my classmates, while the teacher left the room, stood up and read, "Jacob is so black jokes" that his older brother wrote the night before. I went to a predominantly Black elementary school. In middle school, I was one of two Black boys in my whole class. The other Black boy was my best friend. He was light-skinned. We were always treated differently – me with suspicion and him always with the benefit of the doubt. In high school, a predominantly white private high school, the attacks on my complexion were more implicit and insidious.
I wasn't only darker than my classmates, but I was an athlete, which compounded my experiences with racism and stereotypes. For example, I've always loved to write, and poetry is my favorite genre. I remember writing a poem for my English class, and when the teacher returned it to me, she asked, "Did you write this?" I was so confused. I had to ask her three times what she meant. I told her, "yes," and she didn't believe me, but she could not prove otherwise. I didn't know whether to be flattered or offended. I landed somewhere in the middle. Also, I never "tested" into the higher-level courses in high school. I didn't think I was smart for a very long time. Don't feel sorry for me. I don't feel sorry for me. At the time, I did not understand the impact of these experiences, but now I do. I was in training.
During that time, I remember constantly wishing that I was someone else. I wished I was more attractive - more masculine – more like anyone other than me. My best friend from middle school (the other Black kid) and I remained best friends in high school until I ruined the friendship. My comparisons (which led to jealousy) ruined the friendship. He seemed to be doing well in life, and I wanted what he had. I wanted a bigger house. I wanted better clothes. I wanted better friends. I wanted more money. I wanted to go on better vacations. I struggled with self-acceptance. I tried to sabotage myself on multiple occasions. For example, when choosing colleges, I applied to only schools that did not have a Track and Field team. I wanted to compete, but I was scared to compete at the collegiate level, so I thought if I took away the option, then I wouldn’t have to address the fear. I was comparing my talents to other athletes. If my sabotage had succeeded, I would have never pursued Track and Field in college; and at one point, I considered not even going to college.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first year in college, and my friend told me about this new website where you could connect with other college students from across the United States. I just purchased a computer with my refund check, so I could not wait to go back to my room and join the crowd. Facebook. I remember sitting in my dorm room and creating my Facebook account. Lawd, they should have added a disclaimer – "If you let it - may cause comparisons that lead to distress!" I wasn't ready! During the rise of social media, we all encountered access to people's lives in a way that we had not experienced before. The access led to a comparison culture.
I thought I was happy. I had overcome many of my fears. I decided to run track in college. I was actually doing pretty well. I had broken the school record in the triple jump during my first year, which led to me receiving an athletic scholarship for the rest of my time in school. But I still wasn't happy. Even with my newfound position in the world, I was comparing my progress to others, which diminished my accomplishments. Their pictures told me that I should be doing more, have more, and experience more at my age. Why was I not going on trips for spring break? Where was my selfie in Greece? I became miserable as the feelings were pervasive. Over time, minor thoughts contributed to a robust mindset that spilled over into my everyday conversations and altered how I viewed myself and others. Awards didn't excite me. Trips stopped exciting me. More money didn't excite me. My friends weren't enough. I always felt like I could be doing more, doing better, and I wanted more. Let me be very clear. Technology is not the problem. Social media is not the problem. The problem was how I chose to interact with these mediums. Consciously, I knew that, but that was not my reality.
Then, I had a paradigm shift.
I remember competing at a track meet, and I was performing miserably (I was a long and triple jumper). See - one of the top-ranked jumpers was at the meet, and I began to compare myself to him. I began to question my preparation, strategy, and form. I don't know if it was the endorphins, if I was just over the self-imposed pressure caused by my comparisons, or both; but my perspective changed that day. I realized that continually comparing myself to others was only going to be a distraction. I couldn't keep putting myself down based on the false narratives I was creating. So, I dug deep and snapped myself out my self-defeating mindset, and on that day, I came in first place. Now, my behavior didn't change overnight. Remember, I had a well-structured system of comparison from years and years of practice. However, this was the start I needed. I used my newfound viewpoint to change my life for the better, gradually. I had plenty of moments after that where I compared myself to other people, but now, I was better equipped to identify the unfruitful habit and adjust over time. This newfound freedom contributed to my growth, my clarity, and my overall satisfaction with life. I had no time for negative energy, people's judgment, or who was doing what, and it felt good.
I went on to break my university's long and triple jump records, named the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Outstanding Field Performer in 2008, named the CAA Scholar-Athlete of the Year for Men's Track and Field in 2008, and became a CoSIDA Academic All-American that same year. In 2019, I was inducted into the Georgia State Athletics Hall of Fame. Although affirming, my path towards self-acceptance was not for the accolades, it was for freedom.
Relativity of Success
As I reflect on my earlier experiences, I am immensely grateful for my mother's words. I didn't completely understand the gravity of her words at the age of five, but they resurfaced when I was ready. "You are my Darkness" - words that brought me light. My mother's words gave me strength then and continue to give me power. Her words instilled in me the courage to embrace my differences, understand that people are different, and thoughtfully engage with differences. It was as if at that moment at school, my mother knew that she had to start preparing me for the world and its ways. She knew how people would see me. She knew that if I were going to be successful that she had to help me develop a strong sense of self to thwart those who would try to place their views of life on me. Thank you, mom.
We live in a culture of comparison. We are continually assessing our progress using someone else's rubric or scale of achievement and happiness. Do yourself a favor and stop. If you think you can look at a picture or have one conversation with someone and understand their journey, then you are ignorant and arrogant. That's right – ignorant and arrogant – unaware of what you don't know and brazenly egotistical in thinking that you do know.
Success is relative. There is no one way to be successful. There are multiple ways to accomplish your goals. You can't worry about what someone else is doing. Now, there is a difference between modeling the behavior of someone that inspires you and comparing your life to someone else. You should have role models and mentors to provide you with insight, but comparisons have an innate ability to exclude your own strengths from your journey.
For Chambers was born out of this clarity. I love clothes, revel in the power of words, I love to write, and I value education. I never thought that I could create something that would combine my passions in any meaningful way, but I have. I hope you fall in love with our mission and vision. I hope that our apparel and content inspire you.
I have struggled. I have fallen. I have made mistakes. My journey has been complex, and I have endured self-inflicting hardships. Yet, I have no regrets because I have triumphed. I have gotten up. I have learned many lessons. I developed the strength to navigate stereotypes, set boundaries, and set my own expectations. So, when people ask me what is For Chambers, I say: It is this. It is life. It is this journey. It is failure. It is success. It is hope. It is defeat. It is lessons learned. But more importantly, it is love. It is a community.