Upright and Truthful
BY TAMIKA DUNKLEY
Throughout my scholastic career, I’m praised for being a “Wonderful straight-A student.” I’m the student body president and the leader in multiple choirs and bands. I spent six to seven days at church. I attend every bible study, worship service, and benefit. From a young age, I’m taught to walk with a certain persona; there was a level of professionalism and grace I’m expected to carry myself with. No matter how I feel or who I really want to be. Who I am doesn’t matter, as long as my family appears to be perfect. So much so that people began to label us as the “Sultan Family Show.”
But now, I’m 15 years old, sitting in the car, parked behind the church. I take a deep breath. I look down at my belly and then quickly into the rearview mirror. I shift my focus from myself to the double-pane doors. Through the stained glass, I can see all the people attentively watching the pastor at the pulpit. I want to go back home. I have avoided this moment for several months, and the internal build-up is all but unbearable. I can no longer hide. I know public shaming is in store for me, but I’m praying it won’t be as bad as I expect.
As I slowly climb up the steps, holding myself up on the banister. Our eyes meet. I see the look of shock and disappointment immediately sweep over his face.
“How far along are you?” the Deacon asks. I say, “I’m 7 months.” I take a deep breath and brace myself for this long journey.
I somehow survive the next few months and triumph over the scorn from all the people in my life. Being the daughter of a pastor or any prominent person in the community is not easy. When you grow up surrounded by the church and find yourself pregnant out of wedlock, that is shameful enough. But being a pregnant teenager makes it even worse. People feel free to comment on any of the challenges in your life. It is as though one mistake makes everyone feel they all of a sudden know your story.
I am well aware of the hypocrisy. I know all of their deepest secrets, the things they struggle with, the things they go to counseling for. You see, all pastors talk to each other behind closed doors, or not so closed doors. I wonder if they know that their secrets are not so secret anymore. All that doesn’t matter anyway; they all felt they have a right to pass judgment on my life. Now, I’m “no good,” “troubled,” and “a bad influence” to their children.
Now the same people my life has been built around see me as less than, incompetent, and label me as fast. “It’s an epidemic,” people say. “Why would you do that?” As if I don’t know your husband was trying to take me home with him at the gas station just a few months prior. As if I don’t know you are buying drugs right after church. As if your daughter isn’t the one who encouraged me to do what she was doing.
I’m not the type to confront people. I’m not going to fight back. I’m not going to “put their business out there.” The truth doesn’t matter. I allow others to create my history as the month's pass and my belly grows. I remove myself from the line of fire; I stay to myself and, most importantly, away from them. Finally, a few months later, I walk back into the church with my baby, only a few weeks old. I take the front entrance. I’m trembling inside but do my best to muster up false confidence, prepared to confront the naysayers’ and so-called “do-gooders.”
As soon as I enter, a woman I have quite literally known my whole life pulls me in. She brings me to the front of the stage and holds my hand. I feel every cell in my body pulsing. I can’t think and can barely stand. I know she feels the sweat on my palms; she grips my hand. The baby feels like a bag of cement in my arms.
“Dear Lord, I pray for your heavenly protection for Tamika. I pray that you cover her and keep her from her path of sin. I pray that she will no longer be living as a sinner but will keep the trials of the flesh far from her. She will no longer live in disgrace from you…”
She continues, but I tune her out and keep my eyes closed as I feel compelled to blurt out her truths. That her daughter, only slightly older than me, has done much worse than me and worse than she could ever imagine. The difference is I was not covering up, shying away from my mistakes. I’m facing them head-on.
She’s a white woman with a Black husband, just like my parents. There was always some underlying competition that they subjected me to, and now I have provided the fuel she needs to shame me publicly.
After this public berating ceases, I stare out in front of the sea of faces; over 300 people are in attendance that morning. I go to the bathroom, and I stare at my son until the only thing I see is the outlining of his head through my tears. I let him know that I am not going to be what they condemned me to be. I will rise above that. I see nothing but love and innocence, staring back at me, and I feel peace. At that moment, I decide that anyone who wants to tell me he is anything but a blessing doesn’t have my best interest at heart.
My whole world becomes him. But despite my promise to him and myself, I struggle. I struggle through school. I’m still an above-average student- but who is going to watch the baby? How am I going to get to and from school? How am I going to provide food for him as he grows?
Although my parents try to support me in their own way, I can no longer conform to their right idea. I can no longer be subjected to the phony understanding or perception of who God is or who I am. They have to be who they are, and I have to be myself, and as a result, I find myself homeless a little over a year later. And, because I was so young, there are no services available to me.
I walk out of the DSS building, pushing my one-year-old child in the middle of winter with nowhere to go. I find a coffee shop half a mile away, and I use my last $1.25 to buy a cup of tea so I can sit there.
That semester, I stay in 9 places and somehow manage to attend and pass all my classes. I know that if I’m to fulfill my promise and create any resemblance of stability in my son’s life, I have to provide financially. I study nursing, a profession I never wanted, but it would enable me to care for my son with a 2-year degree, so at 19 years old, I officially become a Registered Nurse. I excel within my studies, attaining a bachelor’s degree less than a year later and being placed in a supervisory position within that same year.
I named my son Amitai —it’s Hebrew meaning is upright and truthful. I named him for the purpose I saw in his life before he was born. Now, a teen himself, an avid reader enrolled in the early college program, is living up to his powerful name.
With my family's support, I have been able to rekindle my dreams and pursue my own purpose. I continue to work as a nurse from time to time, but it’s not because I have to; it’s because I want to.
My husband and I own a successful food company. Because of this, we’ve been able to create a non-profit organization that allows us to help other people change their life narratives and pursue their dreams.
Over the years and through many trials and tribulations, I have developed my own relationship with God, the universe, our ancestors, whatever name you choose. But most importantly, I have found myself.
Rita’s story was originally written and performed as part of TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter program. Black Stories Matter provides Black-led true storytelling workshops where Black folks can write about, share, and reflect upon their experiences without having to justify, explain, or defend the truth of their lived experiences. The culminating content — written stories, live storytelling performances, videos, and podcasts — is accessible to an all-inclusive audience.