I Grew Up With Vanessa Williams

Vanessa Williams
By Angela George, CC BY-SA 3.0

I grew up in a city just outside Detroit in an average middle-class family. Growing up in a single-family household headed by my mother, my younger sister, Danielle, and I were always inseparable. We had a pretty tight-knit family and my sister and I were also very close with our grandparents.

Our grandparents lived across the street so we saw them every day. On Sunday mornings we would still be sleeping when my grandfather would bang on the door to wake us up. He brought croissants and doughnuts and we would have coffee together. Both of my grandparents were hard workers raised in Michigan. Their own parents were from Mexico, and their strong family values were passed from generation to generation. My close family ties were a significant influence in shaping who I am now, and will become in the future when I am raising my own family.

Growing up in a predominately white area when my sister and I were younger was a little hard. I was always one of the few kids, if not the only kid in my class who was not white. Even though I am mixed race, I was very dark skinned compared to my white classmates. My sister came out a total opposite, not looking Mexican at all. Always being different among my peers, as well as in my own family, prepared me for later on in life when I would have to face being different in a totally new way: I am gay.

Being gay was something I always knew about myself, and even while very young I knew that this also made me different. I liked girls for sure; loved many of them, and even had a thing for black girls. To this day all my favorite female celebrities are black, but I never had any doubt that I was gay.

One of my favorite celebrities was the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams. I remember being very young while riding in the car with my mom when one of her songs came on the radio. I remember hearing she was the first black Miss America and I was awestruck. Even at such a young age I found her to be fascinating because she was a “first” in history. I thought it would be richly rewarding to be the first to do something, especially if you didn’t really try. Williams’ goal was not to become the first black Miss America; she entered the contest to try and win scholarship money towards school. Her main goal was not to become a “beauty queen” but to become a success; to excel in theatre, to be able to perform music, make movies, write, become a mother, and succeed in so many other things that I still find her drive to be successful so inspiring. Ever since that one car ride I have felt I could relate to her in many ways and I know that is another reason why I have always loved her. I still find her life story interesting, and believe she is a woman to be admired for her talent, accomplishments, and for her integrity.

Up until middle school the area I grew up in slowly became more mixed. Now, people from all walks of life, races, ethnicities, were part of an evolving community. By the time I began attending high school, the student body was a huge mix, and truthfully, I loved it. It was cool that my over-populated school was jam packed with students who were all so different; a true academic melting pot.

Growing up in a family with a mixed racial background you learn to appreciate everything that different races bring. Also, being from outside Detroit I was exposed to a lot of black influences in the area and growing up, all of my friends were black. I really didn’t have many white friends until later in high school. When I was a little older and got back into horseback riding it opened the door to making more white friends. Riding is a predominately white sport and I made a lot of new friends. But being “different” myself, other people’s differences did not matter to me and I was definitely one of those students who was friends with people in all the different groups of people in high school.

Sometimes life throws some pretty hard stuff at you and my mom has always taught us how to make it work and get through it all okay. A lot of the credit for my being able to deal with so many different things in life surely belongs to my mother because of the example she set for us. When Danielle and I were really young she worked two jobs to support us because our fathers were not around. I learned from her values and ethics, even without consciously knowing it at the time that hard work is enviable. She showed me that if you have to work a bit harder at something, the way to approach is head on– if it must be done, then it must be done. Due to her influence, I always worked, and had a job even throughout high school, and the summer before I left for college in West Virginia I even had two jobs.

My mom raising my sister and me as a solo parent obviously had a huge influence on me. Not only was she our mother, sole provider, and protector, she was someone who instilled inner strength and core values in me, that as an adult, I still find valuable. There are people who live a picture perfect lifestyle and they turn into messed up adults. Considering how my sister and I were raised, and when I look at other young adults, even in my own family, I sometimes wonder “wow, shouldn’t me or Danielle be messed up?” Although neither my sister nor I are perfect by any means, I think as a twenty-six-year-old who lives on his own, works full time and is in school, and my sister who works and is also in school, it shows that we seem to be doing okay.

Growing up I learned from my family and experiences that being different isn’t a bad thing; it just means we each have our own special gifts and talents to offer. When we celebrate the things that make us unique, we can reach our full potential, like Vanessa Williams, one of my childhood influences did. Because it is the difference we make in life, not the differences we have, the truly set us apart.