• Alex Griggs

Identity Found at TinyFest Midwest

Updated: May 24

Speaking on the main stage about “Being Black in a White Van” and befriending a new found family of #nomads shifted something in my personal #identity

Man and dog stand on bridge in forest
Always looking for answers to life’s greatest questions

If you came to #TinyFest Midwest you heard me talk a lot about my identity as a Black man living the nomadic life in a van in 2020. I discussed how we all experience the external pressures of expectation and judgement of those who believe they know who we are or what we’ll do. The expectations of others often lead the guidance of our choices and actions. The fear of disappointing those we value, be it parents or friends, can be crippling to our sense of self.

The idea of adulthood comes with some preconceived notions of acceptable behavior. When I was a kid, I asked my father how people know when they are an adult. My father offered me a rare valuable answer:

“You know you’re an adult when you stop wondering what it’s like”

This was revolutionary to me. As a child considering the world, I thought there must be some moment when you feel some shift marking your transition into adulthood. And seeing as parents know everything when you’re little, this open-ended answer did not mesh with my thought process. I grew up a little when my dad gave me that answer. I had to grow to expand my understanding of the world.

As society believes many wrongs to be right, my family was treated differently. My mother is Black and my father is white. I grew up in the 90s and 2000s and was exposed to adult concepts at a young age. I myself have a light-skinned Black complexion, as does my sister and mother. My older brother was unofficially adopted by us when he was in high school. He and my father are white. This is all necessary to understand some of the societal concepts that we’ve experienced.

If you are uncomfortable with discussion about race, specifically as it pertains to the difference in treatment of Black and white people, please keep reading because you need this more than anyone.

It doesn’t take an adult to see that your mother gets ignored at the jewelry counter. It is confusing to a kid when the host of a restaurant sees your family of five enter the restaurant, and proceeds to ask your father and brother if they were a party of two. The bewilderment of the host after explaining that you are all together hurts even if you are young. Why don’t they understand you’re a family?

My first Cub Scout Pinewood Derby was marred by the discomfort of staring eyes after my father explained that I, a brown child, really was his son. I was really proud of that car. We made it together.

My mother making mountains of brownies, fudge, and cookies for every holiday so that all of the white mothers could see that she really was a great and capable mother. They still whispered.

Seeing the sales staff at the jewelry counter rush past your mother to help your father hurts. Even as a kid you can figure out what the differences between your mom and dad are.

This hurt me as a child and hurts me now. There are tears in my eyes as I write this, remembering all the times my mother, my sister, myself were mistreated or were confusing to others’ narrow corridor of acceptance.

I knew I was different. I didn’t need the world to tell me, yet they persisted. To open the can of worms that is my schoolingand the prejudice and flagrant #racism therewithin is more than I care to expose currently. Another day, maybe a book.

To put it lightly and for your consideration, my “good” friends (white) in high school thought it was a great time to call me “nigger” instead of “buddy”, or “man”, or even fucking “homie”. We don’t speak now.

While my parents wanted “the best for me” as most parents do (sometimes with or without direction or expectations) the world also told me my entire life who I was. After the 168th time of answering the question “What are you?” you become numb. You find it easier to accept peoples’ expectations than try to define yourself to them. You lose a sense of self and your life becomes a performance.

I hope you can appreciate the difficulty of a young man growing up and trying to find themselves while their families and the world wait for them to be a “MAN”. For myself, I had the added difficulty of being too white for the Black kids and too Black for the white kids my entire life. Living between cultures and people with nowhere to land means that you grow up without knowing where you belong.

I have spent the last 10 years trying to define myself. Until recently I have let the expectations of manhood and American societal norms guide my path. Because I didn’t have a place to start from I couldn’t define where I was going.

The last 10 years have been hard. Bouncing from job to job, getting kicked out of my father’s house, being so broke you resort to eating thrown out food, working nine jobs while trying to put yourself through college, and finding out too late that you have bipolar and a strong interest in whiskey are some of my favorite highlights, and that only gets you to age twenty-six.

I was rudderless. I had dreams that never materialized, that I couldn’t begin to believe that I could pursue. Self-esteem is hard to come by when you don’t know who you are.

It wasn’t all bad. I’m bumped and bruised, with a few cool scars, and all the better for it. I would do it all again proudly if I knew where I’d be now.

Black man and white woman smiling into camera on a mountaintop wearing sunglasses
The love of my life and I living our best life

Nikki and I are living a dream. Our dream. Our van is our home and we made it ourselves despite the cold, the cost, the mountain of learning, and the fear of what “people” would say.

With every hole cut, screw driven, and leap of faith that we “knew what we were doing”, we became more bonded and trusting in our decision to live Vanlife. As a person who spent so much time being lost, I could settle myself knowing that I, at least, belonged with Nikki. The power to define where you belong allows you to define who you are.

TinyFest was the end of the first leg of our trip. It changed our lives. As “the new kids” we were worried about how we would be received. This tribe of travelers and road warriors welcomed us with the widest of open arms. We immediately understood that we were all misfits and we all loved each other for those common bonds between us.

I felt valued for who I am and was given a stage, a microphone, an engaged audience, and an hour to lead a discussion on being Black and living on the road. When I stepped on the stage I felt the fear of imposter syndrome, as time and again, I had literally been told “You aren’t really Black”. The crowd was a mix of Black and white and brown faces. I had feared my audience prior to this moment. Being in Iowa as a Black man talking about #race relations across America from a ground level view at a tiny house festival, I really didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t have been happier. If you were there, thank you endlessly for accepting me.

For the first time in my life I felt comfort in my identity. I felt strength in who I am. I felt the confidence to introduce myself to the world as the person that I have decided to be.

My name is Alex Griggs. I am a tall, tattooed, Black man with a beautiful, gifted, tattooed, white, wife. We live in our home that we proudly built ourselves (thanks Adam), in a van, on the road, on a trip to nowhere and everywhere, with a wonderful little fur baby named Lucy Gray. I have Bipolar2 and major depression/anxiety disorders and if you need to talk, I am here. I wear black clothes and play guitar really well. I care about you as I hope the world cares about me. I am proud of everything I have, who we are, and how I define myself.

Nice to meet you.

Want to see more of our van adventures and hear our thoughts about racism experienced on the road? Chat with us on Instagram @theadventuringgriggs

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