Seeing The World Through A Lens
W.O.R.D.S (Writers Organize to Represent Diverse Stories) President David Gaines is a graduating English major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The son of a prominent Philadelphia pastor, Gaines has adopted his father’s goals of caring for his community and motivating others through his words. We sat down with David to talk about his journey to self-acceptance, J. Cole, and rejecting respectability politics.
Nadia: When did you decide to be an English major
David: I was DUS for two years, but I always knew I wanted to be an English major. That was the only thing I knew coming into Penn State. I love to write, so it was kind of a no brainer.
N: Was there ever any doubt or confusion?
D: I always felt like an outsider in my major, because everyone reads all these books and everyone’s like “did you read Shakespeare?” and I’m like, nah but I write poetry sometimes. So I’ve always felt sort of weird in my major. Also, when I declared my major I was an English and Film major then I went to the English and Theatre double major, then this semester is my only semester as just an English major so I can graduate on time. So there’s always been a little bit of confusion about what else to do on top of writing, but it’s always been writing for me.
N: How were you going to incorporate film and theatre into your writing?
D: Film was because I want to be a screen writer. That is a long term goal for me. I would love to create television that explores concepts of blackness in the way that Blackish does. I want to get more realistic portrayals of Black people on television, which I think it important. Theatre was just for performance. I’ve always been an actor. I was a part of this Christian production company which is how I knew I loved to act. But I love writing more. I wasn’t that into the poetry scene at Penn State at first. Davon [Clark] is really the one who got me into it. When I saw that my performance and the writing could come together in this way, I just kind of went with it.
N:When did you first hear about W.O.R.D.S.?
D: Second semester freshman year. I just looked it up in the student directory, no one told me about it. I just googled it and came to the meeting in Willard, and immediately I just felt good about it. This was when they had a mic there at every meeting and people would just go up to the mic. There was no discussion, it was loose. It was just people wanting to share what they had. Ever since then I knew I had to be a part of it. Performance team auditions came up and I got in somehow. Definitely was the worst on the team at the time, and the rest is history I guess.
N: Who were the people in W.O.R.D.S. at the time who kept you in the org?
D: It was the performance team. So Sierra, Davon, Fatima, Jerrie, Femi, it really felt like a family. And I was a freshman so this space was really important for me. This was when I was really still finding myself, I didn’t know much about myself and at the time, W.O.R.D.S. was really the Blackest thing I was a part of. At the time, outside of coming from a suburban high school, the part of me that craved being around my own people was the same part of me bringing me to W.O.R.D.S. The stories they were telling really resonated with me. The stories I was hearing growing up in the church program – they were all white so it wasn’t really something I could connect to. It was a very important space to me at the time.
N: Who is the perfect student for WORDS right now? Who needs WORDS the most?
D: W.O.R.D.S. has been very important, particularly for freshman. Marginalized students, especially those who come to a PWI and are immediately feeling alienated and weird or out of place, W.O.R.D.S. is a refuge for people who recognize that they have something to offer. There are no normal people in W.O.R.D.S. W.O.R.D.S. is not for normal people. We all have something to bring to the table. So many people feel like they cant offer anything or feel like they don’t have anything to offer, but they do. It’s for anyone who has something to say, but doesn’t feel like they have the space to say it anywhere else on campus, who needs to be surrounded by people who also feel different from mainstream culture. W.O.R.D.S. isn’t any particular type of person. It’s just people who don’t want to be alone.
N:Was it a culture shock for you coming to Penn State?
D: It was. It wasn’t as big as some students who come from, say, the inner city, but I was surrounded by white folk my entire life. Coming here was still overwhelming. Even at my high school I knew where I could go to be around people who look like me, who talk like me, watch the same shows as me, listen to the same shows as me etc. I felt like – at Penn State – there is a me that exists in white spaces. I have to diplomatic, I have to engage a part of myself that adheres more to white culture. But I’m learning to be the Blackest I can be, and be my entire self in every space no matter what. But it got to the point once where it was all the time. My roommate was white, it seemed that in every place I went to I was putting on a front. A white front. I didn’t go to the PRCC my entire freshman year, cause I didn’t feel Black enough.
The culture shock came when I found my culture. That was when I joined W.O.R.D.S. and I started coming around the PRCC and people were liking me. I think that’s when I realized my Black is just as good as any. I wasn’t scared anymore. The more I learned about my own culture and my own history the more I distanced myself from things like THON. I didn’t just become distant; I became angry in those situations. There was one kid on a THON committee who always made racist jokes. And no one was checking him. I remember one party, we were drinking and he said some joke and I almost fought him. Everyone was pulling me back and I was thinking “you’re gonna check me and not him?”. After that I never went to another meeting, and I really distanced myself. I compare that moment to when Frederick Douglass learned how to read, and the discontent you have after you learn your worth and see yourself being treated as less than that. I was bothered. So I put my energy into W.O.R.D.S., which helped me grow with my culture.
N: When was the first moment you had to grow up fast?
D: When my dad got sick, with cancer of the throat. I’ve always been the kid that was overprotective, and when my dad got sick, my identity was so based off of him that I realized I didn’t know who I was. I went on this bend after he got sick of growing up by doing dumb stuff, taking on too many new responsibilities. My dad has always been this strong figure in my [and my siblings’] lives as a pastor and a father. When he couldn’t be there anymore as that strong figure, I had to stand tall and grow up. My father went through chemo treatments and he would be throwing up everywhere so I had to pick him up off the bathroom floor. That level of sick was something I had never seen before. For a while, I felt -not that I didn’t have a father- but that it was my time to step in his role for a little bit.
N: Does that protective nature play a role in how you function as a leader?
D: Absolutely, I think that’s why I take everything that happens in W.O.R.D.S. so personally. I’m trying to work on that. When we say W.O.R.D.S. is a family, it means that even for some of the more problematic people in W.O.R.D.S, I’m going to feel a protectiveness of them. It’s something I’m really trying to work on because we are a family, but I’m going to be leaving soon. In every relationship I’ve been in – romantic or not – I always want to make sure everything is okay, and take care of them. That definitely stems from the protectiveness.
N: Who’s your biggest role model?
D: I’ve had different role models for different reasons. As a child I would definitely say my dad was my role model, because everything I know about leadership comes from him. When I was a kid, our church that my dad was a pastor in was really big at the time, and I was looking around like “I’m gonna run this jawn.” Seeing my dad have grown men who looked up to him as a father was what made him a role model. I didn’t think he had any flaws. In more recent years, I started looking to musicians as role models. I gravitated toward artists like J. Cole. I’ve always wished I could have someone I could just emulate and look up to in every single regard. Obviously, J. Cole is a flawed human being and could be better in a lot of ways. So I’ve been searching for that perfect person to look up to, but until then he’s [J. Cole] what I have. Artists have always been my role model.
N: What do you hope that students who look up to you see when they look at you?
D: I think people see genuineness. Sometimes I wish I was that guy who could fake it. My face tells it all, though. When I feel anything, you can see it in my eyes. People comment a lot on the way I look at people, but there’s some sort of honesty that always comes through my eyes. Maybe it’s because I lied to myself and hid myself for so long that now I can’t hide the way I feel. I hope that they see – even in my mistakes – someone who tried, who followed their passion and what they thought was right. I hope that they see in me the need for self-acceptance. When I was in high school I would go to school some days pretending to be someone else so people would like me better. At the end of the day on the bus I would evaluate myself. “How do you feel? Still depressed. That one didn’t work.” And things like that. I went to school acting like Kevin Hart, like my older cousin Matthew who was a finalist on The Voice. I tried to be people who were cheery all the time and positive but at the end of the day I was still sad. You get confidence when you stop looking for acceptance outside of yourself.
N: Do you still feel pressure to adhere to respectability?
D: Absolutely. I’m at a large institution with a higher status. I used to love surprising white people. I loved being “the articulate one” and “the exception.” But now, I hate it. I resent it because now I see where their expectations are and I’m burdened by how low they are. Especially being in these white spaces where people have a lot more privilege than I do. I was raised Christian, and in being raised to be a leader, I was also raised to be respectable. In every space that I’ve been in I’ve taken on the role of saying “I’m glad y’all like me, but you need to expand your notion of what is respectable and what is the right kind of Black.” I’ve got mad respect for my childhood friend in Philly who got arrested twice, he was always the guy with all the tattoos, has a kid he never sees, and I respect this man more than a lot of people I know. These are traits in a person that mainstream society looks down on, and I don’t understand why people respect me and not people like him. There have been points in time when I did feel like a sell-out. But because of the privilege related to class and things like that, I think that it’s the responsibility of the privileged to use what they have to fight for others, too.