This is 30: Danté Stewart Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"I have lived a lot and have experienced a lot for someone who is my age."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, minister, essayist, and cultural critic Danté Stewart responds. - Sari Botton
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
I often think about me as a young 16-year-old football player-musician-all-American-video gamer, trying to be cool and liked by my peers, and trying to make use of the cards that I have in my hand. There is a picture that I keep in my journal. It’s me as a teenager. I have on a green fleece, baggy blue jeans, with a white durag covered halfway by a black skull cap. I am sitting between my cousin, Darius, and a friend of another cousin. In my hand there is a deck of cards. I’m about to smack some heads in taunt—or at least that’s what I believe, though I ain’t telling nobody I don’t know how to play. So this image reminds me of that time. I go back there often. A young man. A deck of cards. Lying. Having fun. Faking it until I actually made it. I could not have imagined what cards I would be dealt in life, but eventually I would learn how to play my hand. You just might lose. But you just might win.
In these 30 years, I have been many things to many people—football player, son, friend, employee, minister, mentee, etc.—but with 30, something hit that made me ask: what do I want to be for myself?
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I mean, yeah a little for real. I think because in this short time, 30 years (wow), I have lived a lot and have lost a lot and have learned a lot and have, more than anything, loved a lot and been broke and put together again by each of those “l” words. But then, I feel I’m just right. I got everything I need and more—more than so many my age and where I’m from actually got a chance to experience. So for me, I do feel old but then there is a part of it that is a grace. I don’t know if “in step” is the best way to put it. Or even out of step. I, like so many my age, are learning how to do this thing called life without being too overwhelmed and overcome by the expectations of perfection while doing the best we can to dream and go get what we see with our minds and feel in our soul. I’m stepping “with” my peers. That’s it. Stepping with.
What do you like about being your age?
I really like the idea that at 30 there has been a switch that turned on for me that made me really want some things for myself at this age that at previous ages I didn’t allow myself to be or become. In these 30 years, I have been many things to many people—football player, son, friend, employee, minister, mentee, etc.—but with 30, something hit that made me ask: what do I want to be for myself? Now of course, me being the go-get-it-until-the-insecurity-dies type of person, oftentimes I find myself caught up with what others say about me, what I have or don’t have, what I am and what I used to be, that I realize there’s so much to grow out of it. I do feel something like a kid that still is longing for that affirmation that sees me as someone who is another’s first choice. That’s that. But then on the other hand, I have never been so grounded, so confident, so patient, so imaginative at any other point in my life.
I often think about me as a young 16-year-old football player-musician-all-American-video gamer, trying to be cool and liked by my peers, and trying to make use of the cards that I have in my hand.
The other day, as we were walking out of the house, my son looked up to the right, staring at the books around him in the office and said, “I’m going to be a writer.” He’s 3, almost 4. So full of creativity and language, he has seen something in his daddy that he wants to become. That’s a gift, a grace, a responsibility. He says that he wants to be like me. That’s love right there. I really, really like that he can say that at 3, when I’m 30, and that he can experience that as the first thing he wants to become and not have to wait to dream a bit because others are pressuring him or forcing him to become what they want. I like that at 30, he has found a daddy who has given him the freedom of choosing—a freedom I’m still trying to find and that he, when he gets this age, will have to find. But a freedom, nonetheless.
What is difficult about being your age?
If I can be straight with you, it’s the ability to celebrate what I already have without losing the edge to work for what I don’t. Thirty is like this golden year where there is the public pressure to “be” something at some “point,” lest you be seen as a failure rather than a late bloomer. It’s hard to strike the balance between gratitude and grace and patience and the terrifying possibility that I have missed a moment or my moment. I have done great things at such a young age. I really struggle with actually calling those things great because I feel there is so much I can still accomplish. That’s hard. On one level, my family is good. I do what I love. But then on another level, I compare myself by the worst in me and the best in other people. That’s one difficulty.
Another difficulty is managing what I have on my plate while also taking care of my soul and body. At this age, it’s like the age of possibility, dreaming—your margin is longggggg and wideeeeee to try new things and do stuff you wouldn’t have imagined. This means that it’s hard to rest and relax, take breaks, get away, go into seclusion and solitude. I’m working on that right now. Little by little.
Thirty is like this golden year where there is the public pressure to “be” something at some “point,” lest you be seen as a failure rather than a late bloomer. It’s hard to strike the balance between gratitude and grace and patience and the terrifying possibility that I have missed a moment or my moment.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I think the surprising thing is that I thought that I would be secure in who I am by name. I mean I know that like the 20s are about exploration and the 30s are about finally settling somewhat into what and who you are, but I’m finding each day that there are things about myself that I’m continually discovering. Like I never realized how much I actually like my own space and being on my own time. Nor did I realize that at 30, you could actually be living out a dream and seeing all the possibilities that someone else may believe can only come with time. So yeah, I think that’s it.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
I think it has given me both wisdom and maturity. I have lived a lot and have experienced a lot for someone who is my age. Now, of course, I’m not saying that I have experienced more than someone else has, but being who I am and doing what I do, I have learned a lot about myself and what it means to do the type of work I’m trying to do. It takes intuition, discipline, empathy, and most of all self-love and belief. Being accountable to others, meaning my family and the tradition of work I’m in, makes me think a lot more about awareness and being in the world as a person who is steadily moving forward toward something. I think it was James Baldwin who said that it is in the journeying toward that thing that he does not understand—meaning the journey of discovering who we are and what God has us here for—that makes him better. I believe that, too. That’s what I’ve been given: the wisdom and maturity of becoming better.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
Of course, the older I get, I realize the more I change. Like there is the type of change that comes from experience. Then there is the type of change that comes from decision. Between both of those polarities, one will discover a different view of yourself. So back in the day, when I was in certain areas, I found myself assimilating in ways that harmed me and others. It would take time before I actually saw how deep the problems were. This means that I would have to change. Age doesn’t guarantee that we will be different but it does hold out the possibility that with time, we can become a better version of ourselves.
I share a birthday with Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde …So I make sure that I read and sit with their work on that day.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
Okay, so I have a lot of people, like a lot of people. The first names I think of are Jason Reynolds, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, Sarah Broom, Robert Jones Jr., Deesha Philyaw, Maurice Ruffin, Nic Stone, Darnell Moore and Viet Thanh Nguyen. I mean they ain’t old, but they also ain’t 30 either. What I’ve found is that since I’ve known them, I’ve been inspired because each of them has a coming-of-age story that follows a path of disappointment, re-invention, courage, and self-belief. Like at their age, they are living out some of the dreams I desire for my children and my family. I look at them and say, “Wow, when I get to your age, I hope I’m as inspiring to another as you are to me.” Each of them is secure in themselves, have had to depend on themselves, and most of all, as they grow older, the circle of their work and the space they create for others grows wider. That’s inspiring. Now, above all of them, it’s my grandma, Margaret Elizabeth Albert. There is no one I aspire to be more like as I get older than like my grandmother. It’s too much to write about and I’m saving that for essays and the next book, but suffice it to say, she deserves the world.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
On every birthday, I write a letter to myself reflecting on the past year, its dreams and doubts, and then I write a letter to my future self about what I hope for that person. I share a birthday with Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde as well. So I make sure that I read and sit with their work on that day. I think now, being older, I notice how little I take time to celebrate myself. So for my 31st birthday, I think I’ll do something bigger. There is a grace in getting older that deserves sustained, intimate, and joyful time, noting and remembering. There are so many ways we die. That is true. But there are also so many ways we live. And because that is the case, I believe we deserve that time to live as mindfully as we can in them.
Dante-your Oldster post prompted me to buy and read your book- Shoutin' In The Fire: An American Epistle. Very well written and an interesting writing style...sort of a free association- free flowing thoughts- building one on another. Enjoyed it very much. Hope to read more of your works!!!
Oh, man. This brought back all my 30-something angst and self-imposed pressure to be and do and appreciate and work, work, work. Danté, thank you. I read through your blog, put your book on my list, and listened to an interview with you. I really like what you have to say and hope you keep saying it for a long, long time.