Lessons we learned by 19

Sharika Davis, Kenny Davis’ mother as a teenager. Photos courtesy of Kenny Davis.

“Nothing in this world is given to you for free. Life is going to kick your ass, and you have to learn to get up each and every time.”

I always resented the unforgiving coldness behind these words. The undertones of deep-seated pain hidden beneath the surface. It made me uncomfortable, this way of looking at life. I never wanted to imagine that for myself. In many ways, she ended up being right. Struggle is no stranger to me, and I’ve gracefully learned how to fail. Life has definitely kicked my ass, and I’ve gotten up each and every time. I tell myself that I can take the punches. Too often, I wish that I didn’t have to.

I am proud to say that I come from a family dominated by incredibly stubborn, unapologetically fierce, beautiful badass Black women. Borne from their mother’s sacrifices and forged by the challenges they faced, each and every one of them poured their blood, sweat and tears into building a better life for themselves. 

The traditional narrative surrounding Black women glorifies their proximity to struggle, painting it as a necessary catalyst for Black resilience. Generations of Black girls are taught to accept strife as being essential to their lives and to be endured without complaint. Yet what many fail to realize is that one size does not fit all. This mentality can sometimes bear wounds. They are still bleeding.

At 19 years old, my great-grandmother was well acquainted with the unforgiving responsibilities of adulthood. Confronted with the complexities of marriage and caring for her 1-year-old daughter, she did not have the luxury of making mistakes during young adulthood.

Shirley Conaway, Kenny Davis’ great-grandmother

Shirley Conaway with two of her children

Having never finished high school, her main priority was to secure a job to ensure the survival of her family. She regretted this for the rest of her life, and she fought to make sure her children received the academic opportunities unavailable to her. When her marriage turned emotionally and physically abusive, she faced the inconceivable reality of becoming a single mother with nine children. She never experienced young adulthood — it was snuffed out by the unrelenting demands of motherhood. 

Although I’ll never know for sure, I don’t believe the narrative that she endured these struggles with unfaltering strength. With nine lives depending on her, I know she must have experienced moments of severe doubt and vulnerability. Yet despite all odds, she prevailed. 

At 19 years old, my grandmother was also a young mother primarily dedicated to granting her daughter the opportunities that were never afforded to her. The moment she graduated from high school, she instantly knew that college was not an option. Working from 4 to midnight every day, she endured separation anxiety from her daughter as she carved out a living for her family. According to her, her goals and priorities were extraordinarily simple: to give her daughter a childhood filled with the comfort and happiness that she felt was missing from her own. 

Sandy Shields, Kenny Davis’ grandmother.
Sandy Shields in her 20s.

At 19 years old, my mother was a sophomore in college furthering her education as a biology major. Working two jobs while maintaining her grades was a challenge — one that she does not look back on with fondness. Being a first-generation college student placed a weight upon her shoulders. Being the trailblazer of the family was not a choice but a burden that she carried with her head held high. 

With no one to guide her on the tougher aspects of college, she was frustrated. Confused. Hyper-aware of her extreme accomplishment of attending college and riddled with fear of not finishing. For her, college a generational barrier that she was lucky enough to break but had no idea how to endure. 

Sharika Davis holding Kenny Davis as a baby.

At 19 years old,  I’ve finally accepted the harsh realities that have been thrown at me, even if I did so kicking and screaming. When a pandemic took away the graduation I had been dreaming about my entire life, I didn’t feel particularly resilient. When I suffered mental health challenges and things fell out of my control, I didn’t grimace through my pain and keep on marching. Although I knew it came from a place of love, I resented when people told me that this once-in-a-lifetime, catastrophic world event would somehow embolden me. Instead, it was another scar that I, as a Black woman, must wear with pride. Another struggle that would be spun into a glorious tale of perseverance, hardship and strength. 

Yes, my struggles have shaped me into the exceptionally tough person I am today. Just like the women before me, I am proud of what I’ve survived and acknowledge its significance in creating the version of myself I know today. However, I don’t view my struggles as essential parts of my character development or strife as something to be endured with grace. 

I wish for healing, a world that allows Black women to show weakness, to show the cracks within this hardened facade. Most of all, I wish for us to experience the warm embrace and comfort of knowing that it is okay to falter.


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