American Icon

American Icon (unfinished)

This is an unfinished painting. A black child (my son, Axel) is lying on a large American flag, clutching a toy Superman. The child is naked, a symbol of innocence and vulnerability. Superman is what he must become to be accorded the same dignity promised by the flag. Today he lies naked on it. I hope that tomorrow the flag will cradle him as its own child.

I began this painting a few days ago — much too late — and have no hope of completing it on time for what I want it to say. This is intended as a letter to my friends and family who continue to embrace Donald Trump’s vision for America. This is about the reality of Donald Trump’s words and actions for me, my family, and especially for our son.

I came to America to attend college when I was eighteen years old. Right off the boat, so to speak, I went to work to help my parents afford my community college education. By the time I was twenty and transferred to a state university to finish up a bachelor’s degree, all help from my family had dried up and I was on my own financially.

Luckily for me, I applied for and got a job as a junior computer programmer at a software consultancy company. It was the job of my dreams. Thinking back now, the pay wasn’t much but it was a heck of a lot better than my previous jobs unloading tractor-trailers at night and sorting bottles at a recycling center, all while juggling a full course load at school. And it was nice to finally have to dress well for work and stay clean the whole day. My parents were very proud of me and I was proud of myself for getting my first real job doing the same thing I was attending college for.

My very first assignment at my new job was to spend half of my days at a client’s office fixing software bugs and making minor enhancements. The client provided me a desk and I dutifully showed up for work each day and left when it was time to head back to my office or run off to class. The work was challenging but fun, and I especially liked sharing an office with real people doing real work, an experience college could not give me.

Two weeks into that first assignment my boss told me he was reassigning me to another job he needed my help with, this time I would do the work at our office rather than go out to the client site. At the time I didn’t think much of it as I was sure it had nothing to do with anything I might have done wrong, so I just carried on with whatever tasks were tossed my way.

About a year and half later, still working at the software company and now with a lot more experience and responsibilities, my boss and I were hanging around the office late one evening talking about a whole range of topics. Race relations came up. I don’t remember anything about that conversation (or any other topic we discussed that evening) except for one thing; something he said to me that was to become one of those life markers that define who we are, a moment in my life that will stay with me forever.

He told me that the reason he removed me from that first client was because the owner of the company asked him to. Apparently, I made the two women I shared an office space with fearful that I would rape them — because that’s what black men do. Me, a scrawny college student eager to make my boss glad he took a chance on a kid with zero real-world experience. Me, who was determined to do first-rate work for our client. Me, a rapist?!

I don’t remember anything else about that evening or the few days that followed. I don’t remember exactly how I felt or what I said, but knowing me, I must have fallen off an emotional cliff and into deep depression. Then – just two weeks after that, I got hit with another life-marker. I remember that one in vivid details.

I had driven to a store to buy a few things. It was late in the evening, about 8pm. As I walked toward my car a voice behind me said “excuse me.” I turned to see an elderly white gentleman standing next to his car. It was a white sedan. A Chrysler, I think. I immediately assumed he needed directions to get somewhere so I walked toward him to offer what local knowledge I had. Instead, he said to me: “Do you know who the mayor of Hartford is?” This was Hartford, Connecticut, and the mayor at the time was Carrie Saxon Perry. His question caught me off guard. I knew the answer but I hesitated, so he answered it for me: “She is a black shit, just like you.”

I distinctly remember going a bit weak in the knees and struggling to get my head straight enough to say something back. But I couldn’t speak. Instead I turned away slowly, feeling dazed, and began walking back to my car. When I reached my car I felt a sudden wave of rage. I unlocked the car door with trembling hands and placed my shopping bag in the front passenger seat. I pushed the car door shut and walked quickly toward him. He had opened his car door and was about to get in when I hit him in the face with a closed fist. I hit him so hard he fell into his car. Then I left him, went back to my car and drove away. I went to my apartment, sat at the dining table and waited for hours in the dark for the cops to knock on my door.

The police never came, only the next day did, bright sunlight, the radio, people rushing to work, no different than any day before. But for me, my life could not have changed more drastically. I think for the first time I realized that my skin – black, made me very different, unwelcome, a target. I began to notice subtle things I never noticed before. I stopped smiling, shrank a little into my shell. Even the kids I went to school with – the white ones, friends, seemed to me now like enemies, their smiles and remarks, insincere. I had tried hard from the day I arrived in America to never allow my life to be defined by the color of my skin. The thought of it was ridiculous to me. I was a naïve little boy. No black person gets to escape this. Not here.

In the many years since, I have been called names, occasionally treated like shit, snubbed, sometimes in very subtle ways and other times in ways that left no room for interpretation. I consider myself really lucky and can honestly say that my race did not entirely define the man that I became. Lucky perhaps that I was already old enough and stubborn enough to fight back by the time I got hit with the reality of life in America with dark skin. I wasn’t going to ever allow the color of my skin to keep me from the things I wanted out of life. I think I’ve had to work harder at some of life’s challenges than I would have if I were white, but so what? All that matters is that I do my best to be the person I want to be and realize as many of my ambitions with whatever opportunities come my way. And I think I have done just that.

Then I had my son, Axel, a tiny bi-racial “black” child. It is one thing to brush off racist remarks and actions targeted at me – I’m a big boy, I can take it. It’s quite a different matter to realize that my son, the love of my life only after his mother, fragile in every way, full of trust and smiles, will someday very soon realize that the color of his skin matters to an awful lot of people and not in a good way. Unlike me, this will happen to him by the time he is 8 years old, maybe much sooner. And unlike me, unless Karen and I handle this well, it may forever destroy his sense of worth, just as it has done for many black people in this country.

A few months before Axel was born, Karen and I got into a very heated argument regarding when and how to approach introducing our son to the challenges of being black. Our goal was the same – to instill in his core that people are inherently of good heart and whatever bad things people say or do to him is the isolated act of individuals. To teach him to be Axel, not Axel the black boy. Karen’s argument was to be proactive about it, to head it off before he actually experiences it first-hand. And I assure you he will, sooner rather than later. That is reality for black people. For my part, I argued that we should not be the ones to bring it up because doing so gives it more weight than we want him to feel until he is old enough and emotionally developed enough to handle it. What I do not want to do is inadvertently give him an inferiority complex. I argued that we should just pretend it’s not there and handle each incident as it happens. I reasoned that doing it this way allows us to explain away each incident as if it were no different than someone not liking him because they hate his shoes or something silly like that. That was a desperate argument. His skin color is a constant and cannot be compared to a pair of shoes. I think that our fight that day was more a product of panic that we are powerless to protect our son from this most hurtful of human failings. On that day we took our anger at America out on each other. It breaks my heart to this day to remember how much Karen wept.

I had another good argument for my position. If America could elect Barack Obama as our president, what greater proof is there that the America of my youth is not the America of our son’s youth. Desperate hope on my part but I argued that maybe the ills I have experienced as a consequence of the color of my skin will never be true for him. Why give the kid an inferiority complex trying to head off something that will never actually become an issue. The very existence of Barack Obama gave Karen and me hope for dignity for our child.

Two things have happened to effectively nullify my arguments. The spate of police shootings of unarmed black men, and Donald Trump.

The unwarranted shootings of black men is not a new thing, the only thing that is new is that everyone now knows about it — thanks to cell phones with cameras. Do you know what’s even worse than being shot dead because some jumpy or racist cop thinks you deserve it? Living with the constant message that no matter what good you do in your life, you are no good. Your life is not important. Your life does not matter. Look at me. Even after all these years, even after my modest successes at life I still worry every night I step out of my front door to take the 20 steps to my studio that a passing police officer will challenge my presence in my own home. That’s not the part that really worries me — I do not begrudge any police officer that questions anything that appears unusual to him. What I worry about is the outcome of such an encounter. What I worry about is that my cup of coffee might be mistaken for a weapon. What I worry about is that the color of my skin will undoubtedly raise the stakes to very unreasonable levels. That’s what happens when black men encounter the police. Assumptions are made that can result in catastrophic consequences. Do you worry about these things? I do — everyday. And I worry for my son too.

Most people will probably disagree with me but I think it is better to die with dignity than to suffer a lifetime of disrespect. That old man that I punched, I have no regrets. It was one of the dumbest things I ever did; he might have had a gun. I imagine the headlines the next morning would read something like: Young Black Thug Gets More Than He Bargained For Robbing an Elderly Man. No one would have ever known the truth because that alternate narrative is a good fit in the story of black lives. That man stripped me of my dignity and I took it back the only way I could at that instant. It was a dumb thing to do, but the only human thing I had left to do. Trayvon Martin lost his life reclaiming his dignity. So have many countless black lives.

For anyone who says you should never confront injustice with a refusal to bow your head, I say you have never actually faced injustice.

As a black person and parent of a black child, what I fear the most is being made even more real by the hate-filled words of Donald Trump.

I have thought about this letter for some weeks now and pondered why I feel a great deal of urgency to say something. I have worried about hurting the people I love with clumsily spoken words or meanings lost in a verbal argument. But whenever I look at my son’s face of late, it feels impossible to pretend that what I see happening isn’t real or will somehow fade to nothingness. I cannot pretend that somehow, despite what I know in my core to be true, I have become immune to the lasting scars of other people’s bigotry and can pass on that immunity to our black child. What is happening today is very different from anything that has happened in this country for most people alive. At the same time, I recognize it from history’s lessons.

Donald Trump is championing racial hatred and division. Donald Trump is preaching the kind of intolerance that gets minority groups demonized. Donald Trump is building a climate of fear that will get members of the most vulnerable groups reviled and murdered. Just listen to what people say at his rallies. Cut out all the peripheral noise and actually hear the words of those whose ideology he has made the cornerstone of his campaign.

When Donald Trump says that Mexicans are rapists, how many Latino children will grow up unable to fulfill their potential because someone in some office believes that is what Latinos do? How many black children will become irreversibly damaged because a bunch of white kids believe that basic human decency, or political correctness as Donald Trump calls it, is why America is no longer great? How many young girls will be sexually molested because some people believe that as a society we have become too sensitive to normal guy stuff? How many Muslims will be murdered because Trump has cast them as the enemy?

You know what I’ve come to realize in the past few years? It is how hard it is for most people to see the world through the eyes of other people who are not exactly like themselves. I wish you could allow yourself to see Donald Trump’s America through the eyes of the people he has mocked and demonized.

This election is no longer about the next president of The United States, it hasn’t been about that for some time. This is about choosing decency or bigotry. This is about choosing to protect the life and dignity of the most vulnerable members of our society, or embracing the morally bankrupt ideology of Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and every racist that shares that ideology.

To my friends and family, I write this letter to ask you to allow yourself to see my son through my eyes, to help me preserve what still remains of our right to a life of dignity. I speak from experience of injuries that leave long-lasting scars. Many of you will never know that injustice. My son will. One day soon he will come home from school and ask us why he was not invited to a party of his friends. I imagine I can only guess that some parent or grandparent objected when they found out he is black. Except that it isn’t a guess without merit. I speak from personal experience. How do we, his parents, explain that to him? How do we erase the hurt when he inevitably finds out the truth? It’s not like he can just change his shoes and everything will be fine. It’s a lot harder to find dignity once other people have stripped you of it. This is what Donald Trump is doing. This is what Donald Trump has done.

I close by paraphrasing a line from history that keeps looping in my head. The words of my enemies is not as powerful as the silence of my friends. I am asking you, my friends and my family, to help us – Karen, Axel, our unborn daughters, and me, stop Donald Trump.