Hello, everybody! Do you know what time it is? That’s right … it’s Imagination Time! For a moment, fade way back into your own mind and visualize something with me, would you? It’s a man. This man drives a truck. He wears a lot of camo. He’s over six feet tall. He’s over 200 lbs. He has a lot of tattoos. And a beard. Can you see this man in your mind? Good! Now bring that description out of your imagination, into the world, and think of the times you’ve seen him before. I’m sure you remember. The gas station, the grocery store. In Maine, this is a common description, after all.
Have you made any other guesses about his identity? I know you’re not supposed to, but go ahead and do it anyway. I won’t tell. It’s just us here and this is a safe space. Is he scary? What do you think he does for work? What about his free time? What kind of music does he like? Does he have CDs in his truck or does he have a phone holder for easy access to podcasts? Maybe he’s a talk radio guy?
Here’s a big one: who do you think he voted for?
What about this: Is he white? If so, now imagine he’s Black. Does that change any of the answers you gave earlier? His truck? His job? His taste in music? Again, you can be honest here. This is a safe space inside your mind. No one will judge you. I’m not even here.
I think about these descriptions a lot. I think about the symbolism of all these little details. They can seem like they don’t matter, but as a truck-driving, camo-wearing, 6’2”, 220 lb., fully tattooed, bearded Black man, I know that they matter quite a bit.
The smallest symbol can speak volumes. Think back to politics before our current president. Can you remember a time when you randomly just saw people wearing a politician’s campaign merchandise? Aside from actual campaign events, have you ever seen just a random dude walking down the street with a John McCain t-shirt? For real, like you’re at the gym and the guy who won’t give up the bench is even more annoying because he’s cut the sleeves off his “Reform, prosperity and peace” McCain tee? Did you even know that was McCain’s campaign slogan? Of course not. Politicians’ slogans usually have the staying power of their promises, but I bet you remember seeing a red MAGA hat. You probably remember not only the last time you saw one, but also the feeling you had when you saw it. That’s because those things represent more than just a politician, somehow. They symbolize a world view, immovable, with a high potential for violence. And I hate to tell you this, but that world view has bled onto all our national symbols, even the most ubiquitous.
Around 8:30 last night, I ordered takeout. Realizing my tank top and cutoff camo shorts weren’t enough, I grabbed my closest hoodie. It’s dark grey with black letters commemorating Jack Johnson becoming the first Black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. I got in my truck, drove downtown, parked illegally, went into the restaurant, got the food, started walking back to my truck, and that’s when the weird thing happened.
As I walked down the sidewalk carrying a big bag of Thai food and a cardboard tray of drinks, I look up and saw a white gay couple in their late 50s/early 60s, hand in hand, walking toward me. They looked scared. And the closer they got, the clearer it became that out of all the other people on the street, they were scared of me. It’s usually only solitary racists and cops that look at me that way, so I was taken aback. As I walked past, they clutched each other’s hands and moved toward the wall like they were bracing for impact. And they keep looking down at my hip, like I had a gun holstered that I might draw at any second. But I didn’t have a gun holstered.
I got in my truck and drove home. I forgot about the couple, went inside, put the food down and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My head was covered by a hat and hood, mask on my face. The camo shorts revealed the tattoos on my legs. I mean, in this town I looked like your average line cook, but this day was also the day hate groups had come to town to counter a BLM protest. And right there on my hip, sewn onto the bottom of my Jack Johnson hoodie, was an American flag patch.
Voting like your life depends on it is not enough. Get out in the streets, donate, volunteer, and fight like your country’s flag strikes fear in the hearts of its own citizens. Because it does.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.