In 1951 Matt Ingram drove his old car to a neighbor’s house to see about borrowing a trailer. The neighbor didn’t answer the door, so Ingram went and looked out in the field to see if the neighbor was there, but all he saw were some kids. So, he left and borrowed a trailer from someone else.
Matt spent 2 years in jail for looking at those kids.
Well, really for looking at one kid. Willa Jean Boswell, a 17 year old girl saw Ingram driving on the road and was frightened when he looked at her. She ran to the field, told her brothers, who told their dad, who told the police, and they arrested Ingram for assault with intent to rape.
That’s it. No other relevant details. No one contested or offered that there was more to the story. The entire court accepted that Matt, who had not been in, or caused, any trouble previously, never got closer to Willa Mae than 75 feet. He never spoke a word to her, never even made any sudden or aggressive movements, just a look, and the jury convicted him. He was sentenced to 2 years on the chain gang.
A series of appeals and a whole lotta pressure from… the Soviet Union, eventually brought his case to the North Carolina Supreme Court where his conviction was overturned.
That process took around two years… which Matt spent in jail.
For a look.
Or maybe rather, because he had a look.
Mr. Ingram wasn’t trying to have a look, he was just doing his thing. He was working and being himself- which is in some way the root of what makes that look “a look”. There is some form of innate coolness. Not posing. Not trying. Just being. All business.
Thing is, Ingram’s look wasn’t all that unique. He was by all accounts- normal.
For a Black man.
At that time all sorts of other folks, who were in fact trying, worked this look. In fact, that look was being imitated and replicated all over movie screens and billboards because there was, and still is, something in there, that is undeniably cool.
But cool is only safe for some.
And if that cool is innate, the sort that just is, then what do you do if you are Black? In order to be safe should someone not be themself? Tone it down? Tuck it in? Reel it back? Take what others imitate and monetize and push it down to make white people feel safe? To a lot of people, those who just wanted to get on with life, the answer was “yes”.
It was the sort of thing that when white folks do it, they are popular and get to be in movies but when Black people do it…
It was just after Ingram’s case was won, and received worldwide media attention, that a group of White men decided not to take their case to court when a Black kid named Emmet Till was accused of having that same look.
We have, in so many ways, come a long way. That was 70 years ago. So many people have marched, and worked, and changed since then.
But then I think about backwards hats and hoodies and I have to wonder.
And man, when I look at old pictures of Matt Ingram,
When a system, or representatives of a system, attempt to explain away the racial component of the killing of Asian people because of the ‘words’ of a white killer, despite the evidence and consequences of the the killer’s actions, we are witnessing the systematic shift from white privilege up to white supremacy.
If a person enters a place primarily inhabited by Asians, and then kills several people there, the impact of the death and destruction is born primarily by that Asian community. The stated intentions of the perpetrator do not change who bears that impact.
Microagressions are small, often unintentional slights, not even necessarily insults, but little pin pricks based on a marginalized characteristic (such as race, sexual orientation, gender, nationality).
Any one instance of such would be no big deal, but the thing is, they add up.
It’s like when my older brother used to hold me down and begin tapping me on the forehead till I could name ten fruits. It wasn’t painful but man it was annoying and made it super hard to do something that was normally simple- naming ten varieties of fruit.Microagressions are just like that, except instead of my big brother its American society and instead of naming ten fruits, Black people are just trying to live life.
The concept of microagressions fit solidly within CRT in that they become very evident and pervasive (endemic) when we listen to non-white people (counter-storytelling).
Race is never the only thing going on in a Black person’s life.
Or anyone’s life for that matter. People “experience” race at the same time they experience sex, gender, wealth, poverty, nationality, or any other aspect of human socialization. All of those things are ever-present and must be known and addressed.
So, if we pass a law making it illegal to segregate schools by race, and then all the White people move away, we need to know that wealth plays a role, gender plays a role, sexual orientation, and many other things, all play a role.
Considering how multiple factors happen all at once, is called “intersectionality”.
It was the year 2001 and I was watching tv in my dorm. Really, it was married student housing at the University of Utah, because that is a thing there, and I was married. It isn’t BYU but Utah is still Utah.
So I get a knock on my door and it’s this guy, Brooks, who I knew, but we had never hung out. “Hey we were just wondering if you wanted to go longboard with us?” I didn’t quite understand the question. He must have seen this on my face because he quickly explained, “See we have two guys and two boards, but we need a third to drive so we can see.”
The extra explanation had a direct correlation to my confusion. I looked outside over his shoulder to some other guy, who I reeeally didn’t know. He nodded hello.
It was late January and late evening, maybe 7 or 8. I looked back inside at my sofa, at the tv, and still not having any real idea of what they were asking, I shrugged my shoulders and said “cool”.
Riding in the Volkswagen bus up into the canyon they explained to me that the idea is that two people ride the longboards, which I confirmed were just long skateboards, down the canyon, with the bus following right behind to both block any traffic from coming up behind, as well as to light the way ahead with the high beams.
“Cool. So you want me to drive. Got it.”
“Well yeah, but we figured we could just take turns ya know. Like we just thought a third would help us all get in more runs.”
“Ah. Cool. Thanks man.”
This is where I finally realized what we were doing. These dudes had me at the top of a canyon, in winter, at night, with intentions of riding a skateboard down the mountain.
I was terrified. This was not, nor is it, the sort of thing I do. I hadn’t been on a skateboard since I was in elementary school and part of why I stopped back then, was that I have never been a physical risk taker. I don’t like falling down on hard surfaces or doing things for fun that involve risk, or really, any high level of skill, because I don’t have that.
But, I was, and I fear at times still am, a bit of a bro, and what this means is that while being mortally afraid, which I was, I also thought this sounded kinda cool, which by itself would have never been a good enough reason to get me to consider a nighttime death ride. But you see, I didn’t really know Brooks that well. He was just this guy with Geek Sheik glasses who lived downstairs- but here he was acting all casual, asking me if I wanted to do something death defying like it was no big deal. Knocking on my door like the only concern was whether or not I had something else planned that evening.
Which I didn’t.
And like I said, the bro in me was more afraid of confessing to a dude I didn’t know well, that I was afraid, than I was of riding down a mountain on a plank with no brakes. That’s messed up. I hope I’ve grown since then, but at this point introspection is a tangent when the point is recollection, and retelling the action.
So when it became clear I would be riding a board, I just shrugged and said, “Cool.”
It wasn’t till I was standing outside in front of the headlights, with a board in my hands that I worked up the nerve to ask honest questions.
“So like, how do I slow down? Or, ya know, stop?”
“Well you just sort of carve back and forth across the lanes and that should keep your speed in check for the most part. Then, If you start to pick up too much speed you just sort of jump off. Like point the board off to the side of the road so we don’t lose it and just hit the ground running.”
I dropped the board on the ground, gave it a small nudge, hopped on, then hopped right off to practice.
“Yeah man you got it!” they sort of stated, not quite a cheer but definitely an encouragement, and most definitely a “let’s get this show on the road.”
So we did.
I pointed the board down, and pushed off for real this time.
I wasn’t sure if the rumblings were vibrations from the blacktop, or me shaking, but I was moving.
I leaned left, then right, a couple turns, then afraid to even get to second gear, I jumped off. It worked just like they said. The board sort of skipped and rolled into a snowbank and I just kinda bounce jogged right after it. Brooks did the same.
Alright alright alright… maybe this will work.
We pushed off again and I things started to change.
I started to feel it.
This was the moment, the time I began to enjoy the experience, when I also realized that I was at least twice Brooks size and we were playing with gravity. I had outpaced my wingman and consequentially the headlights, by about 50 yards and I was not slowing down.
I thought I should bail. I should do it now. But I was right there- just past my comfort level. Juuuust a bit too fast, so I started to think up a plan B.
I started eyeing the snowbanks on the side of the road. Falling into snow, even going fast, is no big deal, and here I was with huge snow banks, glowing in the night, on both sides, ready to catch and preserve my life.
Knowing I was going to crash, but I would live, I relaxed. I decided to do what I never do, and just sort of go for it.
I leaned in.
Looking up I could not just see into the void, but I could feel myself moving through it. I felt the road rumble up through my feet to my knees but there it melted into waves. By the time it hit my hips, then my shoulders, and finally face it was all just cool wind. It whipped through my hair and forced my cheeks up into a smile.
I loved it.
Then the snowbanks disappeared.
Replaced by a guardrail.
Travelling at an unholy speed down an ungodly canyon my only saving grace was replaced by a device meant to damn the progress of those in danger- but now promised to be my destruction.
The rail was on a curve. I tried to take it, leaning in and whatnot, but I could not.
The board went one way and I went the other. Suspended in the air I started my feet and legs running, proving my previous doubts of Wyle E Coyote’s experience wrong, and just like he, I did eventually fall. I touched down with one foot.
Then the other.
But my top half was faster and I tumbled.
It is natural, though not advisable, to put out one’s hands when falling. Especially on pavement.
I was picking said pavement out of my palms for the next two weeks and it was at least four months before I could bear a push-up.
When I returned home that night my wife informed me of a post mortal truth, that at the gates to heaven there are two lines. The first; is full of cancer patients, martyrs, those who died in righteous acts, and innocent children. The second, is full of stupid white people who died doing things like hang gliding.
She went on to explain that she would be in the first line and had no intentions of waiting for me if I wasn’t.
That was a long time ago and I have grown. I am not dead, we are still married, and I may still have hope.
We went to that part of town to visit a library full of books written in a language I can’t read. I had never been to Mexico City before and this library’s design is world renowned. The shelves hang from the ceiling rather than standing on the floor. It is giant, cathedral-like, and filled with books written in Spanish.
I don’t Speak Spanish.
But I know what looks cool, and that spot is cooler than most, so we went.
As we opened the Uber door and stepped to the curb something unexpected happened. Right next door, in a graffiti covered alley, was something loud that I recognized.
Blaring horns, a solid bass rhythm, and a heavy back beat. Played fast. I did not expect to hear punk ska in Mexico but expectations don’t matter so much when you are in the moment, and in that moment, I followed the sound.
The alley was packed full of temporary booths and tons of people. Ramones t-shirts, black leather jackets, and Doc Marten boots were both stacked on tables and worn by the crowds. A thousand or more people sporting full mohawks and spiked collars pushed their way through crowded stalls looking at stickers and buttons. I saw Bad Brains cassettes and Sex Pistols albums, anarchy logos and large gauged earrings everywhere.
And we joined in.
My buddy looked at where we were, looked me up and down, and just started laughing. He shook his head and said, “Dude.”
I had to laugh as well. It wasn’t just my Anglo skin and bullet straight part -I was wearing khakis.
I was the very visual embodiment of “The Man”, a square, the epitome of suburban dorkiness, middle aged middle class might as well have had a flip phone clipped to my belt; shouldering my way unabashedly into a Mexico City punk fest.
I didn’t care.
I didn’t care because I have rarely felt I fit in anywhere.
It isn’t that I haven’t wanted too, in fact I have made all sorts of efforts to find my place. It is more that in those efforts, on that journey, I have traversed so many spaces and places looking for a fit, that what I mostly found was overlap. It is natural (more so for some demographics than others) to see ourselves as the center of the world’s Venn Diagram, but I think my overlap was a little less centered. A bit more marginal. Like I am the outside circle of a million other group’s graphics but rarely checking off multiple boxes, or enough boxes to gain full membership. On such a journey one must either find a place and conform, or gain some sort of peace being a misfit.
This place had Misfits gear galore.
I didn’t care how I looked because I knew all the words to all the songs on those bootleg disks and coming out of those speakers. I learned them when I was 12. I learned them alone in my room listening to alternative radio or lurking around that one back rack of the record store. And here it all was in Mexico?
I loved it.
I had no idea what the live bands were singing, but skankin’ just needs that rhythm and a mosh pit was never really content driven.
To see this muscled and behorned beast stand in the middle of the ring, looking around, shuffling its haunches trying to shake off whatever it is causing that pain in his back. He looks at that fool on the horse, those men waving those blankets, and all of us up in the stands, and he just stands there. Done. He wants none of it.
But he is not done- yet.
This is when I learn a large part of the matador’s job, a part I had not considered, is to maintain both the attention and ire of that bull. The taunting, the waving and twirling, is not merely pageantry but an attempt to focus a confused animal in a raucous arena, on fighting when it might rather just die.
And the bull will die.
With blood flowing from its hump, spears protruding from his back, he will get the sword and he will fall. He enters the ring a raging beast and leaves a carcass drug across the dirt by draft horses. There really is no excuse for this being entertainment. It is not just blood sport but execution for pleasure.
But when that bull is mad.
When it fights.
That is a show.
The bull is built to win. Strong, fast, aggressive, with its goring weapons built in. The man cannot do anything without the help of some other tools. Spears, swords, the walls of the arena, the entire arrangement is built to grant the matador some advantage, and yet his victory is never quite sure- though the bull’s defeat is definite. And it is fascinating. It is one of the oldest evidences of a completely first world behavior, the risking of human life in the process of doing something that could be done much better, safer and efficient, in some other way, almost any other way- in the name of sport. For fun.
Sitting in the grand stands of a giant arena, eating a chocolate churro filled with cream, my American friend and I are stunned into a silence when the first bull fell. All around us people are shouting Spanish words I do not know, waving white handkerchiefs in the air, and a brass band begins playing a dramatic dirge. The two of us pause, unused to confronting the death of an animal, or anything for that matter, live, right in front of us. We live and work in offices and restaurants, parks and museums, clubs and suburbs, all insulated from the death we know exists. We order a steak at Ruth’s Chris, bloody rare, drive past a dairy and complain of the smell, fully aware that we exploit both life and death for our own sustenance, and despite our knowledge and awareness of it all, we find ourselves ignorant in the presence of that moment of death.
I do not like it.
I am not comfortable. It makes me ashamed in a way I did not expect. Not simply ashamed for participating, or being complicit in a blood sport, but surprisingly ashamed that despite my awareness of death, my acceptance of it, I look away when in its presence.
I am more comfortable when someone else does it. Somewhere else. Where I can’t see.
Prosciutto, jamon, bacon, whatever, and I am fine with it. I can move past ignoring the devouring of what was once living, comfortably into rationalizing and prioritizing, but it is at the point of doing that I cringe.
My inbred ideas of manhood are offended not by the death itself but by my repulsion to it. I can work my way past the masculinity only to then be halted by class. I have the privilege of enjoying the fruits of others destruction, rejecting any value in being the one to do the work or endure the pain.
In my own self-loathing, respect for those down there in the ring begins to grow.
No matter what I think of any of this, I sit up here judging while they are down there doing. Confronting. Risking. Acting.
They can be wrong about all this and still be better than me.
And then, thanks to my inbred training, hundreds of years of practice, I work myself through all the ways I am not so bad. Sure there is this or that, but there is also that other this and that, and when taken in bulk- I am good.
And if I am good while sitting up here in my feelings and those brave enough to act are better- then they must be great.
So I too start to cheer.
I learn to love the flair and the bravery of man versus beast. I appreciate the vain glory martyrdom of fighting in the face of sure defeat. I respect the idea of offering one’s self up to do that dangerous thing in order to give the condemned a chance for one last win.
The matador, offering himself as potential sacrifice, so the condemned have a chance to condemn another to a shared fate.
Brave and dignified.
But then that bull just stands there.
And we show ourselves, all of us, for who we really are.
Who is that supposed to be? I get that question a lot when people see my drawings. If the image is of someone famous, or familiar, that question hurts just a little, since you wouldn’t need to ask if I had done a better job.
But if the drawing isn’t someone you would recognize, what do you really see?
What comes to mind? Do we just take it at face value (pun intended) or do we make guesses and assumptions? Do we ask questions? Maybe none of that. Maybe we just look and think that is all there is to see. Nothing more.
There is always more.
As an artist I get to choose what I include, leave out, or even change. How much do you trust me? Does it matter?
This is a drawing of Catherine Burks.
In 1961 she got on a Greyhound bus headed from Tennessee to Alabama. Police stopped the bus because racially integrated bus travel was illegal. They escorted the passengers back to the Tennessee state line, dropping them off on the rural roadside in the middle of night. Burks told the chief, Bull Connor, “We will see you back in Birmingham by high noon”.
She was indeed back in Birmingham the next day and this is a drawing of her mug shot.
This is the face of a freshly arrested college student who I guess is thinking, “told ya.”
By this point she had seen violence and police beatings and been personally threatened by the leader of it all.
And this face was her face.
Sometimes, even today, some of us think we know what is going on simply because we watch. We see some things, we feel we are paying attention, and no one contradicts what we think we see.
But there is always more to the story.
We normally only get that after we ask questions and then listen.