There are things maybe started in the United States and maybe eventually spread to the world like, I would say, the forms of music like jazz, hip-hop, rock-and-roll. Those things are kind of uniquely American creations.
I think one that’s very odd is the Harley Davidson leather jacket. There are leather jackets and leather cloaks and shoes around the world, time immemorial, but there’s something very odd and perverse about the Harley Davidson leather jacket. It’s a very fragile form of masculinity. It’s supposed to be knocked around and torn up and knotted, but it’s very unique to the possessor and so if you lose your jacket, somehow you lose a part of yourself. So I’ve seen people with those kinds of jackets and they’ve broken them in over time, so it’s meant to be destroyed, but destroyed by the owner. You’re not really supposed to lend the other person the leather jacket unless you’re really in love, or they’re family.
Does that say something about what you think of America or masculinity in America?
It’s a certain kind of masculinity, something I’ve seen often in America. Like when I travel and meet people on the road, sometimes I see these old Vietnam veterans with their Harley Davidson jacket, and I see this form of masculinity as being part of the past, but it’s a variation on a theme of rugged individualism but also deeply violent sentimentalism of the things that it has worn through. I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s a certain kind of white, but not only white, American masculinity that’s sentimental, nationalistic, and also oddly very possessive and fragile about its possessiveness.
I guess we should turn to your identity and race being a part of that. So how would you identify?
I identify as a delightful mutt. Kind of a mixture of everything, so an Afro-Latino or a Nuyorican, you know, would probably be the most accurate. But I would say Nuyorican because my identity has been so shaped by my experiences in New York, so I’m almost more a citizen of New York City than of the country. I’m definitely a product of the north east and west coast, and so, I guess I would say I’m a product of American cities, the urban centres. But yeah, I guess I would say I’m Nuyorican, but more as a product of New York City than Puerto Rican heritage.
Can we veer off for a second and talk about the urban-rural divide? What do you think you’ve gained from being in an urban environment and being a product of one?
What I got from the city was a sense of timelessness, that's because the streetlights are always on, the city’s rhythms are continuous, through the night and the day, so it flings me out into the street and I get a sense that anything is possible at any time. There’s always this river of adventure flowing through the sidewalks of the city. People in the city feel like a herd on a concrete savannah, going from one place to another. Like a herd, there are the weak and the old, that are kind of picked off by predators. So if you see a homeless person, you shrug and keep walking. If someone is being bothered by a mugger, you shrug and you keep walking. So the experience of being in the city is being in an anonymous herd. The only time I don’t experience that is during events like Halloween, when it’s like a carnival. People are wearing costumes and saying hi to each other and dancing in the street, or like when Barack Obama got elected and there was a big political thing. So those are my two experiences of the city. There’s the herd and there’s the carnival.
How do you perceive people as a result of your race?
I perceive people not only in their racial identity, but I think I try to perceive where race is for them. So when I’m dealing with people who may be “raced”, South Asian, Black, Mexican, Honduran, whatever, I see them as raced, but I try to understand where race is in their life. Is it buried under class privilege? Is it something that you put up front? Where is it in relation to the other parts of your identity, so that’s one.
I live in a predominantly African-American and Caribbean American neighbourhood, some recent north African on the side, so it’s an African diaspora. There were some brothers and sisters fighting on my block, and I could almost see and hear in their voice a history of generational trauma that itself was the kind of after-effects of race. The poverty from one generation, the trauma, the anger, using words, stabbing each other with words. So sometimes I can see with other people of colour the history of race. It’s almost like an X-ray but instead of looking at bones, you see a rape from 200 years ago, or someone put in jail five years ago, or some scar from someone calling you n***a or s**c and it lacerates a little bit of your soul. And when I’m talking to people who are raced but invisibly raced, so they’re white. I can see them with prejudices pulsing inside them that are hitting the walls of political correctness. So they wanna say something but they think it’s prejudice so they stop themselves. So I look at how race activates and deactivates parts of themselves and their life.
And the second part of the question, how do people perceive you?
It really depends. If I have cornrows, they clutch their purse or they give me some “dap,” like “Heeey man what’s up?” And if I have some buppie hipster hair cut and I’m wearing my professor clothes, then people are like, oh, he’s a professional. So it’s really interesting to see how a different hairstyle or different clothing will affect things. Once I was running and wearing sweats because it was a little cold, and a colleague was there and I ran up to her and she was like “Oh!” and said, “Omg, hi you look so different with sweats.” And I was like, hah, I look threatening I guess with sweats.
What would you say is your idea of America?
My idea of America is very separate from the commercial of America. So I know that America is promoted as the land of opportunity, and it is, for a lot of people it is.
But I think my idea of America is a huge mouth that is just chomping everyday and it drinks the oil of the world, and it’s just consuming so much of the world. I see America as this huge military thing. America reflects back to itself pride in the military. If I turn on the TV, if I go see a movie, if I listen to the music, even if I look at posters on the subway, I see constant images of guns and American military power as something we’re supposed to take pride in. So that’s my idea of America, as a military machine.
And your ideal of America?
The ideal of America I’ve experienced is in people, because there is that kind of cultural value of individualism and freedom, especially in freedom of expression, and I really see that people take that and enjoy it. The random meetings that I’d see in the streets, there’s just a lot more mixing because there’s a lot less internal walls. People are eager sometimes to really get over those walls, which I think is very different from say, Europe. Europe is a lot more mannered, like people are much more historical, where here there’s a little bit more freedom in that way. So yeah, my ideal of America is the “carnival”, because there is a carnival in the United States. It’s often bubbling underground, but it does erupt sometimes.