You might say that I was a little bit spoiled growing up. Trips to the grocery store often ended with me walking out with a new toy or a piece of candy. If there was time I might have been allowed to ride a miniature merry-go-round or have my picture taken on a pony. I didn’t always get what I wanted, but I could always count on coming home with a newly purchased book. Home was 104th street in South Central Los Angeles. Shortly after my first birthday my parents divorced and I was left in the care of my Grandparents until I was five. One day after returning from the second hand store I opened my newest prize, a picture book about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The book had stunning charcoal illustrations which were photorealistic and engaging. Grandmother helped me sound out the words that I didn’t understand. When I read about the reasons for the Montgomery bus boycott, I turned to my Grandmother with a stern, solemn face and asked, “Grandmother, did you have to ride in the back of the bus? Did you have to do that too”?
Grandmother, Grandaddy, MeMe, and Granny (my maternal and paternal Grandparents) were a part of The Great Migration, the movement of 6,000,000 Black Americans from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and the Western part of the United States. The Great migration took place between 1915 and 1960. Grandmother said that she left Texas for adventure. Grandaddy said that he left Florida for California because the West was ‘less racist’. Later I would learn that two of my Grandparents were legally forced to leave their home states, but all four of them left, whether forced or of their own volition because they were restricted by racism. They left their families, their communities, their friends, and their cultures behind not to be wholly free of oppression but to live under a system of domination that was manageable. This is our American story, and this is why I was born in South Central Los Angeles. When I’m asked, “Where do you come from”, I always answer that I’m from Los Angeles. Questions about my ‘origins’ are frequent and expected. For the last nine years, or one fourth of my life, I’ve been living in Berlin, Germany. Initial conversations often include “Where are you from?“ “So what do you do?” Most of us would be lucky if we could remember these details by the end of an evening. What I did not expect, but what showed up during many of these conversations is what I would describe as an inability to process that I could be an American citizen. For many people it seemed incomprehensible that I was born and raised in Los Angeles.
“Where are your parents from”, a stranger asked me at my first Berlin house party. “They’re from L.A. too. It’s actually a really cute story, they grew up down the street from…” “But where are your Grandparents from”, he asked me, with a sense of urgency that I did not understand? “Well, they’re from Texas, Florida, Mississ…” “No, no! I’m trying to figure out your roots. What is your connection to Africa?” If I had not been so confused, I’m not sure what I would have answered. He looked at me for a few seconds before excusing himself, and I stood there for a moment nervously squeezing my plastic drink cup. Four weeks prior to this impromptu immigration interview, I had moved to Berlin and almost right away I realised that being Black was coded in a way that I hadn’t experienced in Los Angeles where I grew up, London where I worked for half a year, or Amsterdam where I visited my Aunt and my cousins. There were things people felt that they knew about me, things they felt I should perform based on their perceptions of Blackness.
Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him is a record of these experiences. Told across a series of white t-shirts with black lettering, this chronicle features excerpts of conversations where racist notions and ideas interrupted, or in many cases sought to bypass my individuality and my own sense of identity. These inconvenient narratives have been recited at work, depicted in the (dis)comfort of romantic relationships, they have been dramatised by friends and acquaintances, and parroted by strangers on the street, in the club, and in palaces of culture such as museums and independent art galleries. The agenda of these gross fictions is the maintenance of power and control. If there are things that you can tell just by looking at me, then it’s easy for me to understand why countless Black American children, Black women, Black men, and elders of the Black community are being shot and killed with reckless abandon, put on trial for all of the ‘bad things’ that they’ve done after being executed, and in some cases having their lives and their deaths appraised for the value of a cool million. The outrage that is All Lives Matter in all of its indignation is really a cry for help, because for the first time we have a voice that people are listening to and the technology to broadcast it. The whole world is watching.
Black people are now in a position to direct the dialogues of anti-Black racism in ways that my Grandparents never had the opportunity to. Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him will be an ongoing project. The photographs that you see in this first series are just the beginning, these are just the comments that I remembered before printing each t-shirt by hand. The physical violence that I experience, the scrutiny that I receive walking down the street on a daily basis, the constant state of surveillance that results in the rearrangement of bags and back packs as I pass strangers has not been recorded, but these incidents are just as dehumanising as the racism, prejudice, microaggressions, and the lies that you see displayed across my body in this photographic series. This piece will be a platform, an open discussion on race, politics, and culture. What are some of the things people felt they could tell just by looking at you? I want to know. Tell me your stories.
Isaiah Lopaz, Him Noir
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