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Faculty Perspective: Clintel Steed “Silent Heroes in the Times of Darkness”
June 22, 2020 · Faculty
There is so much going through me right now that it’s even hard to begin at the word “the”. So as I do let’s begin with the date, it’s 6-3-2020 and it’s currently 4:15. Today temperature wise it feels like it should. The sun is shining and the air feels clean. It’s that time when the air touches your skin without all the layers from winter and makes you feel so alive.
But, as we know, we are so far from what a summer day feels or should be like. Instead we have been propelled into the future with the worst science fiction scenario ever. Who would have ever thought that in 2020 every New Yorker would be wearing a mask at the grocery store but it is here.
To be alive to me at this moment is a lot. It almost takes everything to endure what we have been living through with this pandemic. Not only have we had to deal with a leadership that has told us cleaning supplies might be the answer (and some people did this by the way). But we have had to adapt over night to this life of being at home, not being able to get close to our neighbors and, most importantly, the people we love.
But just when you think it could get no worse, they start to say that the black community is suffering the most, and I guess this is where I will begin this path to what I really want to talk about: the heroes in my life that always give me hope. But let’s just take this small journey though my experience as an African American male living in a country for 43 years and still finding a way to cry before I can smile…
So as this battle with covid continues, and was continuing, when the news started to cover that the epidemic was hitting places of color the most and the worst. Now as a Black man and some of us in the community started to say “oh here we go again; everything bad hits the black community worse.” AIDS kills most African Americans; about every bad thing affects African Americans the worst. Even global warming seems to affect the black community, the most remembered is Katrina… So then one day I wake up after trying to cover the numbers of covid going up, I see this image of a young black man being shot by a father and a son, and from the future I am propelled back to the past… I am hearing different people on the news say that the video of this incident is disturbing. It took me awhile but I finally was able to watch this video. Now I must tell you as a black man I am so used to this it’s crazy. It’s almost like you become numb. It happens so much. So many mothers losing their sons. Me, even me, I have lost friends, I have seen family members arrested. Friends who have died by guns. Sometimes I think how much can we bear? When I am in Harlem I feel the pain of the ghost. The ghost of civil rights and broken dreams and lost identities.
I have been living in New York since 2001 and how many stories have I heard? How many images have I seen? I can’t tell you how many times I have been pulled over and asked things and treated in ways that sometimes when you walk away it sits with you for a couple of days… But the sad thing is you just accept the fact that you are the one that is hunted, it’s your skin color, you the black man that has to worry about how you act and check yourself constantly. Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t make people afraid of you by acting too weird or making eye contact. You know you adapt to these ways to move through life so that you wont end up like Floyd. But that is the sad thing, it happens when we are doing nothing wrong. It happens when we are just walking down the street. We now have become the elephant and our spirits the tusk.
I think one thing you have to think about is the conditioning of all this. This is where I get into education and the silent heroes because being African American, an African American male, I have seen so much. I have watched so much. I have experienced so much. So much of this systematic racism, this racism that has brainwashed us for so long. I think I started to understand that there was brainwashing going on when I was in high school. I was an angry Black male in high school. But I had some heroes even back then that would challenge me to be better, to think better.
I think one of the things that get missed in Floyd’s death is the lack of education, the lack of money, the lack of jobs, the lack of simply options, different kinds of options. One of the options we have as African American males is sports. But if you don’t do well in sports then, what I mostly grew up with, or I guess I watched some of my peers do: they just turned to petty crime. But I could start to see that this was a system that was not real and I wanted a different narrative.
So I started painting; I found something. I found something that let me deal with my anger, my idleness, and it also gave me hope. And I must say that growing up sometimes, that what you felt like was missing from the community, was a sense of hope of believing that you could be something.
So the narrative I was seeing up until I started to paint was being a gangster. The more tuff you were, the more respect you got. One of my first heroes was my high school art teachers Ms. Jalotion. I don’t know if I am spelling this right, but I remember her always. Ms. Jolation would be one of the first people to really believe in me and not judge me. She would help me apply to the Art Institute of Chicago and I would end up there right out of high school in 1995. When I arrived in Chicago you could already feel the divide and how much bigger the gap of poverty was. This divide of the haves and the have nots. I was from Utah and the only other place I had seen was Indiana. So to see Chicago and to learn about its history of segregation was powerful to me.
I think one of the good things about the protest is that they have tried to hit every neighborhood. I don’t think people understand really what red lining has done to the African American mindset. I only found out about this red lining a few years ago. Basically where they were placing black neighborhoods and then making it in such a way that they can never leave, and even if they do try to leave there is another system in place to block them and keep them there. So this mind set never really gets challenged.
Most of the time African American males including me at times are just not taken seriously. When I got to SAIC one of the first things that I was told was that I was at a 8th grade maybe 7th grade reading level. This Tutor, this particular person, also went on to tell me I would never live on the north side of Chicago. When I think back on this, if I didn’t have my teacher’s belief in me and her reaction to my paintings, her helping me get there, then this conversation with this tutor could have been really upsetting and stalling for me. I cannot tell you how many of my peers never even graduated from high school and college was never a part of the conversation. But some would go on to spend time in jail cells. It hurts and it’s painful. But I think that also brings up what’s sad about Floyd is that we fight our whole life – some of us from the time we can walk and talk, life is a battle. Some kids have no father, no mother, some kids raised by grandparents, some kids raised by older siblings. What narrative do we set up for the black experience in America, what narrative do we see in America.
The heroes in my life always saw me as a man, a kid, a young man, Clintel, just Clintel. They didn’t make me feel black but they would challenge me. They made me want to do better. I had a great football coach when I was in 9th and 10th grade. He was a great person and also made me better. There have been times when I have felt so less than human so less of a man. Nothing to show for anything, just a body taking up space and failing at that. That’s what’s upsetting about Floyd, as well as we try and we try, we pick ourselves up, dust off our knees, bandage our wounds and go back to battle in a world that often makes you feel simply: I don’t get you. I will never get you and oh by the way you are the criminal of America, you the slave, the black men must always pay. You will always be a slave in some way. This is the narrative that popular culture wants to sell you.
You get oh I know it’s tuff for black people. I could never imagine, so sad, but we all go back to our homes, our lives, our stories and we don’t change anything, we don’t try to evolve, we get afraid of change and often humiliated and silenced when we see racism happen right in front of our faces. This coach would hit my helmet and ask me what I was thinking about and tell me I could do better. I was taking them as life lessons. He would call me on my B.S. and I would listen and take it to heart because I knew he cared and respected me. When I got to the Art Institute, learning saved me. I was from Utah and we had even mentally zoned ourselves into a community of pain and often a lack of change and education. We had God but we didn’t have much else. You could go to church on Sunday and feel the blessing of the lord but 48 hours later you could be watching a family member being escorted out by the cops in handcuffs. Such a duality. I think in many ways that is why I became a painter, I had seen some extreme things by the time I was 15 years old.
When I was watching the video of the jogger who got killed with the shotgun I became afraid for some reason. I don’t know how to explain this but I think it’s because there is a way we see each other. There is a way that black people see each other. How the action and reaction to each other and then I think there is a way that white and black people see each other and then there is the way that the cops and black people see each other. So in many ways there are like 3 layers to just trying to get through the day sometimes as an African American because you are dealing with so many social constructs at once.
But I think I have my teachers at the Art Institute, having people like Don Southard, who was another hero to me. Because I was getting into this world of painting and being an intellectual. My world as a black person was changing and I was experiencing so many new things on so many levels. What I was seeing in popular culture and what was being played out during those times was a different narrative. The prisons were filling up like wildfire back then. I even remember hearing that young black men were on the endangered species list. Because there was so much killing going on. I knew I didn’t want to be a part of this, I wanted to be a part of that Martin Luther King dream where I could go and live and study whatever I wanted. I could have teachers, white teachers, black teachers, Spanish teachers and learn from them and all of this was a gift and it was coming true. But even back then in the 90s the narrative was the same.
Even if you wanted to be better, was society ready for you to be better? Was society ready for the young black generation that was being born and would go on to work and go to college with their white and brown neighbors, all their neighbors? Was America Ready? Was society ready to tear down all the invisible walls that had for so long been in power? The evil demon called segregation. That word has done so much mental and physical damage it’s crazy.
But you fast forward to 2020 and Floyd and I go back to my heroes like Graham Nickson and the Studio School for always believing in me and seeing me as a human first. I have been able to be bigger than racism and I have been able to achieve things most African Americans will never have the chance to and that’s because of people like Graham who get painters. Graham never judged me. There was a time during grade school where I had to be reminded that the KKK was in the next town and I should always be careful. It’s funny somehow they turned being a Black Panther into a bad thing. Even made black people think it was bad, never say the words BLACK PANTHER wowowo but even in 2000 the Grand Dragon could burn his candle bright.
When times like this happen I think of how I have learned from my heroes and how the Studio School, when I didn’t really believe in myself sometimes, helped me find the courage to continue on. I have worked jobs where you tell them you are a painter and they look at you and start laughing. But I never gave up because I had people like Graham in the back of my head talking about the rectangle, talking about the power of an image and the life of a painter. I felt like even though I sometimes suffered or maybe I was being judged, but those things would never stick with me because I knew I had such a strong community of people around me. Where it was about painting and the work. It wasn’t about class or race but it was about trying to understand what painting is.
So when I watch Floyd die, I think about how I got here, how I can say something and I still have a chance to be heard and write my own narrative of what it means to me to be black in America. I have heard my heroes that encouraged me to be me. That never judged me by the bad, but only wanted to bring out the good. That never let the color of my skin get in the way of them teaching me and making me a better person.
To me racism dies every day with people like Graham and some of the heroes I have met in my life. Because they have given me a chance to rewrite the narrative that slavery had written for me. By me living my experience I pray that it will encourage others to do the same. This is the narrative I want to continue. I want the image of love, the image of black and white existing together to change. I want everybody to be able to speak their truth. And for us to rebuild on love and trust and not power and dishonesty.
Words really can’t express all the things that I want to say about Floyd but I have seen it so many times as a black man. Supposedly my biological Grandfather died in prison because he shot another man. My mom’s sister says this is not true and he was set up but nobody was ever able to help him. So even in my immediate family history, slavery and brainwashing shows its evil head. I feel very fortunate to have my family, my history, but most of all I feel so blessed to have the heroes, the silent heroes that you can’t see. That Hollywood doesn’t talk about. The people who don’t get interviewed, the real people that help black men like me survive in a world that 9 times out of 10 wants to tell me no. A world that wants to tell me that I am not qualified, wants me to walk away. Wants to judge me before they know me. Without people like Graham Nickson and Susanna Coffey… these teachers really helped me, they gave me purpose. They believed in me. The Black African American male me. Thank you heroes we shall overcome!!!