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I wore that costume to challenge the way New Yorkers think about superheroes -- and bearded Sikhs like me

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A photo of the author (Credit: Fiona Aboud)

Wednesday, Sep 11, 2013:
I settled on a rock in Central Park, the New York skyline behind me. A glassy new skyscraper neared completion in its stretch toward the skies. I was striking a few poses in my superhero costume when a young boy perched higher on a rock chimed in.

“Captain America does not have a turban and beard,” he said. He had a child’s curious tone. No malevolence.

“Why not?” I asked him. “I was born here. We could have a new Captain America who is Sikh or black or Hispanic.”

He thought about this. Finally, he conceded that yes, maybe a black or Hispanic Captain America would be OK. But his brain couldn’t make sense of it: Captain America in a turban? Captain America in a beard? He’d never conceived of such a thing before.

That’s exactly what brought me to this park on a beautiful summer day. To make fresh neural connections in our collective consciousness. To leave a new image on the hard drive of that boy’s mind.

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The idea originated with Fiona Aboud, a photographer based in New York City. For seven years she has traveled the country capturing stills for “Sikhs: An American Portrait” project. I’m an editorial cartoonist, who has been documenting the thrills and travails of real-life Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 through illustrations made on my computer touch pad. One of those cartoons, created for my first trip to Comic-Con, featured a turbaned and bearded Captain America. It made a three-dimensional spark in Fiona’s imagination.

I was going to be Captain America for a day on the streets of the Big Apple.

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Thanks to inclement weather, we ended up shooting on Puerto Rican Day. It was bright and sunny as we stepped out of Fiona’s house. I was acutely aware of my tight costume. I caught the stares of passersby in the corners of my eye. There were a few gentle smiles.

I have been skinny all my life, and I felt a stirring of anxiety to be so exposed. Family and friends have pointed out my thin-ness for years, and the self-consciousness has sunk deep into my psyche. Before I could even confront the political statement of my costume, I had to confront my own inhibitions and body image. But I took a deep breath, and kept walking.

The next challenge was the reaction of my fellow Americans. I’ve grown accustomed to a Pavlovian response to my presence. Stares. Verbal assaults. So far, that’s as far as it’s gone, though for some turbaned and bearded Americans, a fearful reaction has had tragic physical consequences. So the outcome of this experiment was unknown, which felt both exhilarating and mildly terrifying.

We took a cab to Fifth Avenue, near Central Park, and stepped out of the safety of the car to find people coming from all directions. My breath caught in my throat, wondering what they would think of me. But I reminded myself to not focus on that. To stay in the moment. Take it all in.

As I walked down the street, it was like dominoes. People slowed down to get my attention. Fans clustered around me. Parents egged their children next to me for a shot. I urged the kids to strike a superhero pose. In front of the Metropolitan Museum, four well-built African-American men surrounded me with big smiles, hands stretched out, fingers twirled with attitude and me sandwiched between them, striking a pose with my shield and a fist.

The Puerto Rican Day parade was going on, and we stepped into a thicket of revelers. People did double takes like a slow-motion movie. “Hey! Check out Captain America!” people yelled from the railings. Strangers hustled over each other to snap a picture and pose. Young and old of all hues, from all walks of life. I had to be repeatedly reminded to keep moving and not hold up pedestrian traffic.

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People shook my hands, and a few literally congratulated me. The celebrity-of-the-moment experience was a little overwhelming. But I was jarred out of that trance by a few negative outliers. One man tried to grab my turban. Another yelled, “Captain Arab.” And yet another: “Terrorista!”

As we posed for a picture with one kid, he stuck his middle finger right in my face.

“So you are flipping off Captain America?” I admonished him.

He got red-faced, apologized and struck a smile instead. We carried on undeterred, and the overall crowd reaction was positive and friendly.

An NYPD officer tracked me down to take a shot together on his smartphone. He said it would be his claim to fame.

As we veered off the parade route, Fiona came up with the idea to approach the FDNY staff and ask if we could enter their truck for some shots. These real-life superheroes were gracious enough to grant her wish, and the kid inside me was ecstatic. I sat on the driver’s seat sticking my head out in joy.

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We entered Central Park, and I found a shaded spot under a tree. In a lotus posture I meditated on the wonderful day unfolding before our eyes. Families strolling by, some lying in the shade, others baking in the sun for a tan. “This is really cool,” said a young woman walking by. A baby strolling in the grass came up right next to me, intently focused on the colorful scene. A little dog barely a foot off the ground sniffed up close and barked a few words in its language. This, I thought, is the coolest urban jungle in the world.

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It was the most unlikeliest of days for me. Hundreds of strangers came up to me. And we were able to lay to rest any anxieties or inhibitions in those moments — about other people, about the unknown, about ourselves, about violating other people’s personal spaces or not understanding their beliefs. We could simply meet. Say hi. Snap a memory of that moment. And I could leave brand-new images on the hard drive of their mind — as well as their hand-held devices, Apple clouds, virtual worlds.

For me, I had gigabytes of new memories tucked into the crevices of my gray matter. Enough memory snapshots to take me on repeat journeys for a lifetime.

“It takes a lot of courage to do this,” a few people said during the day. I have never seen myself as courageous. But circumstances in life create moments where courage finds its way to us.

There are many more photos from that day. Click here to purchase prints from the photo shoot.

Vishavjit Singh is the first turbaned and bearded editorial cartoonist in U.S. By day he is a software analyst and by nights/weekends he creates turbanful Sikh cartoons that can be consumed at Sikhtoons.com.


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