I believe we should all be seen.
A few years ago, I came across HBO’s “The Wire” – the fourth season in which the focus was on the school system. As a former school teacher, the series resonated with me. However, it was not this connection to which I was responding: it was to the tapestry of color that I had never really seen on any other television show. Here, there were an equal number of black and white actors portraying a broad range of characters from all walks of life. No one was better than or less than, all were equal in their complexity.
Why did I respond so strongly to this? I believe it was because I had not been fully aware as to how invisible I had felt for so long.
In a troubled home, one is not seen. Being negatively seen, however, gives a sense of purpose and belonging. When my oldest brother left to join the Marine Corps, he was seen every day because he cast a shadow reminding us of his absence. Yet, we never saw why he needed to leave home. Another brother had run away and was seen the whole time he was gone. He was so visible that even the police got involved. Unfortunately, we never saw why he found refuge with street gang friends, so we never really saw him. Yet another brother had come out as gay and was seen for creating upheaval in an already chaotic home. Ironically, it provided me the opportunity to see him with honesty and clarity, and formed the beginnings of a friendship between my brother and me. My youngest brother was seen as somehow more privileged than the rest of us for having a father who could provide more. Yet we did not see the troubled youth who sought solace in drug use and punk music.
My father, who saw me, died when I was two years ago, so I was no longer seen. I was emotionally neglected by a mother too emotionally damaged to see me or any of my siblings with great clarity. My stepfather would have seen me except that my mother repeatedly reminded me that I was not his child, so I struggled not to be seen by him. I was lucky to have had a twin sister who, especially during troubled teenage years, saw me as well as I saw her. Of course, the outside world didn’t see me: they saw one half of a twin-set, incomplete until my sister appeared. The youngest of us, my mentally retarded sister was seen as too demanding. In fact, she is little trouble at all and I am fortunate to see her charm and humor with a great deal of clarity.
I am the fair skinned child of a Puerto Rican mother and Spanish father. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood where white friends saw me as not quite Hispanic. At school, I didn’t fit the prescribed ideology of what it meant to be Puerto Rican. Attending high school in late 1970s Bensonhurst, a time and place of racial tension, only heightened my sense of invisibility. Would I be mistaken as white and left alone in the event of any trouble? Or, would I be categorized with blacks as an ‘outsider’ and seen as part of the problem? Why could I just not been seen as I had seen myself? As me?
Counseling would eventually provide me with the tools to listen to myself, and by extension, to see myself. I would come to understand, and live through the painful destruction of the emotional shield I had created to keep others from seeing me and me from seeing others. New friendships developed without suspicion, old friendships would be given room to grow. Eventually, I would come to see people for their underlying spirit, the part of us that truly reveals the essence of who we are.
This is a wonderful time to be seen. If anything, the Obama victory is the icing on the cake for me, sweetening my personal journey of self-discovery and visibility. I cried when I entered the voting booth, and smiled at the victory, not fully understanding why. However, as the presidency reveals itself it becomes clearer to me. It is not because of the policies and decisions being made, nor because of the transparency being promised, although these are important. It is because of the visibility it has afforded me. Through podcasts and news coverage, I have seen presidential events, some not usually made public, that not only open the presidency up to me but are filled with the promise that I am seen. Their images are awash in color. Not the color of one people, but the color of all of us. Just like “The Wire” had done, this presidency continues to present me with a tapestry of color and in that tapestry I see the color that is me.