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