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Captain America in a turban

A photo of the author (Credit: Fiona Aboud)

A photo of the author (Credit: Fiona Aboud)

 

Captain America in a turban

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.

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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.

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