The Wild Journey of a Sikh Captain America

Saturday, January 30, 2016 - 7:19am

The Wild Journey of a Sikh Captain America

"How do you identify yourself?"

This question was posed to me recently during an interview for a New York Times piece on the conversation of race. Sounds like an easy question, like a check box on a form. But it's a complicated one. Most, if not all, of us wear many demographic labels at any point in time and some, if not most, change over time.

My brief answer is: I am Vishavjit Singh, a New Yorker and a cartoonist.

Some are not satisfied with this response, given my turbaned and bearded countenance. So I quickly elaborate, having lived all over: Washington D.C., California, Ohio, Connecticut, New York — basically a nomad.

But where are you really from is the response? That is when I get to reveal my parents are South Asian, from India. That seems to settle the impulse for the question. Somehow my roots have been placed outside of our 50-state union and that maintains the imaginary space-time continuum in people’s minds.

Despite the pervasiveness and utility of demographic labels in scientific research, I have come to dislike this question. It does a disservice to our social and cultural narrative. Sometimes these labels lead to violence, not as a causal force but as a contributing factor.

We need to replace this question with, “What is your story?”

Now we get to focus on the journey rather than a few stops on it. Here is my story in a nutshell.

I was born in Washington, D.C. to a South Asian couple. My birth certificate identifies me as Caucasian. My parents moved back to their country of origin and took me along with them at the age of four. I simultaneously grew up learning Punjabi, as my mother tongue, and English, as my first language. I started wearing glasses at the age of six, which will change my life forever as a bespectacled kid to be teased my friends and foe.

My family has roots in the Sikh faith, a young 500-year-old religion started by a spiritual revolutionary named Nanak. My parents had the outer appearance of Sikhs with long hair and turbans but, in practice, they were anything but. We rarely went to temple, did believe in god's presence, and our constant Sunday ritual was to get fresh goat meat from the butcher. I inherited the turban and long hair from my parents along with learning Sikh history from comic books and readings at school.

In 1984 after the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister at the hands of her two bodyguards who happened to be Sikh, an act of revenge for her decision to send the army into the holiest of Sikh temples five months prior. For a few days after the demise of the ruling leader, thousands of Sikhs were burnt alive under the auspices of the state apparatus. We survived a mob that surrounded our apartment, but, thanks to quick-witted kids in the block who, being part of the ethnic majority, were able to somehow reason with the bloodthirsty men.

Desiring to leave this madness behind, I came back to the land of my birth after high school, arriving first in Los Angeles. I had a few months before heading to college in Ohio. In those months many strangers seeing me on the streets greeted me with calls of "genie," "clown," "raghead" and the most hurtful gesture of outright laughter in my face. Two years later I had enough of being judged, defined, and ostracized for my perceived identity. In my sophomore year in college I went to a barber with my turban off, hair tied in a pony tail. With a clip of a scissors, the 20-year-old unshorn hair was gone. As I walked out with my short shaven look all eyes were of me. I had in my eyes become invisible.

With my light brown complexion, many Hispanic folks thought I was one of their own, approaching me with Spanish words. I responded with “No Espanol.” Although my first crush was a Colombian graduate student, my first relationship was with an American woman of Mexican roots.

At the same time I had fallen head over heels for books, reading them voraciously. Through them I discovered the path of Buddhism and Taoism. I moved to Berkeley to start graduate school and stayed with my brother for a few months. Taoist meditations, listening to 24 hymns from the Sikh holy book in my brother's home, and my public health studies consumed me. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the hymns and almost two years later decided to try the Sikh path as a way of life.

I started growing long hair, which took almost two years to reach its pinnacle. In August 2001, while residing in Connecticut for a job in New York, I donned a turban for the first time in 10 years. A month later the attacks of 9/11 happened.

I was the ultimate outsider again in my own homeland. In me, Americans saw "Osama," "Taliban," "terrorist" and asked me to "Go back home." In this tumultuous moment of darkness, a cartoon ("Find the Terrorist") by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mark Fiore captured my predicament to the T. He drew the Sikh man so well and portrayed the man committing hate crimes as the terrorist.

Weeks later I started creating cartoons, which I came to call Sikhtoons, full of turbaned, bearded fantasies motivated by the soap opera of real life. Almost 10 years into this endeavor, I re-created a superhero vision from 1941 first penned by Jack Kirby. I illustrated a new Captain America with a turban and beard ready to fight intolerance.

For a Brazilian-American photographer, that image morphed into a vision of me dressing as Captain America. The notion sounded ridiculous since I am skinny and bespectacled, but, following the massacre of Sikh worshippers at the hands of a white supremacist, it did not seem that crazy. So I agreed to don the uniform.

This real life manifestation of an imaginary superhero tore through a sense of what an American is supposed to look like. From that first day in June 2013 when I first stepped out to the delight of strangers, I received hugs from euphoric denizens of New York and photo requests from NYPD officers, and was pulled into weddings; it has been the start of a wild American journey.

I have donned the uniform time and again from New York to California to Kansas to Mississippi. I have received messages of love from everyone, including 9/11 responders, veterans, and those serving in armed forces today. I have showcased my art and carried the message of hope on my narrow shoulders.

In civilian clothes I always start by asking audiences where they think I am from. Just about everyone places me outside of the United States. When I ask them which ethnic group they think targets me the most in person, there is a unanimous response: white people. In reality it is black and Hispanic men who have a lion’s share of hands in targeting me. With wide eyes and jaws dropped at this revelation, I share my story.

I know what many of you are thinking. This is too complicated of a response to categorize people. Life is complicated. Our identities are complicated. White people en masse are not racists. Sikhs en masse are not foreigners. Muslims en masse are not extremists.

Our lives are drafts of stories being written, edited, and altered continuously. Only by sharing them out loud will we begin to dismantle the linguistic shallowness of labels and their potential abuse by extremists abroad and at home.


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Vishavjit Singh

is the nation's only turbaned/bearded editorial cartoonist, writer & costume player based in NYC. He was featured in Red, White & Beard, a short film released early this year. His works can be consumed at Sikhtoons.com. He can be reached @sikhtoons.

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I love love love this! Thank you Vishavjit Singh for telling us your story. It is honest and brave, and I am happy you have found a path to use your honesty and bravery to connect with and educate people. I feel moved and inspired. Thank you!

Here's to Captain America! I am a recovering conservative walking the path of compassion, seeking understanding, offering generous assumptions, believing the best of others and enjoying the light in our hearts that binds us all.

Your 'story' and description of your experiences are truly awesome! A challenge to be accepted as member of American society has never been so arduous before! Your head on approach and daring act are an inspiration to many of of us ! Keep up the good work !

Very nicely developed origin of a human and the problems faced by most of the ethnic groups due to outer shell all over the planet. The cartoon depicts very subtle techniques of depicting the problems of a typical Sikh who follows the Sikh faith and travels all over the world.
In India (region identified by Alexander of Macedonia across the Sindhu River in 327 BCE). This fertile land of Fiver Rivers fed with snow melted water from lakes in upper Himalayas created real wealth and the looters have been active since ancient time to this day. The looters who were mostly brigands from starved lands across the Hindukush Mountain damaged the ethnicity of the population. The episode of Peshawar ruler Maharaja Jaipal in 1003CE is the cruelest. After his 50000 fighters were massacred and the populace transformed into slaves, he laid out a Chita and became a SATI as he felt that as a king he was not able to save his people from the wrath of the brigand from Ghazni. The richness of the region presently identified as Punjab is (divided into two parts) is still fertile and with monsoon raises food grains and still targeted by the looters. The migrants from different regions of the planet reached this land of five rivers and settled here. One can find a vast variety of caste and creeds. The west Punjab declared as an Islamic democracy still suffers at the hands of so called seekers of wisdom of Islam (Taliban) who were not shy of mass killing of children in Peshawar a few months ago. In 1708CE when 2 very young sons of Guru Gobind Singh were bricked alive by cronies of unreasonable Mogul ruler, General Banda Singh attacked Mogul cantonments to liberate the region for Sikhs who were farm labourers as slaves by absentee landlords from land of looters. The Sikh Raj was reduced by British in 1849CE and after 98 years was delivered to the descendants of the brigands who sing panegyrics for the looters of Punjab. Mr. Mohd Ali Jinnah, a non Punjabi who hailed from Mumbai was a practicing lawyer as compared to idling lawyers of Indian National Congress. He was able to successfully argue with the British to get Pakistan which was before 1849CE the dominions of Sikh Raj. But God is great as Taliban are a headache for this Jinnah Land. Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa a general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was able to set these very tribes into submission, but present generals of Pakistan (Muhajir as well as the native Punjabis) are not able to control the idiosyncrasies of brigands who are descendants of Ghazni brigands. On this side of the Radcliffe line created by British political agents the Caste, corruption and poverty rides high. In 1699CE Guru Gobind Singh was able to discover the lovers of this land from non- fighting castes. This group was identified as Panj Piaras and Guru Sahib himself became Sixth Piara. As for the ethnicity one can discover in Amritsar blue eyed welding experts who were earlier goldsmith who had accompanied the legions of Alexander. The turban wearing Sikhs and Amritdharis who were blessed by Guru Sahib are prosperous and one can discover all ethnic groups among them. But due to Barahminic influence still quite heavy the caste consideration rides high among them. It can be predicted that their ego shall never promote them to rule the world as blessed by Guru Sahib. But Sikhs drawn from the all the heritage Varna Pratha do have valuable concepts the great book Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Langar, Dharmshalas and many more agencies of welfare. The sacred Granth where besides the ‘bani’ of six Gurus, the themes of the saints of Bhakti movement like Kabir Sahib, Baba Farid, Bhakar Ravidass, Bhakat Naamdev are also contained will enable them to go anywhere on the planet and work for humanity. Guru Sahib guided the humans for 530 years though a small period yet the intense concepts of quality living for humans laid out there in are a guarantee for Sikhs to grow and be prosperous. The themes laid out in Japji Sahib enunciated by Sri Guru Naka Dev are for all humans. The present day problem of Global warming is explained by Guru Sahib 530 years ago in the form of a ‘Shaloka’ that Air is like Guru, Water is like father and the great mother Earth is cared by day and night cycle of the sun so that the Children of Almighty can play. The message he delivered is to take care of these agencies of nature and the game will go on. Personal sufferings for those who are ill treated by the selfish ethnic groups have no place to cause down spirits rather for perpetual prosperity ascending spirits (Charhdi kala) is for ALL who recognize the true path laid out in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

very aspiring guy, deeply moved, thanks for sharing us your history of growth, it's really educative, each reader should have gained some valuable things from your story.i will share your honesty and bravery in our office if you do not mind.