Recently, I have experienced an unending march of deflections, opinions, and denials about the recent terrorist attacks over the weekend. The shooting in El Paso Texas resulted in 22 people killed, while a day later, nine people were murdered in Dayton, Ohio. Between arguing online about why white terrorism is on the rise and if President Donald Trump’s words had anything to do with it (they don’t) I was in a sad mood; beat down by the apathy of many when the subject of racism comes up. Looking to cheer myself up, I listened to Ear Hustle, a podcast about life in San Quentin state prison. The series, which is produced inside the SQ and by the inmates, is a selection of stories and thoughts about loss, reflection, the everyday existence of those incarcerated, and those who may be released. I love Ear Hustle because it is honest, funny, heartbreaking at times, and real.
The latest episode “Inside Music” highlighted Calvin Johnson, a recent parolee whose music was used by the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art in a ballet performance. Johnson was one of the nine musicians in San Quentin whose selection was picked to be played in the show. After the performance, Calvin was so excited, telling people how amazing this experience was. His happiness reverberated through, giving me a big smile on my face and yelling “Yeah” loud. I was excited because his victory was something that those of us could only dream of. The Met….
I remember the first time I had seen The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had come to New York to celebrate my birthday and visit my father. Wandering around Manhattan, I saw Central Park, went to Harlem, walked through Midtown, and stopped through Times Square. New York was incredible. I had been to London, it was electric but New York felt alive. It was one of places that everything was moving. The pace, the art, the people, just wow. When I saw The Met, I remember just looking at it for a couple of minutes. Staring at its elegance, opulence, and beauty, I was at awe. I didn’t even go inside, I just looked at it.
Being there and seeing a monument of wealth, being honest with myself, it made me feel not worthy of entrance. Here I am, this kid from Kansas City, Mo, about ten years removed from the hood, standing in front of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the place where operas and ballets are held. It was legendary and fancy, smelled like money, and signified all the things I wanted out of life but didn’t have. I just looked at the building, stared at the windows, and titled my head to see every part of it, and then I left. I felt as if I didn’t belong in there.
Writing this now makes me sad and brings up thoughts of Imposter Syndrome, but at the time, I felt as if I wasn’t enough to step inside. I had traveled a bit – London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and witnessed beauty, but it was what The Met represented for me that made me not want to go inside. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have myself together. Looking back on that, I try to force a smile and tell myself that I was making a big deal out of it, but I wasn’t. When you grow up in poverty, places like that seem out of reach and you are told “You don’t belong. You don’t fit in there.” It has taken me a long time to shake that off and remove that train of thought. I cannot tell you how much work I have done to realize that I am worthy of those places.
When I heard Calvin’s triumph of having his music be a part of a ballet production, in addition to being released from incarceration, it warms my heart.I thought of not only as an artist attaining an incredible success, but also a Black man realizing that his place is here. It felt great.
A couple of years ago, I returned to New York with my lady. We both walked through the city and stopped at The Met. Looking at the building, I leaned over to her and said, “Lets go in.” Walking through, I looked at every part of The Met. I was mesmerized, but I felt comfortable. Taking everything in, I exhaled and smiled. We even thought about taking in a show (we had lunch reservations, sigh), but didn’t get a chance. Still, I felt like I belonged at The Met. This was my place.