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Portrait of the Artist as a Black Man


When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left

Langston Hughes



The more I stared at the drawing, the more alien and unrecognizable it became. I had labored over every line, but it was not the person I intended to draw. It began as a self portrait, but a stranger emerged who had been living somewhere within me. He was now crashing through the page.

I am a descendant of slaves and their owners. This contradiction manifests itself in every aspect of my physical appearance. My beige skin is light enough to pass as white. My angular nose and thin lips corroborate this story. My almond-shaped brown eyes are deep-set and give little clue to my identity. My hair might give me away, but its loose brown curls suggest to most people some vaguely white-ish ethnicity rather than an African origin. In general, people take in these details and read the whole as white. When I tell others that I am black, this usually requires a lengthy explanation that stretches back into little-known aspects of the history of slavery. I have to explain to people, who often seem to be hearing it for the first time, that sexual exploitation of slaves was so widespread that most black people in the United States today have some degree of European heritage. They generally imagine some version of a sanitized mythology that involves consensual romance.

“You mean like Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson?”

“No, I mean like rape.”

I describe how I grew up in a black neighborhood in Washington, DC, where families like mine with pronounced Caucasian ancestry were not unusual. In this community, we understood that we were all enclosed by the same segregation and subject to the same racism, whatever our complexion. We were all black. This part of my identity has never changed.

But it was never simple. The ambiguity of my appearance has created endless confusion for me and others. My generation was the first to benefit from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. At five, I began to attend predominantly white schools in affluent neighborhoods living with a foot in each of two irreconcilable worlds. From my earliest days in school, my identity has been the occasion for many misunderstandings, arguments, and fistfights.

As I moved into adulthood, I began to appreciate how narrow most people’s conceptions of black men are. They do not know how to see me. I do not look or sound black to most people. Without the usual cues, I am assigned to a default identity that reflects the beige background and white noise of my surroundings. I become white by default. Even when they know that I am black, the cognitive dissonance that my appearance creates is so great that I just seem to fade into invisibility under their blank stares. Of course, this does not prevent them from expressing opinions and judgments about who I am or who I should be. I have gotten plenty of advice about how to be more authentically black. Others have coached me on being post-racial and “transcending” the obsolete social construct of race. Why not just relax and accept my default identity? Perhaps race is an issue only inside my head.

For a long time, it might have seemed that I had taken this advice. I lived in white suburban neighborhoods unrecognized under the camouflage of my complexion. I raised a family that was outwardly indistinguishable from our neighbors. Many of them would be quite surprised to learn that a black man lived among them. I made my home in places where a strange black man, seen at night, would trigger suspicion, panic, and calls to the police. I am mindful of this whenever I take out the recycling after dark.

Yet, I vigorously protested this default identity. I rejected the undeserved privileges that approximating whiteness can bring. I resisted, argued, sometimes screamed that I was not the person everyone thought I was. I was not passing! These protests made little sense to others. They began to seem nonsensical even to me. What was I protesting? My identity was much larger than race. I was a loving husband and father. I had a rewarding career in the medical profession. I never concealed my identity or tried to deceive anyone, but I was not obligated to advertise my race or announce it in every encounter with others. I knew in my bones that race was a burning issue in every corner of our society and that it grew worse every day. My engagement with race as a social issue has never changed, but in my private life, its salience steadily diminished as I settled into middle-age. What was wrong with this picture?

The drawing seemed to be a product of boredom and restlessness. We were a few months into the COVID-19 lockdown. My wife and I were beginning to get used to the new way of life, but we were far from comfortable with its routines. Before the pandemic, I took evening art classes as one of many activities that I picked up and put down as I moved through middle age. I had no talent but lots of enthusiasm. Over the last five years, I accumulated sheaves of drawings and stacks of abandoned canvasses that filled my attic. Unfortunately, they suspended the live model classes I had been taking because of the pandemic.

I missed this outlet and soon found myself doodling and sketching. After working through the vegetable world with houseplants, apples, and bananas, I looked for something new to draw. The idea of trying a self-portrait seemed to come from nowhere. I had never attempted anything like this, and I knew it would be well beyond my skills. Nevertheless, inexplicable excitement and energy filled me. I jumped in with abandon, setting up a mirror and making some quick sketches. The mirror was awkward, so I took a few selfies to work from instead. I decided to use red chalk on toned paper, which was more challenging than charcoal. It allowed me to avoid sharp lines and create more subtle transitions between light and shadow.

The first lines that I drew were encouraging. I defined the basic contours of the face with proportions that agreed with what I saw. Next, I moved from region to region, creating small islands of detail that gradually merged into a complete form. After a couple of hours, I had to put the drawing aside. It was not yet me, but it seemed to be moving in the right direction. I looked forward to coming back to the project when I had a little more time.

A few days passed before I could return to the drawing. I looked at it with fresh eyes and noticed many things that I had not seen before. The nose seemed too long and narrow, and the lips were too thin. Most of these appeared to be easy fixes, but I reworked each of them several times. First, the nose was too angular, and then it was too broad. The lips became too full and the mouth too big. Everything was a struggle. Getting one part right seemed to make all the others look wrong. I felt growing frustration that turned into anger. Where did this come from? The anger was not about failing to reproduce what I saw. I realized that it was about the much more significant challenge of really seeing myself through dense layers of distorted self-images. It was time for another break.

When I returned a week later, the mistakes were just as glaring, but it felt like there was a strange internal consistency to them. The features were not entirely mine, but they hung together. They belonged to somebody. There was a deep curiosity driving me. Who was I drawing? I started adding shadows and highlights to bring out the three-dimensionality of the image. I continued to try for a likeness of the person in the selfies, but I got no closer. Something was pulling me in another direction.

Another week passed. I carefully avoided glancing at the drawing, hoping that a truly fresh look would reveal where it was going wrong. What I saw was very subtle, and I could easily have been imagining it. The drawing was certainly me, but I thought it was a representation of me that would have been easier to recognize as black than the original. His nose and lips were just a little broader than mine. His eyes were more prominent, and his cheekbones a little higher. His hair was curlier, and his eyebrows heavier. The shading on the toned paper gave the impression of a darker complexion. It reminded me of a drawing by artist Adrian Piper entitled “Self-Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features.” In this work, she morphed her racially ambiguous features into an image that was unmistakably black. It seemed that I had unintentionally stumbled into this terrain.

I knew that I might have been projecting something onto the drawing that was not there. Can we ever really see ourselves? Can we ever know how others see us? Whenever I meet a new person, there is a period of uncertainty when I do not know how they recognize me. Am I black or white in their eyes? I have had a lifetime of practice reading how others read me, but it remains a mystery. I am constantly surprised by what others see or do not see. Now, I was trying to read myself. Who was the person on the page? Who was the person who drew him? Who was the person looking at the drawing?

I could not be sure where the drawing ended and where my perceptions began. I had no doubt that I was looking at a black man. Where did this image come from, and what brought him to life at this particular moment?

“Can’t you guess who I am?”

The answer suddenly flooded into my mind. It was an answer that would have been painfully obvious if it were not so unbearably painful.

The murder of George Floyd had taken place only a few days before I began the drawing. We had witnessed the act of murder and heard the last words of Mr. Floyd repeatedly played on the news. It took several viewings to grasp the full horror of what was happening. At a distant first glance, you might have mistaken the blue-shirted men for an Emergency Medical Services team crouched over a fallen black man. They might have been frantically administering life-saving treatment. But it is soon apparent that they were working to extinguish the man’s life.

George Floyd would soon become one of the most identifiable black men in America. Uncountable millions have witnessed his last moments. His portrait appears in murals on buildings and public spaces around the world. It is hard to imagine anyone not knowing his name or recognizing his face. His dark complexion and strongly African features could hardly have been more unlike mine. Our lives could not have been more different.

I have been pulled over by the police for speeding three times. Each time, I felt terrible anxiety and embarrassment, but I had absolute confidence that I would come away with nothing more than a speeding ticket. On two occasions, that is exactly what happened. The third time seemed completely surreal. I got something that would be almost inconceivable to many black people, a polite warning.

“Sir, are you aware that you were driving while racially ambiguous?”

“Yes sir, it won’t happen again.”

With beige privilege comes the guilt of the survivor. Isn’t the survivor ultimately responsible? If not for the murder, then for the murderers, and if not for the murderers, then for the society that pays their salaries and gives them license to kill. I could not find a way to process the murder of George Floyd. This was where the drawing really began. It came from a wave of unbounded anger that had no focus. Was it inside me or outside? Who was angry, at whom was the anger directed? I had no idea. The anger was like a festering abscess.

I took up the drawing with the naïve thought that it was just a hobby. But, in reality, it was like a surgical procedure that I performed on myself to drain the abscess of its poison.

I drew a man that any police artist might draw from a witness’s description. He was a nameless man referred to as the suspect, the assailant, or the perpetrator. He is the man people fear will break into their homes during the night, committing robbery and worse. They do not realize that he is one of their neighbors.

I drew a man who first learned of race when his black schoolmates thought he was white. Then, a couple of years later, his white schoolmates called him a nigger. He grew up in a ghetto, but now he lives in the affluent suburbs. He is a husband, a father, a doctor. And like everyone else, he is a paradox down to the marrow.

He got a warning from a policeman instead of a chokehold because his skin is only lightly pigmented, but he knows that his time is borrowed. He lives in a nation where belonging is a vanishing resource greedily hoarded by those on the other side of the color line. His belonging is contingent on how he is recognized. Is he a member of the tribe or not?

The man I drew was myself, a black man.

Although he emerged from a place of ungovernable anger, his expression shows deep sadness. Is this the next stage in a process of grief? Denial is no longer effective, and bargaining is exhausted. He faces the sorrow and loss in all of their intensity, but there is a stoicism in his features. He knows that he has been here before—many times. His eyes are cast slightly downward, looking into the distance for something to hope for.

That hope grew as I watched the massive demonstrations that filled the subsequent months. That summer, Washington became the scene of something that seemed new and vital. But the images of protesters stirred childhood memories of the same city more than four decades ago. In April of 1968, I remembered huddling with my parents through the rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. We heard of the burning and looting of buildings a few blocks from where we lived on television and radio. Destruction raged both to the East and the West of our house. We stayed indoors, and my parents told me to keep away from the windows for fear that people would think a white family lived there. We heard low-flying helicopters overhead day and night. Then, after a few days, we saw the National Guard patrolling our street. When it was over, we came out to find a changed world. The convenience store where I got candy was boarded up. The barbershop where my father and I got haircuts was gutted. We put iron bars on our windows. Through them, I watched friends and family move away. The neighborhood was no longer our community. The downcast eyes in the drawing are those of the frightened child who waits and hopes that things will be different this time.

Throughout the trial, I saw clips of the murder of George Floyd almost every night on the news. It was unbearable. I often turned away from the screen, wishing they would stop showing the atrocity. The verdict was a great relief, but it was just a placeholder along the arc of justice. The only thing worse than reliving the murder each day was knowing that many people watched the same films but saw something very different. They did not see the horrific killing of a human being. Instead, they saw someone who did not belong, someone whose death was acceptable and even justifiable. They saw the nameless black man they wanted to see, the one they expected to see.

I am the unexpected black man, the invisible one. I live undercover and fool almost everyone. At times, my invisibility can feel like a gift, but often, I am the one who is fooled. I learn to recognize myself bit by bit. I proceed by sight, touch, sound, and smell to reconstruct myself. It is a process of creative destruction. Sometimes I peel away layers until I find something that will not peel away. At other times, I just create myself out of nothing. At still other times, I have to burn myself to the ground and start all over again. I put the drawing away unfinished for now. The work is much larger than the person who made this clumsy beginning. It has reminded me that I am not different from the man killed by police in Minneapolis or countless other men and women who suffered the same fate. I know that it has many other things to show me.

Race makes its own reality. It gives us a world full of sharp contours and hard lines that divide those who belong from those who do not. The lines we draw are falsehoods that exist nowhere in nature. The truth can best be rendered through a subtle chiaroscuro that dissolves edges into shades and gradations, merging light and darkness. In this twilight, we can see ourselves as we are.


  1. Polly Hansen on

    This poignant essay gets to the core of valuing who we are. If I’m being honest I often think how grateful I am as a white woman to enjoy white privilege. How could I possibly wish to experience the horrors of racism? I don’t have to make it a choice. Yet you make that choice everyday. I see a man determined to discover who he is without interference from society, which makes that task entirely impossible. May you (may we all) succeed regardless and discover a true self victorious and brave.

  2. Steve Riley on

    Mr. Harris,

    This is a beautiful essay.

    It’s rare to find a piece that combines deep introspection, the visual arts and the struggles of social justice.

    Thanks so much for writing.


    Steve Riley

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