“Believe it or not, I can actually draw.”-Jean-Michel Basquiat
“I want to be a writer.” I told my mother.
She smiled at me, watching me dutifully complete my assigned third-grade journal entry. “You can be a lawyer and write books on the side,” she said.
I thought about it momentarily, “No I just want to be a writer.”
“You know, there are doctors who write books.”
“Nope, I don’t want to be a doctor, just a writer.”
“Okay, well you think about it, and let me know.”
This distant conversation slipped into my mind while reading Phoebe Hoban’s “A Quick Killing in Art.” Although Hoban didn’t give too much away, concerning the relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and his father, Gerard Basquiat, a Haitian immigrant, it was clear that he was uninterested in his son’s artistic endeavors. A comrade in Tamra Davis’ “The Radiant Child” also mentioned this disapproval. During his interview, he spoke of having dinner at a restaurant with the artist and his father coincidentally being there. He states that Basquiat went over to speak to his father and his colleagues but came back defeated, with his tail between his legs. After Basquiat’s mother was locked up for mental illness, a woman who’d taken him to art museums and praised his scribble, he was left to the regiment of his strict father. Basquiat ran away several times, sleeping in parks, going to an alternative school, trying to escape the structure of his household. However, his run-ins with his dad show us that he was still a boy desperate for paternal endorsement.
Although I hadn’t run away, although the discontent of my imaginative undertakings weren’t as strong as young Basquiat’s, I understood his constant need for approval. I ran with plenty a story, to my nodding, but never too excited father. In fact, to this day, I still load his email with my oeuvre. My parents juggled the notion, of other professions for me, while I grew into a writer, right before their eyes.
How could I have not been a writer? My mother read me Langston and Zora. My father, poetry his hobby, read his words aloud for us all to hear. My house was filled with the most amazing books, my mother’s J. California Cooper collection and my father’s obsession, several copies of the “I Am The Darker Brother” anthology. How could they have expected anything else?
After enrolling me in science research and technology programs, convincing me that I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as it’s profitable, my parents watched my interest in scribing increase. It had become a way to get away from the meticulous math and science that was being crammed down my throat. They gave in slightly.
“Journalism, that’s what you’ll do. It’s writing, but it has direction. You can get a job in a newsroom or even on television.”
I was immediately enrolled in a junior journalism program, at a local college, and although a portion of me enjoyed that I was getting to put pen to paper, I had no intentions of being neutral. I wanted to state my opinion, I wanted to make up stories, and I wanted to write my life in prose.
It wasn’t until a good friend lent me Hoban’s book that I truly started to research the depths of the young artist, Basquiat. I was instantly jealous at the way he took a stance. His declaration of artistic passion consumed me and I longed to be that furious and free.
I got to college and took their advice on making journalism my major. Some of my friends were studying English and I listened to them discuss the texts they were analyzing, with envy. Somewhere amidst a conversation of Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist” and Gloria Naylor’s “Mama Day”, I decided I’d had enough. I marched right over to the journalism department and switched my major to English Arts.
When I came home, that summer, my parents had been given the news through a report card. I hung my head in shame; I was too much of a coward to tell them myself.
“I mean all you can really do with this is become a teacher.” My father said.
“I’m probably going to do that to supplement income,” I tried to quell the situation.
“Do you really want spend the rest of your life in a classroom? Teaching the same thing over and over again, year after year.” He added.
My mother interrupted, “I mean English majors can be pre-law. Perhaps you’ll use this for law school.”
“No!” I yelled. “I just want to write, why is this so hard for you to understand?”
The two stared at me in awe; their eyes were dipped in disapproval and my heart sunk into my stomach. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that I’d lied or my actual change of major, but I’d never seen them more hurt. They slunk away, with their set aspirations, and only mumbled them, under their breath, after that day. They’d decided that I was grown and they realized that there was no changing my mind.
There is no such thing as just writing (painting, dancing, filming, etc.), to some (most) immigrant parents. After a poll of several of my Caribbean, African, and Asian friends, the sentiment is similar, across the board. We are the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers, antique sofas with sticky plastic slipcovers, and the era of bleach smelling homes. Our parents took pride in appearance and status. They took on the roles of nanny, maid, janitor, and more so that they could say 'my children are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and engineers'; never artists, bohemians, and rebels.
I sometimes envision Basquiat in the restaurant where he took his father, rambling on incessantly about the money he was making, the women who loved him, and the friendships—with important people—he’d formed. I can imagine what his father must’ve pondered—here is my son; drug addict, failure, and artist. I don’t think he could still see the child inside of his adult son, doodling on a postcard, waiting for his approving smile.
He even once painted a knee bending on the floor, with words underneath that read, “Return of the prodigal…” I wonder if he halted writing “son” for fear future analyzers would decipher how desperately he wanted a bond with his predecessor.
These days Basquiat is abundant. He adorns our sneakers, sweatshirts, and rap lyrics; an idol to all those who wish to say they know something about refinement. However, the psyche is so much deeper than that. Our connection to Jean-Michel is born from his rebellion. I want nothing more than to smile at second-generation children, whose Reebok tongues are adorned with the infamous crown. Sometimes I want to say to them, “Don’t you know he rebelled for you?” These boys, who want to be music engineers, rappers, poets, writers, and more, are told by similar immigrant parents that the things they aspire to are few and far in between. The boys will beat their chests and bark Jean-Michel, “But he did it!” The savvy parent will reply, “Didn’t Basquiat die of a drug overdose?”
This isn’t the point.
They’ve never aspired to be martyrs or sacrifices; they only wanted the crown. The next generation seeks regality that only few were/are chosen to receive, dead or alive. This is the deep-rooted attachment. Their parents will sit baffled, as mine did. Some will never ever forgive.
However, something will give and heal. For some, it is within themselves, a solitary restoration. It’s an understanding that all will be okay, as long as you have your art. For others, like me, our parents will bend and flex, they’ll begin to see that what we do is a passion and tireless work. I watched my mother read my first published article and my father from the stage of HBO’s Def Poetry, their eyes filled with tears.
“You’re a writer. A damn good one.” They said.
I smiled, “This is what I want to do.”
For all those who aspire to be bohemian royalty, you don’t need anything but yourself, your paintbrush, your pen, your camera, your fingertips, your pirouette, your mind, your heart. I see you. We see you.
You need acknowledgement and admiration; you don’t need a crown.
Because, “most young kings get their heads cut off” anyway.