Interview: Alex Ishmael Wiggins

28 Aug

Alex, or Ish as he’s often called, reached out to me through Facebook messaging, after my piece, If You’re White Get It Right: Wendy Jane’s Primer For White People On Talking About Race was posted in early August.  We shared some snippets of conversation about how he feels trapped in a nice prison while living in Florida. His reflections recalled the letter Root’s drummer extraordinaire, Questlove shared on Facebook right after the Trayvon Martin verdict.

Questlove, aka Ahmir Thompson, spoke of refusing invitations to swanky parties where he thought his presence as a husky, 6′ black man with a giant afro would make white people uncomfortable. It was painful to read about what he felt he had to do to make white people not feel threatened by his presence, including a tense moment in the elevator of his own residence. A young, white woman wouldn’t tell him her floor number, because, he suspects, she thought he might follow and accost her.

When Ish and I had our fb message encounter that echoed Questlove’s much too closely, I knew I had to write about Ish’s experience. I am grateful that Ish agreed.

I know Ish through my friend Diana Fox, who you might remember from my post, My First Swirled Passover. Ish is Diana’s stepson from her first marriage to Ish’s Dad, Al, but more like her son, since they’ve been together since Ish was four years old.

I found out at that spring Passover seder at Diana’s that Ish and his girlfriend, Kat, a fashion designer, lived in Ft. Myers Beach, Florida, where my Dad now lives half the year. We promised to connect there when my daughters and I took our planned vacation in April, and Kat graciously offered to take my girls on a tour of her office. They were thrilled because they love fashion. We spoke lightly that night about some of the issues they faced as an interracial couple–Kat, 26, a warm soul, and a beautiful modelesque young woman with long blond hair. With Ish, 28, handsome, engaging, his skin a rich brown in contrast to Kat’s porcelain hue, well, let’s just say they make for a pretty striking couple.

I learned that Ish was born in Arizona and lived there until he was six. He then moved to North Carolina until he was twelve, then lived in Vermont for a few years until moving to Rhode Island when he was fifteen.

Wendy Jane: What did you think of Florida when you moved there?

Ish: It’s not like anything I thought it would be like, not like you see on tv, maybe if you’re in Miami it’s different, but here…it’s boring. Everywhere you go you see confederate flags. People look at you weird. Where I live there’s a Walmart across the street. When I go there, I’ll be polite as always. People talk about hospitality here, but I feel like people look at you weird.

I’ve only made two good friends since I’ve lived here–I’ve been here off and on for 16 months. And…after everything, Trayvon case, and recently the kid that got shot for having his music playing too loud, things like that…stories like cops pulling someone over and people getting shot…I’d rather stay inside and feel safe, instead of being out and not safe, not knowing what could happen.

It feels like I’m in a very nice prison here. I can’t go out, can’t go down the wrong cul-de-sac.

I remember when we moved from Arizona to North Carolina…the way my Dad explained things to me when we moved. He said that all the rules change from here on in. Everything is different. I didn’t have that reminder in my mind about the rules changing right before I moved down to Florida.

Ish goes on to recall his arrival to Florida.

When I arrived, I had to wait eight hours at the Orlando train station for Kat to come get me after she finished work. On the car ride home, I had to go to the bathroom so I have Kat pull over in a cul-de-sac and I piss on a tree. And it hit me about what my Dad had said. Bad things happen to people in the wrong places. I’m dark black, a shadow in the night. I have to be a lot more aware.

Three weeks after I arrived in Florida, I was driving Kat to work. I got pulled over by a cop. He told me I was going 4 miles over the speed limit. He arrested me for a moving violation, and locked me up. Kat had to come down and pay $500 to bail me out.

I might run into trouble, but I can’t stop being black. I cut my hair, changed the way I dressed, I’m always conscious of the way I speak. We live in a gated community. I hang out at the pool and am really polite and talk with the old ladies doing water aerobics there. One day the office lady, asked if I lived there. I told her I lived with my girlfriend. She asked me who my girlfriend was, and told me, “if you live here you have to be on the lease. And, you have to have a credit check.” I asked her, “why do I have to have a credit check when I’m not on the lease and I’m not the one paying the bills?” She then told me I have to have a background check.

They did a federal background check on me, not just a state one. I had had a few arrests a while back for disorderly conduct, so she told me I couldn’t live there. I asked a friend of mine who lives in the building about the background check and he said he knew other friends in the building who had arrests and lived there.

I seriously feel like I’m living in a box. I have everything I didn’t have in Rhode Island–a nice apartment with 22-feet vaulted ceilings, a swimming pool, a lanai–I have everything I didn’t have in Rhode Island…except my freedom.

When transcribing my notes I couldn’t remember how Ish resolved the matter of being told he had to leave. I asked Ish, and he told me that he told the office he would leave, but just stayed anyway. He said that he tries to make sure that no one sees him out and about in the neighborhood. I also had thought that Ish had said that he heard some of the older people in the building were afraid of him. He responded that…”it was actually just a very obvious unspoken thing. Especially the older white men. Its just something like air. You don’t see it, but you feel it, so you know its there. I guess I’m this black guy who works out, but I’m only 200 lbs, not real big…I feel boxed in.”

It seems Ish won’t run out of examples of being met with racist remarks because of the color of his skin.

Ish: A few weeks ago Kat and I had some friends visiting. I took one of my friends to this bar. All the bouncers were black dudes. This girl sitting near us says, “You’re so dark it must be hard to see you at night.”

I say, “What? Why would you say that?”

Her boyfriend, who was like a hick, started coming on to me–‘”why are you talking to my girlfriend that way?”

I was getting angry; could feel myself losing my cool. Then, one of the bouncers comes up to me and tell me I have to go–not the other people, just me.”

I went home, and…that was the first time I ever broke down over racism. I felt trapped.

So, I’m dealing with being in this plush prison.

And yet another….Ish fills me in on the details of the basketball court story he first facebook messaged me about.

Ish: I’m on the basketball court at my college, which I’ll be attending starting in September. I’ll be majoring in Business and Computer Science. I’m on the court, and a black lady and a white lady are standing by the court and I see the white lady whisper something to the black lady. I’m the only one who is using the court. No one is ever there. Students walk by, they always say hi to me, no problem.

The black lady comes up to me and says you have to wear a shirt while you play. I tell her, “It’s 95 degrees out. I can see bare footprints on the court. I’m wearing sneakers.”

She continues, “You’re really not supposed to be playing here.” And she says that you’re supposed to be living on campus to play there.

So, I leave and go home, put on a shirt and come back. When I get there, there are three white guys playing. They do have shirts on.

I say ‘hi, what’s up?” and asked them about playing there. They told me they didn’t live there on campus either, and that they play there all the time.

When I was home later I talked to that same neighbor I had talked to about the background check, (Ish tells me he’s a white guy in his 30’s) because he always calms me down. I asked him if he had heard about that basketball playing rule. He said he had never heard that you had to live on campus to play there, and at a dinner party soon after with Kat and some friends, a few people said they knew lots of people that play there and don’t even go to school there.

I don’t fit into the mold. The confederate flag beach towels and bikinis I see at the beach. The racial undertones are so thick I can cut them.

People here think of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the street name in any city, where all the disenfranchised black people live. I don’t fit that with the way I speak.

WJ: And how does all of this impact you and Kat as a couple?

Ish: Kat knows this can’t work for us as a team. It’s a lot of stress. Black people and white people treat her terribly. We go to the grocery store at Wal-mart across the street from us. We’re not dressed to impress or anything, but still people just look at her. I can just feel it. I don’t feel it everywhere, but there I do. I’ve seen sometimes people not even acknowledge her in a store. It’s starting to hit Kat more now. It happens to me and she doesn’t see it. Now, she is seeing it herself.

Kat and I applied to volunteer at Big Sister and Big Brother. Kat recently got the girl she was going to mentor, a nine-year-old black girl. We saw on the application the mother had put down that she didn’t want anyone to talk to her daughter about religion, and she also made a note that she didn’t want the mentor to be black. Black people have a problem with black people.

It’s not all because of the Trayvon Martin thing and Obama but it is more about me being a black, articulate man that people are taken aback with the way I look and talk. The worst part about being down here is the unspoken tension of the race issue. If that wasn’t there I’d drive and explore, have more conversations with people I meet when I’m out, but I can’t.

Not everyone, not all black people share that attitude. I have a friend here, Juwan who one day when we were in the car together he asked, “Do you want me to thump my music?”

I told him about the case about the young guy being shot for having his music too loud in his car.

He said, “Whatever, fuck that. I’ll drive however I want.”

WJ: Had he heard of that case?

Ish: No, he hadn’t. He thought I was kidding. When this happened, I actually wished I could be so hard-headed. He has the “they won’t hold me down” attitude. I slightly envied his way of thinking for a second or two but then I realized he is 19, invincible. I am 28 and realizing my mortality.  I didn’t show my worry.

WJ: But, you were kind of worried inside?

Ish: Very.  The thing about being a transplant right now, if you are black, and pay attention to the cases and what not, it is foolish not to be worried where I live.

Are there any good, positive things happening for you here?

Kat and I have good times together. We depend on each other. For her, Florida is perfect–the sun, her job, nature. It’s hell for me. I don’t want to get in the way of her success and career, but she knows we need to move back up North eventually.

What’s the difference for you between living up north in Providence and being in Florida?

I’m biased toward Providence. I know what I’m up against there. I’m not up against people. I’m up against a system, a lot of systems–the financial system, the school system, and the police. All of which had their own effect on my life.

In Florida it became apparent quick that not only would my skin color be a problem but so would the way I speak. My first name (Ishmael). My religious views. Everything. In Florida, I’ve applied for a lot of jobs, and haven’t gotten them. Black people aren’t taken seriously here by whites or blacks.

Up North, not so much. Black and white-it’s about people. Who you are. There’s still racism, but not so much, not as blatant.

Everywhere you go, Martin Luther King Boulevard is where all the disenfranchised black people live. Black people who live in a gated community here in Florida stay home. In Providence, I can walk down the street. I can walk down the street. Period.

In Florida there’s no culture, no art. In Providence is everything I love–making music, seeing live music, seeing art shows. I left all that in Providence.

WJ: What can we do?

Ish: Black people to an extent have every right to be angry. The black woman who didn’t’ want her daughter to have a black mentor at Big Sisters–things like that are perpetuating racism. Black people shouldn’t say…”that white m’fer…” What a parent tells us shapes who we are, too.

If you have a conversation with adults, it’s going to get to slavery and reparations. We’re never gonna act like we’re satisfied with an apology.

Teaching children differently so in these generations coming up things can get better. Twenty-eight year olds like me, we’re already conditioned to think what we think. You can condition kids to see things differently. My dad used to say that he was raised in the military, and in the military “we don’t see black and white, we see green.” There’s no difference between me and my white and Hispanic friends. We’re all part of the same team: humanity.

I also remember a picture book called People I had growing up. It showed people of all different cultures around the world and showed how it would be boring if everyone in the world were the same. It was worldly and can show racism is a small construct. Diana shared that with my brothers and me. It seriously was one of the things that stands out to me to this day.  I loved that book.

Fifty years ago the civil rights movement was a huge wake-up call. Some people want to squander that or steal from the NAACP, not stand up for what we asked for. We’ve made huge steps, but at the same time it’s not happening fast enough. It seems the women’s rights movements has seen faster change.

Zimmerman was Mexican, probably not racist, probably racially profiled Trayvon, and the media painted him (Trayvon) as a thug. I think our system doesn’t want us to get along.

You have to meet someone who changes your mind. Someone who blows your mind; breaks down your perception.

A wise man once told me don’t argue with fools. People who think like I do should mentor. That’s how you change things around. That’s how you change the world.

Kat and Ish

Post-Interview Note: In a brief chat with Ish after this interview, he let me know that he and Kat are very much looking forward to when their lease is up in April. They plan on moving out of their gated community, and into a better suited for them, more diverse neighborhood. I hope that they find what they are looking for. And, for Ish, I especially hope that he will no longer feel like he’s living in a “very nice prison.” I wish for them a place that they both can enjoy together. Thank you, Ish, so much, for taking the time to talk with me, and to clarify points I wasn’t sure about in our interview.


SOURCE:, Read Questlove’s Open Letter And Thoughts On Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Trial, Christin Ma, 7/19/13

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