PEOPLE WITH PASSION: Ishmael the Rebel
September 9, 2010
Jeweler, teacher, music producer Ishmael the Rebel, or, as he tells it: “My full name is Jonnah Mu Ahmed Ishmael Israel. I go by Ishmael the Rebel. My government name is S. Maurice Douglass. Know about it.”
I met Ishmael on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle, a train that runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans. I first identified him as a “charismatic, music-loving black man with a gray, full-body sweat suit, a blue fitted hat, and large sunglasses.” As we spoke, I learned that the hat was not sports related as I assumed, but Marvel Comics. And the sunglasses were not merely a fashion statement, but were corrective eyewear. “I’ve needed glasses my whole life, so why not look good?” he told me.
Aboard the train, Ishmael and I discussed many life topics: our loves and fears, our career aspirations, the women in our lives, the balance of romance and work, our schooling. I recognized Ishmael as someone who enjoys seeking out people who are different than he, a person for whom understanding others is more important than being understood.
Upon reaching New Orleans, we spent the first few hours hanging out and continuing our conversation; Ishmael had told me on the train that he tries to learn “hello,” “goodbye,” and a few other basic terms in as many languages as he can, a practice that paid off at his hotel when we asked a bellhop for directions to a convenient store, and Ishmael recognized the man as Russian, asking if he was from Chechnya. “A black man knows my accent?” the man said with a delighted surprise. “That is wonderful.” They shook hands, and upon our return, the man’s attitude toward Ish, which previously was workaday pleasant, was now one of friendship and appreciation.
Here, in this conversation from September 9 aboard the train, Ishmael discusses his life philosophy, the role of stereotypes in American interaction, and why what you see is not always what you get.
What is it that most excites you about meeting new people? What opportunities are there that you are most excited about?
Breaking down my own walls, my own personal stereotypes I have against others. The ability to go up to them, meet them, and have a conversation helps me deal with my own inner prejudice. That’s the greatest thing about meeting new people to me, is to be able to have a thought and take that thought and have it be something totally different than what you think.
I want to look at this person, him or her, and not think in a prejudicial or stereotypical manner. The only way I can do that is by having some type of dialogue with them. What I take from it is, “Hey, that person was totally opposite of what I figured.” And I like being wrong. I don’t like being right. I don’t like when the stereotypes fit. I like when I see it one way but it’s totally different. I like that.
Breaking down a stereotype allows me on an individual basis to deal with more people that might look like “this” and not be so prejudicial. On the larger scale, we have to learn how to deal with stereotypes because we have to learn how to deal with people. And the only way that you ever can really deal with people is by dealing with their plight. If they have gone through something that you cannot relate to, when they talk to you and talk passionately about whatever it is as it relates to their struggle, if you don’t at least take the time to be empathetic to their circumstance, you have already put up a wall to any kind of overstanding or understanding that you all could have. You know what they say, the old school term – “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” – and the macrocosmic ideal for me is that. If I walk in another person’s shoes, then I won’t be so quick to judge the actions of that person or those people, or this group of people that are doing this thing.
Just as a quick example: Living in California, living in Los Angeles, people talk about the immigrant population. And for me, the only question I ever really have is “Why do I always see” – large quotations here – “so many people of Mexican decent or people who are Latino” – people who come from Mexico – “why do I see so many of them and they have so many kids?” I never was able to understand that. Until I asked my good friend who was a devout Catholic, and is also a Mexican. After he and I talked for a minute, I said, “Well hey man, I just don’t understand, you know, what goes on in the culture. I see these children, and they’re having so many kids…” He explained it to me, and it gave me more insight than I could have ever hoped to read in any book.
What he explained was very simple. By heritage and nature, people, Mexican-Americans – people who are from Mexico living in America – are predominately Catholic. And in Catholicism, birth control is a sin. Even pulling out is a sin. Once he explained that to me, and then I started to take my own lens and focus my own lens based on the perspective that he gave me, it helped me understand and overstand a lot more, when I saw, okay, “I see a young woman. She’s 23, 24, and she’s got three or four kids by three different guys.” Then I realize, okay, if she’s a woman who is in a relationship, she values the relationship, she was doing what came natural within how she was raised. “If you love this person, you sleep with this person. If you get pregnant, oh, oh well, you get pregnant. If you don’t, you were meant not to get pregnant. God didn’t want that seed in you.”
After I started understanding that, that’s when I scaled back kind of the view, looking like, (makes aggressively skeptical voice) “Man, why is it – ” and I really realized, “Okay, it’s a cultural thing.” And it’s not just a thing that has to do with something stereotypical once I went and studied the culture more.
Once you go from a point of not knowing what another group of people or another specific person is about, and then inquiring, and then understanding, you might still not agree with the thing that they’re doing.
How do you go about interacting with them, or engaging with them, at that point?
I’ll tell you something from the streets that my friends told me, and I had to learn this coming from California. “Eat the meat, spit out the bones.” Very simple, but it’s a very, very, very dynamic concept. Take only the information that you need, good, bad, or indifferent, and all information that you feel does not apply to you or that you feel cannot enrich or uplift you in any way, set it to the wayside. I try to find aspects of another person that I can use to learn from and help me in my personal growth, and those things that I don’t like, “Oh well. I don’t have to deal with them on that level.”
I am not what I appear to be in my baggy sweats and my sneakers. (Laughs.) That’s the biggest thrill for me: totally turning a person’s perception based on every preconceived notion that they’ve ever had – (imitating prejudiced person) “I know if I come across this it’s gonna be like this!” – and then they come across me, and it’s nothing like what they ever envisioned.
Dealing with stereotypical American views, they see a young black guy, like you said, with the chains on and a baggy sweat suit. They think they’re either getting a drug dealer or a rapper that used to be a drug dealer, or someone who participates in illicit activity, or a person who is devoid of education. And I am opposite of all of those things. I am formally educated. My mother went to Harvard. I went to three universities myself. I come from a long line of people who are educators. I used to be a teacher. I taught math, science, and reading, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade. I’m a formally trained artist. I am a professional jeweler. I am a licensed jeweler. I have certifications from the Geological Institute of America. I am a master bench jeweler, which means that I can go into any commercial jewelry store, show them my credentials, sit down and get a job. I am a scholar, (laughs), and a gentleman (laughs bigger).
But most of all, I am who I am, not what people perceive me to be. That’s the biggest thing I want them to take from me in my bodacious sweatsuitness. I want them to realize that in all of the similarities you can draw to “this guy on the TV” or “this guy you just saw get locked up in jail,” that “Oh, no. Those stereotypes don’t exist at all.” And then I would want them to project that aura of how they saw me and how they had me wrong to all of my brothers and sisters that look just like me. (speaking as “other people”) “I don’t need to judge them like this, because there might be something else to them. That other guy I met, he was an eloquent speaker, and he was intelligent and articulate.” (pause) That’s a negative word, by the way. Articulate. (big laughter) Yeah! But that’s what I want them to take from me, definitely. That, “Hey, I am not the stereotype that you think. Don’t get it twisted.”
The People with Passion interview series
Check out my column from September 23, an important story about a pregnant woman wrongfully imprisoned in Miami: “If it wasn’t happening to my friend, I wouldn’t believe it.”
It wasn’t all friendship and life chats on the Amtrak. We also hit a truck.