I woke up that morning at a Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver. I had performed the night before, and it was really well received. After the performance, some new friends and I decided to go to a local steakhouse for dinner, and gave Denver's economy a significant boost from that dinner alone. I fell asleep that night feeling pretty good about myself, where I was in my career, and life in general.
I woke up that morning at the Grand Hyatt, and made the decision to dedicate that entire day to practicing.
I sat on a bench between the Grand Hyatt and the 555 building, as it's known locally, mostly because it was right next to Starbucks, which made for quicker refills. My guitar case wasn't open in classic busking fashion or anything like that. It was closed and out of the way. I was not asking for money or attention. I was playing my guitar quietly and not singing at all. Occasionally someone would come up to me that had attended the performance the night before, and I would talk to them, take pictures, and quietly marvel to myself that I was actually living this dream, that people would take time out of their day to ask for a picture with me. That concept is still mind-blowing to me.
I sat down at around 11:30 AM, and I sat there in the same spot till about 4 PM. I was planning on sitting there for another few hours -- until this interaction took place between me and a security guard from the 555 building. I wrote down the conversation soon after it happened, so this is almost verbatim.
Security guard: Excuse me, I've been watching you for hours now, and you've been sitting here all day... I think it's been long enough. I think you should move on now. Find somewhere else to stay.
Me: ... what?
Security guard: Yes. Get going ...
Me: But I am staying here ... over there in fact. *I gesture to the Grand Hyatt*
Security guard: You're staying there?
Security guard: You're staying at the Grand Hyatt?
Me: ... Yes.
Security guard: You have a room at the Grand Hyatt?
To give you a better picture, as soon as he asked me to get going, even while we were having the conversation, I was packing my guitar. Even before this era of fraught relations between minorities and police, I've always been a firm believer in deescalating any situation. Do what you're told, discuss later. For the record, I wasn't afraid for my life, and I wasn't worried for my safety. The gentleman who I was having this conversation with was not in any way shape or form physically threatening or menacing. But in case you couldn't tell by the conversation, he sounded incredulous that I would be staying at the grand Hyatt. Disbelieving in fact.
Maybe I looked particularly shabby that day. Maybe the guitar I was playing, the iPhone I was using, the Ray Bans I was wearing -- maybe all these things were stolen. Maybe even the Starbucks in my hand was something someone bought for me out of the kindness of their heart. Maybe he thought that successful musicians don't play guitar on benches. Maybe in his mind guests at the Grand Hyatt aren't usually in jeans and a T-shirt. Or maybe, in his mind, guests at the grand Hyatt aren't usually black.
I don't tend to think of people in terms of race. And I don't say that in any kind of sanctimonious way. Literally, I just don't see race... or much of anything for that matter. So, I tend to treat people like people. I also never have minded being the only black person in any situation. I grew up in Connecticut, most of my friends were white, and that's totally fine. I am more than my skin, but I love my skin, and I'm comfortable in my skin. Not because dark skin is inherently more or less beautiful than any other skin, but because it's my skin, and my body, and my being. I grew up in Nigeria knowing that I was special. In fact I was told so quite often. Again not because of anything particularly amazing that I did as a child, but because we all grew up in Nigeria being taught that we, by virtue of being human, and alive, are made in the image of God, and are therefore special by default.
This 45-second interaction gave me a little taste of what it must be like to be treated like a skin color, to be treated like a statistic, to be treated like a problem that needs solving. It's a bitter, indecent taste. I can't begin to imagine what it would do to my sense of self-worth if I had to experience a lifetime of that treatment.
To the immense credit of the Grand Hyatt, two of its employees, Willie Angelo and Ben McDowell, jumped in as soon as they realized what was going on, with all the moral outrage the situation called for. I'm very grateful to the Grand Hyatt and for this. It would be very simple to label the security guard the bad guy, but that would be a gross simplification of a complex situation.
I have no perfect answers, no cookie-cutter tightly wrapped up conclusion for the story. I know it will be an experience that sticks with me for the rest of my life. We all need to continue examining our own deeply held stereotypes and assumptions about others that look different from ourselves. We need to stop pacifying ourselves with the comfortable narrative that we are without prejudice.
Yes I was a guest at the Grand Hyatt, with every right to be on the bench. Yes, he made an error in judgment.
No, I can't just think of him as a bad guy. I'm sure he's no better or worse than I am. I just hope he learned as much from this as I did.