Disclaimer: This video contains a racial slur most find painful to hear. Because of the context, our staff has decided to include it, unedited.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — “This skin turns people off,” said Winfred Rembert, the celebrated African American artist based in New Haven. “I don’t know why. Out of all the skins in the world when it comes to black skin, people are turned off, and they’ll do things to black skin that they wouldn’t do to any other skin. Why is that? Why is it so easy to pull the trigger on a black man? Why is it so easy to tase a black man when he hasn’t done a damn thing? Why is it so easy to do that? Why is it so easy to slap his face and knock him to the ground and mistreat him just because his skin is black? Not just in the streets. I mean in corporate America. It’s the same thing.”
Rembert’s skin has been the justification for white men to beat him, attempt to lynch him and even force him to work in cotton fields.
The 74-year-old now carves his scars onto another skin: leather etchings that depict his memories and add up to the heritage of an entire country.
“I’ve been called a n***** so many times, you know what, that it don’t even bother me,” said Winfred. “It don’t even bother me anymore. I answered to the word n***** when I was a little boy just like it was my first name.”
WATCH: Winfred Rembert recounts his life experiences
It wasn’t until he marched for civil rights with the NAACP that his eyes were fully opened to hatred so heavy it had blinded and subjugated him with invisible chains. But when he could see, Rembert began to fight.
His depictions of police beatings and the nightmares that stalk young black men are not historical depictions.
“I can’t see a better future when I look at George Floyd,” he said. “I can’t see a better future when I look at my son.”
His skin, Rembert said, is “chasing me to my grave. Chasing my son right behind me…I’ve been kicked around, booted around and hung up and down ever since I was 16-years-old — with no mercy.”
On this Juneteenth, which many hope will mark the dawn of a new freedom, a true freedom from systemic racism, violence and economic oppression, Rembert won’t play to platitudes.
“I would love to sit here with you and say, ‘we’re going to celebrate and we’re going to have a good time,’ but I have no hope. To me right now, Juneteenth is just a word.”
His eyes have now been open too long for Winfred to rely on blind faith. He can still see the images – locked up, forced to pick cotton. The generation that follows him is now picking up a torch for change. Starting with his own son, John.
He shares his father’s skin, in a world that has given him plenty of his own scars.
“It’s so far from over,” said John. “It takes a strong bloodline, almost a superhero to survive.”
Superheros like the young men and women who’s eyes have now snapped open — who march in protests and call for change in a moment that is fast becoming a movement. Where once they were told accept, now they reject.
Waterbury resident Jalia West is one of many across the state to take on the mantle of protest. She is part of a new generation, unbowed. But one that knows who they are and where they come from.
“I do hope that one day we are able to make him proud, make him happy and give him faith and hope again,” said West. “Imagine going through all of those things, and still going through them, and watching your kids go through them. At a point, some people are going to lose faith.”
John said he is ready to share his father’s burden, too.
“To survive captivity in Africa, Middle Passage, slavery, wars, civil rights, gang violence and then to still be here…there’s hope,” John said. “There’s hope. If we’re going to be eradicated, it would have happened a long time ago. We refuse to go anywhere. We want our place in this world as Black Americans. We want our identity.”
He wants a world where he doesn’t have to worry about whether the way he talks, walks, dresses, laughs or shows anger will mean the loss of his life or livelihood.
WATCH: John speaks about his challenges, changes he hopes to see
A world where scars can heal.
“We have to do something different now. We have to start creating a new history.”
West said she only truly knew herself when she learned about her history — a history that includes men like Rembert. It’s why she advocates for an education system that doesn’t obscure or equivocate the painful realities of history.
“Once I did get more puzzle pieces, I said, ‘I’m not conforming to anyone’s belief. I’m not a stereotype.’ I have younger brothers and sisters. I have nieces and nephews. If I’m not going to do it for myself, at least I’ll do it for them. I can’t live here every day knowing that changes need to be made and I’m not doing anything about it.”
Perhaps West, and others like her, is the hope that Rembert longs to see. The missing puzzle piece.
“Let’s hope I’m wrong and people will celebrate Juneteenth for what it’s worth and for what it’s meaning.”