In each of our busy lives and packed schedules, it is easy to get comfortable in the Yale bubble. We go from class to class, meeting to meeting, residential college to residential college without much thought for the city that lies just outside our ivory tower. In our self-contained academic ecosystem, we often forget about the lives and experiences of the people who call this city home, but more often forget that those who experience homelessness in this city are people too.
I formed the habit early in my first year of taking long walks through the city and speaking to some of New Haven’s unhoused residents. In my walks and conversations, I found that the experiences not only provided the people I meet with human interaction and a shared sense of connection but provided me with perspective and a reminder of the injustices I came to Yale to try to rectify. During one such walk, on the corner of Chapel and High, I met Isaac Canady, a Black New Haven artist selling his work next to the Starbucks on a sunny, New Haven day. I stopped for a moment to admire the pieces and learn a little about the artist’s inspiration; instead, I heard the deeply moving story of Isaac Canady’s life and learned a valuable lesson about who we choose to celebrate during Black History Month.
Isaac is 63 years old and has been an artist his entire life. He got his start in the arts when he attended a prestigious performing arts school as a boy and mastered various instruments as well as the art of dance. For years, Isaac worked for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and the Columbus House in its early days helping prevent homelessness and promote mental health in New Haven before becoming homeless himself and dealing with mental illness following a divorce and treatment for substance abuse. During that time, Isaac’s history of trauma resurfaced and he relapsed back into addiction. In 2004, he developed a degenerative spinal disorder requiring him to undergo surgery, which was when he started drawing. Creating visual art became more than just a way for Isaac to pass the time in a hospital bed or express himself — it became a form of therapy for a man who lost everything. After almost being discharged in sub-zero weather, he was able to recover but was unfortunately houseless for another 14 years, during which time he continued drawing on the Green or by Starbucks and sold his artwork to spend his days. By day he drew on the Green (and inside the Starbucks when it rained) and by night he searched for a safe place to lay his head down to sleep.
Isaac developed a distinct art style, and anyone who is familiar with his art can recognize an Isaac Canady. He uses pointillism, a technique requiring great care and patience, to convey powerful messages about the world he sees. His art has grown and evolved with him and his living situation over the years.
Isaac now lives in an apartment and in 2022 was honored by the University for his life and work. He told me that Yale has made it possible for his art to travel around the world and impact dozens of people on either side of the town and gown divide. Isaac continues to draw and likely will not stop for some time.
Black History Month has always been a funny tradition in my mind. Every year, during the shortest and coldest month of the year, schools across the country tell the same stories about a handful of Black leaders and history makers before returning to business as usual on March 1st. While some states actively ban our history from being taught and others tell invented versions of it in their textbooks, it’s all okay because for 28 days each year we talk about George Washington Carver’s peanut butter, Rosa Parks’ bus seat and Dr. King’s dream of an America where we are judged by the content of our character. We may be killed and abused by police, disadvantaged in the courts and mass incarcerated, a sad reality that cannot be escaped even at Yale, but remember when we talked about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad? The way we talk about Black History Makes it seem stilted and stagnant.
There is Black history all around us, everyday, and Isaac helped me realize that. Stories like Isaac’s are not the first ones we think of when we talk about Black history or Black excellence — that should change, because he is Black excellence. This month, I’m honoring and remembering Isaac and all the people like him whose stories we may never hear but are just as powerful and just as important as the Jackie Robinson or Barack Obama story to our collective narrative. They are reminders that our history is alive and ongoing, and that we have a responsibility to continue advancing racial justice everywhere in the United States 24/7, 365 days a year.