A Black Star Points the Way


My mother recently uncovered a composition I wrote at age 8 about my family. Among other observations, I made note of the fact that “my mom likes meetings, my dad likes to study,” and “whenever I want to play with my brother Joe’s Legos he says I have to buy him something.” My mother circulated this essay via e-mail, and we all laughed about the fact that some things never change. Yes, my brother is quite something. He is blessed with the Hostetler sense of humor and charisma, and though he’s often too smart for his own good, his easygoing personality often belies the depth of feeling he carries for the people in his life and the level of dedication he has for his work.

Then on Sunday, while having lunch with my parents, uncle and aunts, my dad pulled out a laser-printed copy of a drawing that, though originally created many years ago, I instantly recognized. I’m a bit embarrassed to confess that I started to get teary-eyed as I immediately identified it as “Joe’s.”

My brother probably wouldn’t consider himself an artist—although, to be fair, I don’t actually know that for a fact since I haven’t asked him. Regardless, his childhood drawing is quite remarkable. I’m biased, of course; compared to illustrations made by other 7-8 year olds, it might not stand out. Still, the symbolism present in this particular composition is notable for the way it challenges mainstream notions about what is “normal” or perhaps even beautiful.

Joes’ drawing, titled “Christmas Star,” is an intriguing example of his world perspective at a fairly young age. How many children, let alone adults, would have a mind to draw a black star with the implied belief that it is beautiful, appropriate and powerful? Not a gold star. Not a white star. Not a yellow star. Not a silver star. It is a black star, shooting out of the dark night with rays of red light and accented with flecks of green.

Considering that I was only 3 years old when he created this masterpiece, I wasn’t able to pick my brother’s brain and ask him questions about what the colors meant to him, or what he was trying to convey. (Even if I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t remember the conversation.) And yet, there are reasons why my parents have held onto it for all these years. There are reasons why seeing it again caused an unexpected reaction in me.

We still live in an age where the editor of a science website feels free to call a fellow scientist—a black female biologist in this case—a “whore,” where there is apparently interest in conducting studies to prove that black women are less physically attractive than white or Asian women, and where black men are perceived as dangeroustrouble-makers. Defining positive standards in the midst of the negative, consequently, becomes a lifelong endeavor. Goodness is still implied in words like “pure” and “white,” just as evil is frequently implied with words like “dark” or “black.” The associations are there whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

So, while I can’t speak to the conscious or subconscious decisions Joe made about what looked “right” at the time, the point is that my brother drew a big black star and saw that it was good. And beyond his penchant for making wisecracks, this image is evidence of his sense of pride and self worth, the creation of what was simultaneously normal and awesome in the eyes of a black child. And that black child went on to become a physicist. What magnificent symmetry.