The Other Columbus: All Black people are time travelers

Scott Woods
Tom Baker as Doctor Who

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common — they don't change their views to fit the facts. They change the facts to fit their views, which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs changing." 

- The Fourth Doctor, from the "Doctor Who" episode “The Face of Evil” (1977)

As it is winter, a story of vestments and time travel.

I own several scarves that are, shall we say, hard to miss. Multi-colored affairs, they range from 10 to 12 feet or more, depending on if I’ve stretched it that day. I have one that is 12 feet long and all white for casket-ready viewing, should things come to that.

They are perfect scarves: warm, stylish calling cards that expose me for the lifelong “Doctor Who” fanatic I am. Each is unique, but all are modeled after the iconic stole of “The Doctor,” the lead character from the long-running British series “Doctor Who.” The Doctor is an alien time traveler who goes on wild adventures ranging from the fantastic to the romantically maudlin. Upon his death (meaning after a few seasons and an actor’s contract has expired), The Doctor conveniently dies and then regenerates, becoming a new version of himself (he is currently, in fact, a she), which is how you extend a television show for five decades. 

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I grew up on the Fourth Doctor, played by the inimitable Tom Baker. I did not seek him out: An older brother was obsessed with the show and I could not defeat him in combat, so I had to watch whatever he watched. Fortunately, the scarf wearing, jellybean popping Fourth Doctor was right up my alley. He was brilliant and zany and daring and had an infectious personality. And his scarf was a marvel, not to be worn or recreated for any of the other Doctors since.

Traditionally, as a character, The Doctor is as non-Black as you can get, which I am sure is part of the double-take when people see me wearing one of the mufflers on steroids. When people see the scarves, they either don’t get the reference and are smitten with the Lenny Kravitz-daring size of the things, or they do and think that perhaps I might be The Doctor and have been caught mid-exploit. 

Except no one ever expects to see a Black Doctor. Since the show began in 1963, no Black actor has ever set foot in The Doctor’s shoes. Even when one has been retroactively injected into the lineage of the centuries-old character, a Black depiction did not exist until January 2020 (Jo Martin). Prior to this year, there was little reason to suspect that there would ever be a Black Doctor.

Which is funny because Black people are time travelers. There are places we can drive to in this country where the year changes, where the glances become stares and the trees bend to sniff at our necks, remembering. This past summer I watched videos from a Black Lives Matter demonstration held in Bethel, Ohio. Participants were attacked by the town’s citizens, their signs snatched and torn while being pushed, punched and threatened. This was not in 1960. It was July. Fifteen years ago the KKK was recruiting door to door in this town. Bethel is simultaneously two hours and six decades away. 

This is a chronomap that enthralls only if you can still be surprised by the way Black people are treated in America. We only need to travel back two weeks to witness the unconstitutional killing of Casey Goodson Jr. by a sheriff’s deputy for the crime of bringing dinner home to his family while Black. For years, a popular argument amongst “Doctor Who” fans against casting a Black actor was that The Doctor could only go so far back in time on Earth before they had to stare down the slavery conundrum. In real life, the timeline is drastically shorter.

And so my scarf, whose original intent was to adorn, has graduated from homage to shield. I commission them these days for the sole purpose of protection from not only the elements, but radically incurious racism that could snatch my life at any time. A scarf cannot render me bulletproof, but it does draw the lazy and normative American eye away from the routine target of my skin. It is a second in time I may need some day, a pause that might strangle a microaggression in its tracks, a double-take that may save my life.   

I do not wear a scarf as a fashion statement. It is a time traveler's scarf. It is noose long. It is a reminder.