Not Kunta Kinte. Not Sambo. Not Toby.
But Cayden Jace.
The three-year-old has been at the center of a social media firestorm that has seen several people lose their jobs, including one of his mother’s co-workers, who initiated the controversy, while forcing an Atlanta-based marketing company to re-examine its hiring policies.
“We have to be more careful about who we hire,” said Michael Da Graca Pinto, president of the Polaris Marketing Group Monday.
Last month, on Sept. 16, a PMG worker named Gerod Roth, identified as Geris Hilton on Facebook, posted what seemed like an innocent selfie of himself and Cayden, the son of co-worker Sydney Shelton.
What followed was a torrent of racist and bigoted comments from Roth’s friends and followers. They called Cayden a “slave,” and likened him to the pivotal character in the book “Roots,” Kunta Kinte, whose name was changed to “Toby” after he was stolen from Africa. Someone even posted an image of “Little Black Sambo” to draw a cruel comparison.
When he initially posted the photo, it doesn’t appear that Roth actually commented.
But in response to someone asking, “Dude where the hell did you get a black kid??” Geris Hilton responded: “He was feral.”
Later, in an image that appears to be a Facebook Messenger conversation, someone asks the question, “Why is he feral though?”
An avatar that appears to be Hilton/Roth’s responds with: “Because he was abandoned in the Atlanta projects, to fend for himself, he is deaf mute, ca’t (cq) properly communicate and is in and out of a shelter home, that is the definition of feral.”
“The comments were horrible,” Pinto said. “What Sydney was upset about is that he referred to her son in slanderous ways and didn’t defend him.”
Roth told Fox5 News Monday that his entire post was “taken out of context.” He said he simply made it his profile picture and that his friends took it upon themselves to comment on it.
“I really feel upset, not only with myself, but also with the character that was based off of the comments that my friends made,” Roth said. “I feel as if, not only has poor Cayden been victimized but also myself for being targeted.”
Roth admitted to the “feral” comment, but said too, that it was taken out of context.
“Someone said, ‘so you just have wild kids running throughout your office building’ and that is when I said ‘he was feral,’” Roth said. “Which of course was interpreted directly as racist, but that was honestly not my intention.”
Shelton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was relieved that Roth is gone and grateful for the support from social media and her company.
“I never thought that it this would get this big. Someone in Kenya messaged my mother and said they were supporting us,” Shelton said. “I never imagined something like this happening in a million years. At 25, I am just trying to work and support my son.”
Detroit-based blogger Ife Johari said the images started appearing in her timeline last week.
She reached out to Shelton, blogged about it and created the hashtag, #HisNameIsCayden.
“Black Twitter was already doing their thing and I made a decision to find out who the child was,” Johari said Monday, adding that she has spoken with Shelton and her mother several times. “These people are just average people. A young mother who goes to work every day. Now the whole internet is in their life. Who asks for that?”
It is unclear who took the screen shots from Roth’s page and posted them. Several supporters of Roth have flooded Johari’s blog in support of him. But it took a while for it to get back to Shelton, who found out about the posts last Friday.
Roth initially posted the image of Cayden on Sept. 16, which makes what he did all the more heinous, Shelton said.
“Every morning he would speak to me. Every afternoon when I came back with Cayden, he would speak to us and he never said a word about it,” Shelton said. “If he knew this was happening and he knew they were talking about my child, why not say something to me? If you didn’t mean it or you didn’t believe it, why didn’t you say something about it to the people posting?
Shelton just started working for Polaris in August. She said Roth was there when she arrived.
“We just did what co-workers do in the office. But we never went out to eat and never hung out,” Shelton said. “I work in an office with 10 people and it is very diverse. Racism is the last thing that should be thought of. Nobody is a minority. Everyone is equal here.”
Pinto said he fired Roth on Sept. 29, issuing a strong Facebook message, saying that he was “disgusted.”
YourEDM, where he worked under the Geris Hilton moniker, also issued a statement confirming that they had fired Roth. Several other companies, where some of the commenters worked, have also issued statements saying that they have also fired people over the posts.
On Monday, Pinto doubled down.
“We have a family-oriented environment,” Pinto said. “Sydney is a friend and a great worker. I just wanted to let her know that this is not something we condone. I wanted Sydney to know that we support her.”
Meanwhile, Shelton has taken to social -- and traditional -- media to celebrate her son and change the sudden image of him.
“Cayden is a child. He is not abandoned. He is not mute or dead. He is loved,” Shelton said Monday. “Now I am about being able to stand up and talk about this. It hit home, because it is my child. I was afraid at first, but now people are hearing my voice. And if people are going to see my son, I want them to see my Cayden. I want them to get that image [posted by Roth] out of their heads.”