Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Neck Deep in the Big Muddy


The AP Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez depicts a white man and a black man, barely keeping their heads above dark water against a ruined industrial backdrop. They might be cooperating on a dangerous task, trying to free a body. They could be escaped convicts, chained together Cool Hand Luke-style and dragged down by an unseen force. Do their expressions signify their concentration as they work by feel, the strain of inhaling putrid air, or revulsion for each other as their hands inadvertently touch?

On the face of it, we don't know for sure, so it seemed a perfect across the great divide image. How we read this and other images streaming from the Gulf states will tell us a great deal about our individual capacity for hope, despair and projection. Some will see looters, welfare leeches and moral defectives. In the same picture, others will see working people suddenly without work or homes, the poor, elderly and infirm.

And, it is clear, we will see race.

I found the water photo while trolling for pictures of mothers and their babies, intending to contrast conditions in an African refugee camp with those faced by black Americans in the Superdome. Could we tell the difference? Here, a mother holds her malnourished baby in a Maradi, Niger, camp run by “Medecins Sans Frontiers” (Doctors Without Borders). According to the caption, French army forces operating out of Gabon are flying 30 tons of food aid provided by the small west African country to Niger, where it will be used to relieve an acute famine. (Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

I decided I was setting up an unfair comparison, since I didn't know how long the camp had been in place, or how many it served. Besides, it would only reinforce a political point that many others are already making. And it would not sway those who are buying guns to take care of their own as the displaced enter their fair city.

For those of us who want to think of ourselves as race-blind, now is the time to be alert, not to what the bigots are saying — we won't convert them — but to the inner narrative we construct that allows us to sleep, that tells us who is worthy of help, who is worthy of contempt, and how far we will venture from our circle of comfort.

I went back and located the men in the water photo. They are Joe Dobson, left, and Roderick Stapleton, water and sewage department workers attempting to change a valve on a burst drinking water line that caused this flood in Gulfport, Mississippi.

I still think this photo is an emblem for the country. And I'm still not sure what it means.

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