September 7, 2005

Faces of Tragedy

The land of plenty has never been kind to the poor and it’s been especially mean-spirited to poor people with dark skin.

The tragedy that unfolded before and after Hurricane Katrina roared off the Gulf of Mexico onto the southern shores of the great nation has followed what has become a surprisingly familiar script. In the drama, a devastating catastrophe is foretold months and even years in advance. After the calamity occurs, television journalists portray simplified stories of heroics and heartbreak. The leader of the great nation, one who always was slow to understand, is once again slow to respond. Days pass. And as the sun rises and sets, and rises and sets again, television journalists do what their technology enables them to do so uniquely well: show the faces of tragedy.

Hour after hour, day after day, people throughout the land of liberty see dark-skinned poor people corralled on bridges, the old and the young left broiling in the late August sun, the infirm and the ravaged abandoned without adequate food and proper shelter. When the people throughout the land begin seeing pictures of swelling crowds of dark-skinned poor people grabbing for bottles of water and snatches of food, the drama turns a new page of a different yet equally familiar script.

In this production, the great leader is airlifted in – and, within hours – out of the disaster zone. During his minutes on the ground, the leader is shuttled along from one carefully staged hug to the next. Photographers take pictures. But because this leader is not known for his warmth despite his blather of compassion – for he is a man best understood by his actions and inactions as opposed to his word; his hurried, thoughtless and malicious deeds as well as stammering and indifferent hesitations – the leader’s wife is called upon to stagger into a roomful of dark-skinned survivors and smile warmly. Photographers take pictures.

But because the majority of the faces on television screens across the land of the free, hour after hour, day after day, are dark-skinned poor people, the great leader also calls upon the top dark-skinned person among the leader’s many advisors. The woman is rushed from holiday to a podium in the capitol city of the great nation to speak of her duties outside of her official post. Officially, she now manages foreign affairs – a promotion she obtained after so spectacularly failing to manage her previous post, which was to guard domestic safety. From behind the podium, the dark-skinned foreign advisor looks down and speaks in hushed tones, softened to approximate genuine concern when she mentions that her family tree is rooted in the southern states now so horribly devastated by Mother Nature. The great leader’s advisor notably avoids any mention of the monumental, insidious, destructive effect of years of deliberate human neglect. Photographers take more pictures.

And because this script is the script we all have seen before, we all also knew what would come next: the mighty dark-skinned reverend from the city in the north would appear the very next day to christen the previous five days what many agreed they were: a disgrace. And two former leaders, foes now posing as friends, would be airlifted in for their staged embraces and calls for prayer and hope.

And as photographers take more and more pictures, the conversation across the home of the brave will move beyond the calamity and its aftermath to endless debates, hollow shouting matches about rebuilding the southern towns and metropolises, empty hollering contests about the political implications of these awful days in the final weeks of summer.

This noise – trust this: it will become an imposing sound and fury – will be created because the real issue at hand is far too frightening for far too many in this great and awesome land to ponder. And so, in no time, the real issue – how we treat one another, whether we respect our neighbors, all, no matter the tone of each other’s skin – will once again be dismissed and left unaddressed, just as the memories of all of those dark-skinned faces will soon be pushed into the shadowy corners of the attics in which we, the people, store our most fearsome and unwanted recollections.



Forgotten – except perhaps by one woman who had suffered the worst of the storm, not to mention the best and the worst of years of life upon this great land. In the time following the horrific hurricane, this anonymous woman stood before the television photographers to brush drying tears from her beautiful dark-skinned face and cry, “How can this be happening in the greatest nation on the earth?”


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