April 29, 2013

Images from the other side of planet

On a warm summer day many years ago, more than a hundred well-dressed men and women gathered in the California Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.

We sipped glasses of wine while we ate warm sandwiches and made new friends. A piano murmured softly in the background. We had come to witness starvation in Ethiopia, and we were doing it in style.

The room lights dimmed, then went out. A screen flashed to life. Conversation drew to a close as images swam into view.

My mind told me that what I was looking at was not real, that this could not be happening. Not while we were comfortably eating and drinking. It was merely another example of the picture-maker’s art.

There were gasps as the people in the audience realized that the faces on the screen were our own faces. Our well-fed bodies squirmed uncomfortably with the knowledge that these stick figures with parchment skin stretched thin across skeletal frames were our friends, our relatives — they were us. We shared a common past, and our futures were bound together by the color of our skin.

No, we the observers were obviously not starving, not in the sense that we had been deprived of food. We were, however, starving for the closeness that the centuries-ago trip across the ocean had efficiently erased from our collective consciousness.

The emaciated child suckling a shriveled breast that had not held liquid in recent memory was not one of ours — and yet she was. There was no escape from reality in that dimmed room.

The other side of the planet does not always exist for those of us who have not been there. Disasters, on the scale of the Ethiopian tragedy, do not become real even for one who has traveled. The multitudes of those who have died and who will soon die come in numbers that defy imagination. We have not learned to count in millions.

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