By JIM McKEEVER
A character in Linda Britt’s play, “American Dreams: Immigration Stories,” delivers a searing monologue challenging the sanitized view of American history, its omission of brutal European colonialism and the centuries of suffering it caused people of color who were here first or brought here as slaves.
The character, a young woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua, points out that Americans are taught their ancestors came here, worked hard and succeeded — facts of stolen land, discrimination, rape and murder are omitted.
“You never question your good fortune,” the character, Alicia, tells the audience. “You take it for granted.” She says she has had to study and work hard in America, yet is told to go back home, that she is “lucky” to be here.
Alicia concludes her monologue: “So I ask you, how did you get here? What did you do to earn what you were born with?”
Those words come to me frequently these days.
A new, part-time job takes me into neighborhoods in Syracuse that I would not otherwise visit, simply because I haven’t had to.
There, a 15-minute drive from my comfortable middle-class suburban life, I see poverty and despair that cuts across racial lines. I tell my friends and family that the living conditions for some in these neighborhoods are far worse than what I have seen in migrant shelters in Mexico — mold, bug infestations, syringes and condom wrappers in hallways, foul odors, litter.
Inside a tiny apartment strewn with trash, a young man tried to smile when he said to me, “My family is kind of broken. That’s why I am the way I am.”
A friend asked me the other day how the new job is going. I told him some of what I have encountered, the blatant disparities between my life and theirs. His response provided crystal-clear historical context.
“Laws exist so that we don’t have to care about them.”
It is something so obvious, yet I doubt it occurs to the comfortable among us.
Yes. Laws, written and unwritten, in place for generations, have allowed many of my suburban neighbors to “not have to care” about anyone other than their own kind.
School district funding systems that ensure unequal education. Housing red-lining that keeps people of color out of white neighborhoods. Employment-based access to quality health care. Eminent domain. And so on.
These are the walls that have already been built across America, invisible barriers to “keep people in their place.” Out of sight, out of mind.
Which brings me to another phrase that I cannot get out of my head.
It’s from the courageous attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Ala. Stevenson says with urgency, “Be proximate.” Get to know “the other,” their struggles, their hopes and their dreams.
Do this, and you may tap into a vein of empathy, of humanity.
“Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer,” Stevenson told a Syracuse audience in 2017.
Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.
Stevenson’s words, for me, dovetail perfectly with those of Alicia, Linda Britt’s character from Nicaragua.
“What did you do to earn what you were born with?”
While that question was directed toward people born into opportunity, if not privilege, its full scope must be considered:
What about the poor person, the person of color in America, the person born into poverty and violence anywhere in the world . . .
What did they do to earn what they were born with?
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Editor’s note: The headline, “You have seen their faces,” is borrowed from You Have Seen Their Faces, the 1937 collaboration between Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Their book, written by Caldwell with photographs by Bourke-White, documented the plight of the poor in the depression-era south. More than 80 years after its publication, we are still looking at the face of poverty.