writers and artists
2 September 2005, from Chiang Mai, Thailand
What Would Martin Luther King, Jr. Say Now?
My Oral Presentation students have just listened to, and analyzed, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech when news of the catastrophic hurricane in the American south begins coming in. We have explored together the power of the Reverend’s rhetoric as well as the substance of his words and we have talked about race relations in the United States during the 1960s. Now they want to know more about the difference between blacks and whites in my country.
“Why are all the pictures of black people?” they ask. “Where did all the white people go?”
It’s an easy question to answer in some ways: Poverty makes people even more powerless in times of natural disaster. But in other ways, it is very difficult to explain to young people from countries recently hit by their own enormous catastrophe. How do you explain why the richest, most powerful and some say smartest country on earth didn’t have emergency plans in place in a region of the country subject to massive storms every year? Why were there no food and water stocks, and where were the designated shelters? Why didn’t buses start taking people without their own transportation out before the storm struck? And how on earth do you begin to explain why healthy personnel from the posh and private Tulane University were evacuated from rooftops while the poor, black patients at Mercy Hospital watched and waited for rescue from the roof of their sanctuary? What would happen if there was a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant, they ask? Would the poor black people be abandoned?
I’ve asked myself all these questions and more as I’ve watched CNN and BBC every night, listened to the outraged mayor of New Orleans and the black mothers scared for their children’s lives, watched scenes of looting, and heard reports of attacks on police and rapes of women. My mind has flashed back to the days of the 1960s Civil Rights movement and the 1970s race riots and more. And I know that this is not just the story of a country and an administration and local officials disastrously unprepared to cope with this kind emergency; this is a continuing story of race relations in America. So I stand before my inquiring students embarrassed and ashamed as I try to explain to these dark-skinned youth more than 200 years of bigotry in a country that prides itself on it’s democracy and it’s founding as a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
We are not, of course, the only nation that cares little for its underclass. In India, the poor must pay proportionately large bribes for everything, including the right to hold a newborn baby, according to a recent report in the International Herald Tribune. In France, African immigrants perish in tenement fires. In Australia, aboriginal people are still despised and isolated.But America’s response to Katrina is especially unforgivable in view of our resources, and it speaks volumes about who we are and whom we care most about. It foreshadows what is happening at the United Nations, where under U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, America is trying to renege on its commitment to the Millenium Development Goals, an internationally agreed upon set of initiatives aimed at alleviating world poverty and bringing a modicum of dignity to the poorest of the poor, most of whom have dark skins.
So what do I say to my students who so eagerly want to understand America’s response to the hurricane, its view of its black citizenry, its concern for the rest of the world? I can talk to them about the history of racism, its psychology, and sociological trends in my country. But for once in my life, I am actually at a loss for words.
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Elayne Clift, a writer from Saxtons River, Vt., USA, is teaching at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand this year.