I have been reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock quite a lot this week, so I thought I should write a post about it. I quickly realized that I need to share some context: my original position, my baseline. Not only is this book very different from anything else that I would ordinarily pick up and read, my experience of reading the book is new and different because I’m reading it for a workplace book club. A lot of my reaction to the book is directly linked to some of my thoughts and experiences in late high school. So, as a preface to my thoughts on this book, allow me to present some photos and narratives for context.
When I was in my last two years of high school, I took to tearing pages out of magazines and plastering the walls of my room with their images. When I went away to college, I took the photos with me and pinned them up in my dorm room. I’m not sure what images other girls my age had on their walls, but my walls were plastered with these images of injustice, some of them rather disturbing (just warning you).
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
To me, this image (above) represented both despair and love. These folks don’t have much, but they have each other.
Photo by David Douglas Duncan
I read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo in my sophomore year of high school, and I ended up something of a pacifist. This photo (above) represented to me the human cost of war. Like the character in Johnny Got His Gun, this guy (Ike Fenton, a US Marine) might have signed up for military service thinking that he was going into Korea to fight for democracy or freedom or liberty, and he probably discovered that war isn’t really about any of those things. It’s about being cold and hungry and shooting at the other side because you are told to do so. There isn’t any room for big ideals on the front lines.
It was around this time in my life that the U.S. sent troops into Kosovo, and I recall being so angry at the media representation of what our forces were doing there. Now that I am quite a bit older, I am better able to understand the importance of selling a good story at home, but it still makes me angry that when these folks in the military get home they have to deal with the great disconnect between what everybody believes they were doing over there and what was actually happening. Military folk honestly have enough to deal with–why do we have to stack one more thing on top?
Photo by Perry Riddle
My mom wouldn’t let me take this one with me to college, because she thought people would judge me based on the art I chose to display. As it turns out, she’s right. Very few people at APU were able to understand exactly what I meant by plastering this imagery all over my dorm room. The photo is of anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As an interesting little historical tidbit, the shirtless guy flipping off the camera was later sent to Vietnam and died in combat. I think that outcome provides a compelling context for the anger he displayed in this moment.
Photo by James Nachtwey
Yeah, I know it’s disturbing. I find it even more disturbing now that I have children. This photo was taken during the famine in Somalia in 1992. I was eleven years old at the time, and I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t do anything about it (what could I have done?). What disturbs me is that I didn’t really find out what was happening over there until 1997 when I happened to see this photograph. My family watched CNN all the time, and I was one of those kids who was generally aware of the outside world, but I didn’t know about this. As a sixteen-year-old, I suspected that the lack of media coverage was because the story was so bleak. Really, what American stuffing her face full of cheesy poofs wants to hear about a man-made famine thousands of miles away that causes this degree of suffering and degradation?
As an adult, I really don’t know what it means. Are we so caught up in wanting to believe in the good in the world that we purposefully turn away from stories that challenge that belief? And, a related question: isn’t it ultimately a more positive story to believe in the good in the world existing despite all the bad (rather than focusing one’s attention solely on the good to the exclusion of all the bad)?
Once again, the folks at APU had a hard time understanding why I would want to look on the picture of a starving child every day. To them, it was probably the sign of a lack of faith. It probably seemed as though I was one of those people who says, “there is too much evil in the world. God cannot possibly be good.” As with everything, my perspective was a lot more complicated than that. I looked on this picture every day because I felt it was my duty to do so, because I was lucky enough to be born in a country and in a socio-economic position where this degree of suffering would never happen to me or to anyone I know.
Photo from Bettman/Corbis Archive
Finally, I had this picture on my wall. I’m pretty sure I had it arranged next to the photo of the guy in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention–the one flipping off the camera–but the arrangement didn’t really signify anything in particular (or maybe it did… crowds of angry white people?). I was always more focused on the woman behind and to the right of Elizabeth Eckford–the one leering at her in silent disapproval–than on the shouting girl behind Elizabeth. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found silent, simmering hatred to be more damaging and disturbing than loud, expressive hatred. Perhaps it’s because people always seem to focus on those who loudly proclaim their racism while those folks who quietly emanate hostility slip under the radar of public notice. Case in point: Hazel Bryan Massery, the shouting girl in this photo, achieved national recognition as being the “face of hate.” Meanwhile, no one has any idea who that leering woman is.