In some sort of morbid sense, death was a topic this summer vacation. We had gone to visit friends who had lost their Tata, a woman who had raised them since birth and cared for them into their adult life. A friend said to Tin, “Come here, I want to tell you I love you, in case I die, I’m telling the people I love this.” Then Robin Williams committed suicide. My traveling companion had just undergone cancer, while a mutual friend had died a few months ago from ovarian cancer. Tin was obsessed with the dinosaurs having gone extinct and one night while he was trying to go to sleep after a tiring day on the beach, he sobbed, “I don’t want to die!”
Fear of death. If someone says the word cancer, everyone automatically thinks death and when they think death, they feel fear. It is pervasive as if the very mention of the word shuts down all the beauty and joy that is around you.
We were on the beach every day and one day, two fighter jets flew along the coast, ominously low and loud, disrupting our otherwise ocean nirvana. Later that afternoon, a big military helicopter cruised the shoreline almost low enough to stir up the sand. Because we were on vacation and out of touch, we didn’t know there had been one of the largest waves of illegal immigration from Morocco in a single day. Even not knowing, the planes and helicopter seemed ominous and incongruent with our joie de vivre. Helicopters have done that for me since I was very young. I credit MASH and other war movies that have made the chopper sound of blades whirring seem like death or destruction is not far behind.
Off and on, I went online to check email and matters at home. The shooting death of yet one more Black male, Michael Brown, by a white cop was blowing up social media and the news. The young Black male, the icon of fear in America. I read posts from mothers (white and Black) of African American boys wailing out at the demons who threatened their children. I read from young Black men themselves who say Enough is Enough. And yet the image of the Black male continues to scare and threaten white people to death. There is some subliminal and not so subliminal message on continuous loop in this country that says, if you are young, male and Black you are a killer, robber, raper of white women.
Later in the airport, ready to get on our flight, Tin was rolling his new red suitcase along the terminal when a woman fully clothed in djellaba and birqa with only the gleam of her eyeglasses visible through a slit tripped over his suitcase. “Sorry,” said the youthful sweet voice underneath the folds of black cloth. Moments ago, we had passed Saudi Airlines where a few handsome pilots and a group of model gorgeous young women flight attendants stood with scarves on their head and sea blue uniforms as if they were about to enter a Hollywood movie. As we boarded the flight, I noted a handful of young Arab males getting on with two older women in birqas. I felt a tinge of something I will call fear. A transAtlantic flight and images of 9/11 and the years of hijackings that I grew up with, but I shook it off and thought these are people, not terrorists. When we were airborne, I walked to the back to go to the bathroom and crowded into the little hallway whispering to each other were the five young Arabs. I went in and came out but had to remind myself that they were boys, smelly and conspiratorial the way five young teenage boys would be anywhere, not because of anything else. But I will admit to my fear and I had to remind myself that there are very few terrorist and hijackers and many more women in birqas and young men with dark curly hair who are loving and ordinary, in the same way that I have to remind myself that most planes do not crash or fall into the sea. I had to keep fear at bay. I had to keep negative images out of my mind.
I landed at home and one of the first news posts I read is that anti-Semitism is flaring up in South America and in particular in Argentina, mirroring what is happening in Europe. Synagogues and stars of David are icons of what is wrong in Israel. Jews have become the symbol of what is wrong with the hawkish Israeli government. My brother emails me, he says, “Why are there no leftist liberal shouts for the government of Kiev to stop – after all no one is firing rockets on them – as the Kiev government kills civilians and children, targets schools and hospitals, the world is mysteriously silent. Duplicitous symbols of evil. Jews are bad for the world, Kievs are only bad for Russians.”
The symbol of the Jew through literature and film has caste a taint on Jewish people near and far of avarice and arrogance. The image of a Black young man has been carefully crafted through literature, song, film, drama, and law to be savage and frightening. Helicopters are harbingers of doom. Cancer always kills. And all people in birqas and young Arabic-looking males are the protagonists of body bombs at markets and planes falling out of the air.
The stereotype of the Boyz N the Hood darkened windows and creeping SUV was upon me as I got my things out of the car. My street was pitch dark, none of my neighbors were on their porches, I sat in my car gathering up this and that when a dark SUV with a cranked up heavy bass beat approached and pulled along beside me extra slowly. My heart caught in the rhythm of the boom boom, boom boom, boom boom. I could not see in the darkened windows. I took a deep breath and held my fear in abeyance and continued about my business.
My questions – please chime in:
How do we work towards race reconciliation when the mental images of fear we carry need to be reprogrammed?
How do you distinguish between a healthy dose of fear and irrational or media-generated fear?
How do we raise children who can see beyond stereotypes that are drilled into their minds from media and books and films?
Perception will influence most of what you experience in life. Cancer kills, Jews have amassed all the wealth in the world, Black young males are all cold-blooded thugs, Arabs with birqas are inextricably intertwined with terror. And when they send in the helicopters, you know the story is going to end badly.
As a writer I believe in the power of narrative. My story remains unwritten, I’m writing it every day, and in that story cancer does not always kill, most Israelis (Jews) honor their brothers, Black young males given opportunities to simply be are warm, caring, contributors. Arabs and Muslims are our brothers who trail a rich and cultured history. And in each story, someone loves, someone creates, someone lies, someone breaks someone’s heart, someone dies, someone triumphs, someone loses, someone is everyone and everyone is someone.
The narrative of fear needs a serious editor. I believe in human resilience, the ability to pick up the pieces and try again after getting it so wrong. I’m calling all writers, photographers, filmmakers, and media to re-imagine who Michael Brown was, who Israelis and Jews around the world are and their relationship to Palestinians, who Muslims are, and who we are as a people. I would like to see us climb out of the narrative of fear, to stop giving the spotlight to the ones who get it wrong. Let the United States of America become the golden door that was promised in Emma Lazarus sonnet, New Colossus, because the truth is we are all yearning to breathe free.