Ms. Beth Myers, a third-year university student from the east coast was enjoying her spring-break with friends in sunny Florida. After a few days, she started to feel bored in her daily monotonous routine of lying on the beach for hours, going to a beach-bar for afternoon cocktails, and dancing away the night in downtown bars. She packed her luggage, deciding to make a solo trip through various southern towns to get a taste of history, culture, cuisine, and current race-relations. Historically, country’s worst incidents of desegregation had taken place in southern states.
Her journey brought her to Lafayette, Louisiana. Right in the middle of Cajun country, the place still maintains its French-Acadian root, reflected in its unique cuisine of gumbo soup, oyster po’-boy sandwich, fried catfish, and boiled crawfish. One day, she traveled to nearby Avery Island to take a guided tour of a reputed hot sauce factory. Lafayette is also close to several bayous, dotted with swamps. On a Saturday morning, she took a leisurely boat-ride watching hiding alligators in those swamps. The boat-operator suggested her trying out town’s famous Sunday brunch place with live Zydeco music and active dance-floor.
Next morning, Beth headed towards the place. Soon, the aroma of fried food along with the sound of music started to fill the air. Once inside, she noticed all the dining tables were set against the walls, thus creating a large dance floor in the middle. On the other end of the room, there was a performance stage. A local group, appropriately named “Lost Bayou Ramblers” was belting out Cajun music accompanied with the sound of guitars, accordions, and scraping of a wavy shiny metal piece. The dance floor was jam-packed with locals and several tourists, including both Americans and Europeans. While some were dancing alone, a few were continuously changing partners effortlessly.
Beth holding a local cocktail was standing on the perimeter when an African-American youth with sleek hair and black outfit approached her:
“Come on lady, dance with me.”
“Not good at it,” replied Beth.
“I’ll teach you,” the youth was persistent.
He twirled her around and started to give her a lesson with the rhythm of the music. Soon Beth found her groove and lost into a pleasant happiness amidst all these strangers.
Suddenly, there was a commotion outside. An African-American teenager ran inside the place repeatedly shouting “They’re killing us.” Music and dance stopped, a hush silence descended, and the bartender turned on the local channel. A “Breaking News” appeared on the screen. A Sunday morning mass in a predominantly African-American church was taking place in Jamestown, five miles away. Somebody heard a knock on the church door. A white teenager wanted to join in studying the Bible. Pastor brought him in and found a place in the front pew. He listened to the sermon for a few moments, stood up and pulled out a loaded-gun firing mercilessly while shouting racial slurs. Pastor jumped from pulpit wrestling out his gun while taking the last bullet. Twenty parishioners, including several children, lay down motionless.
Beth hugged her dancing partner, while a few drops of tear rolled down her eyes.
Several hundred miles away, during the same period, Prof. Brian Weinstein from Princeton, an expert on theorizing factors affecting race-relations and evolution of right-wing extremism was attending an international conference in the town of Savannah, situated next to a river of the same name in Georgia. As the conference progressed and he listened to all his academic colleagues from different parts of the world including Europe, Asia, and even Australia, it became quite clear to him that indeed the hatred and discrimination had been spreading faster throughout the world. In a coincidence, the news from an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland revealed that three richest billionaires in the US now own more wealth than the poorest 50% (amounting to 170 million) of the citizenry.
At the end of a busy day, Prof. Weinstein decided to take a stroll along the riverfront and a thought started to haunt him “How much of economic inequality might be contributing to all these hatred and extremism worldwide.” He sat on a bench, directly opposite to a sculpture representing a family of four African-Americans. The plaque read “African American Monument”. But, what surprised him that everyone in the sculpture was happily well-dressed in western-style, while a length of a chain lying near their feet. He knew that before the country’s civil war to abolish slavery, Savannah was one of the largest slave-trading places and its own economy completely depended on slave labor. He did a quick search on his smart-phone to find an official narrative “…the monument depicts a family of four embracing after emancipation while chains representing slavery lie at their feet.”
And that’s when he noticed Ms. Karen Wortham, a middle-aged African-American woman. Ms. Wortham was sitting on the other end of the bench and was totally lost in her thoughts looking at the same sculpture. After exchanging greetings, they introduced each other. Prof. Weinstein learned that Ms. Wortham had studied the southern history of the country in college. Nowadays she organized and sometimes led historic-themed tours for the visitors of the city. Prof Weinstein asked her about the background of the sculpture.
Ms. Wortham, a direct descendant of first-generation West African slaves shook her head, while her eyes welled-up. The sculpture was supposed to be a testament to the depiction of arriving slaves chained around their bodies, with shackled feet and wrists. After all, it was supposed to be a memorial to the evilness of slavery. But the bigotry of the city officials ran deep. They did not want visitors to look into the dark past of the city. Finally, a compromise was made with the current design by Professor Spradley of the local arts school that would fit the official narratives.
Ms. Wortham then brought to Prof. Weinstein’s attention to a poem by Poet Maya Angelou inscribed at the base of the monument. It began with “We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent.”
Sankar Chatterjee possesses the passion for traveling worldwide to immerse in new cultures and customs to discover the forgotten history of the societies while attempting to find the common thread that connects humanity as a whole for continuity. His recent essays appeared in various magazines from both sides of Atlantic.