Image Essay Cynthia Staples
Last summer, I collected rocks and shells and bits of colored glass from various New England beaches.
I placed them one day in a bowl I had rediscovered, a beautiful dark clay vessel lined with ridges. Eventually, I filled the bowl with water. I snapped photos throughout the day, whenever whimsy struck. Near dusk, I decided I should empty the bowl before mosquitoes began to breed. Just as I drained the last drop, the bowl cracked in my hands. An unseen flaw had been exacerbated by the weight of water. In an instant, I was reminded of the beauty found in fragile things.
As I worked with the photographic images, admiring the visual depiction of soft colors and hard edges and glimpses of the bowl now gone, I was reminded of a series of conversations I’d had about empathy and compassion (and their absence) in a world that can appear so beautiful and so broken at the same time. I was also reminded of how much I miss the wisdom of my elders. They may be gone, but I do have their stories—though some of the stories make me ponder even more the ways of this fragile world.
My father once told me a story about walking to work. It was in the 1950s, in southern Virginia. He and my mother were recently married and had one child. They couldn’t yet afford a car. As my father walked from home to his job at the Public Works Department, he passed a yellow school bus stopped at a red light. He smiled up at the young children. The children spat down at him. He was black, and they were white.
My mother’s sister Thelma happily left the South for New York during the Great Migration. Though she had no car and did not drive, she could walk wherever she wanted. As she walked through Central Park one day, she crossed paths with a beautiful redheaded woman with smooth, milk-white skin. “She looked like a movie star,” Aunt Thelma recalled. At the woman’s side was a young boy. Their eyes met, and Aunt Thelma prepared to exchange a greeting. Instead, the woman tapped her son. “Then she pointed at me,” Aunt Thelma said. “She pointed at me and said, 'You see, my dear, that’s a nigger.'” When she told me this story many decades later, Aunt Thelma added with a gentle chuckle, “That’s why, to this day, I have a hard time watching movies with redheads.”
My mother told me stories. My brothers—both my elder ones and my younger one—have told me stories. I have my own growing collection of stories of not being seen as an individual or of being discounted or even despised because of the color of my skin. I read newspaper accounts of children around the world—children that, from my perspective, look alike—who are trying to kill each other because of deeds that took place long before they were born, who hate in large part because of what is told to them by the adults in their lives.
As I remember my parents and the other elders who led challenging lives in this country, I wonder how it is that they did not plant seeds of hate in the hearts of their children. How did they choose to teach us to extend a hand to the fallen without first assessing whether that person was white, red, black, green, or purple or carried a certain bible or had a certain-sized bank account? Perhaps I oversimplify.
My younger brother still lives in Virginia with his family. He called me one day on his way home from work. We usually joke and laugh about silly things, but this time he was somber. He said, “You know, I have a hard time watching television these days. The ads by the candidates of every party and their followers—you know how much money some people are putting into those ads just to make me hate somebody? Don’t they realize how that money could help so many homeless people and others dying on the streets?”
Despite his thoughts of withdrawing from it all, my brother reminds me of the bowl that held the stones in these pictures. To be able to ask such questions suggests to me that the speaker is not closed off, that there is a beautiful fissure in the heart, mind, and soul that provides an opening for understanding the life experiences of others.
This image essay originally appeared on Cynthia's blog Words + Images.
“As much as I complain about the cold, I love winter’s light coming through the windows each morning.” — Image Essay: "Winter's Light"