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Marking the day

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On 9-11-02, I was buying lunch at a local gourmet food store. When I got to the cash register, the worker bagging groceries made insistent eye contact and once she held my gaze, intoned loudly and slowly, as if I were deaf, "Remember the day."

I felt a shock travel the length of my body. Did I look as if I was about to forget? Did the fact that I was buying overpriced food let her assume I was oblivious? Did she think I could possibly ignore what I was hearing and seeing over every available airwave?

I took a breath. I knew she was only trying to reach out, trying in a high-school-football-cheer kind of way to identify common ground. Maybe she had some personal connection to the attacks in New York and Washington that provoked her remark.

"Did you lose anybody that day?" I asked, gently.

It was her turn to register shock. I wasn't sticking to the script.

"Uh, no. I saw the buildings come down on TV," she answered quickly. She didn't ask me if I'd lost anyone.

I kept my head down for the rest of our transaction so she wouldn't see the rising fury on my face. Hers was just the type of easy, trivializing response to the anniversary that had been driving me to despair all day. I knew the bagger meant no harm. But the way she denied me privacy, made assumptions (What if I had lost family or friends on 9-11? What would that make her call to "remember"?) and failed to really care, reminded me of how little we've learned in the past year.

Contrast that to something I heard much later in the day on NPR's Fresh Air. New York performance poet Sekou Sundiata read an essay about his immediate response to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Going into the subway days later, he saw an Arab-looking man on the stairwell and convinced himself that the man had planted a bomb down there. When Sundiata realized the man was Puerto Rican, he also realized how quickly "the profile had become the profiler, the victim had become the victimizer."

The terrorist attacks revealed his complicated identity as an African American. On the one hand, the events of 9-11 made him feel deeply American. On the other, they reminded him of why he couldn't fully buy into the notion of national unity.

I turned off the radio and sat in grateful silence. Here, finally, was a reply to the anniversary that was honest, tough-minded and compassionate. Sundiata was asking much more of us than that we simply "remember." He was asking us to take a hard look at our culture a year's distance from 9-11, and to use that knowledge to figure out what kind of Americans we're going to be.

War sharpens awareness in ways that peace does not--yet, Sundiata wrote. "Or, to put it another way, we don't know what peace can do."

No, we don't.

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