Last year I crossed the great divide, traveling through rural areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia for my first look at extreme poverty in America. To be poor anywhere is always hard, but poverty in America, in a land of such plenty, seems harder, shocking in its incongruity.
Wealth can make people insensitive. I've always promised myself I would never let that happen to me. Journeys like this provide me with an antidote to comfort and complacency. They help illuminate the current state of human affairs. But I needed the right guide, someone who can take me straight to the heart of this forgotten stratum of society.
Born in Denmark 40-odd years ago, Jacob has spent the last 20 years roaming America, photographing the rural black communities in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia where he made his first friends.
In the early 80s he began to share these photographs with American university students, revealing their country's other face to them. In addition to the slide presentations, he also conducts three-hour workshops on racism. He has visited over 270 American campuses and continues to lecture all over the world.
A gentle force
I had never met Jacob before this trip. I was scheduled to give a talk in New Orleans and Jacob was journeying to meet the people he had spent time with over the last twenty years.
Together we visited shacks and prisons cells in the forgotten underbelly of America. When we met, the first thing I wanted to do was hand him a bottle of Brazil Nut Hair Conditioner. His hair was as rough as straw and he had a long, plaited beard which he rolled up when he went into the cities.
I quickly learned that Jacob's personality was aggressively passive. If ever he was in adversarial situations, he would gently talk his way out of things. Once, when every inch of our truck was filled with wayfarers, itinerants and hitchhikers who would normally strike fear in any of us -- Jacob never passed anyone by on the highway - I studied how softly Jacob spoke and how intently he listened.
In our society, gentleness is often viewed as ridiculous or insincere. Jacob showed me that nothing is as powerful as gentleness or as persuasive as treating a person with respect and kindness. This is how he has survived the hazards of the life he has spent gathering the stories of the marginalized and the poor.
The power of hate
What I saw with Jacob astounded me. I saw communities that had been excluded from society for generations. They were sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and hopelessness under the weight of structural racism. The hope for change, and the optimism that I felt during the sixties when we campaigned for racial equality had disappeared. The longer I traveled with Jacob, the more I started to believe that there was no more hope.
I also saw the effects of the incredible power of television -- how television is just like a pacifier to the mind. A pale blue light flickered in the broken down shacks 24 hours a day. It seems that we have all become part of a media culture, designed to perpetuate the myth that material wealth defines self-value and self-worth. My insight is that racism and poverty cast the longest shadows over America today.
While we traveled
in the truck Jacob and I talked long and hard about racism. I used to
be convinced that colour was not important in my relationships. I am constantly
checking myself: Do I understand the definition of racism? I think racial
prejudice is like a hair across your cheek -- you can't see it, you can't
find it - you just keep brushing at it with your fingers. It frightens
me, and never more than when I see the impact it has on peoples' lives.
Poverty shames us all
Poverty in the face of such affluence is scandalous. If companies invested in communities in need, families could work together and skills could be protected. I tried to see if The Body Shop could set up a small-scale economic initiative within the communities that we visited.
Although this particular initiative failed, I believe more strongly now, more than ever, that we must continue the fight for community-based businesses. It is these micro enterprises, these informal networks out there which form a rag tag front line in the worldwide struggle to end poverty.
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