On Being a Problem

I’m currently reading How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi.

Have you ever given thought to what daily life must be like for individual “problems” of society?  That is, have you ever personally, first-hand, or vicariously via imagination shared life with them for a day or more?

If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so.  But do so apart from a “group experience,” where vulnerability of shared experiences are diffused too broadly and minimal transformation occurs in your life.

It seems “problem people” in the USA could apply in varying measures to any or all of the following people:  Muslims, Arabs, the poor or anyone benefiting from a government subsidy, gay, illegal immigrants, the unemployed, someone with AIDS, single-headed households (especially women on welfare), anyone who doesn’t speak “American,” etc.   In the not-too-distant past, of course, “problem people” included Native Americans, Catholics, Irish, Japanese, etc.

During their colonizing administration of South Africa, British officials frequently referred to blacks by the phrase “the native problem” (I do not deny the existence of far more racially derogatory terms used as well).  Although more academic and finessed descriptions could be given as to what exactly was implied by “the native problem,” in effect, it boiled down to this:

There were too many of “them” – specifically, “uncivilized” and “un-Christianized” blacks living in near proximity to whites.  What to do about it since the advancement of civilization depended upon native labor, as well as upon making consumers of them?

Fear, then, became the persistent and pervasive “white burden.”  For example, in 1838 Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, white fear of imminent Zulu attack prompted the usual practice of firing a gun upon arrival of the mail to be discontinued, and in its place was substituted the ringing of a bell.

Explorer Richard Burton wrote in 1861, “I unhesitatingly assert—and all unprejudiced travelers will agree with me—that the world still wants the black hand.  Enormous tropical regions yet await the clearing and draining operations by the lower races, which will fit them to become the dwelling-places of civilized man.”  Scottish evangelist, Henry Drummond, expressed in Tropical Africa that the fertility of Central Africa was a liability for civilization’s advance, because in such a climate it was difficult “to create new wants” among Africans.

My life, personally, and that of my family have been exceedingly gifted, blessed, from knowing many “problem people” over the years.  Miriam is one such person.  Initially she was a South African “problem,” given that she was a refugee from a not-too-distant neighboring country.  Destitute and desperate, with small children of her own, she was given a lifeline through the kindness of a few Catholic sisters.  After regaining her footing, Miriam identified an unfortunate niche in South African society – destitute mothers, unable to adequately care for their small children for economic or health reasons, who do not want to give up their children for adoption or for a government mandated two-year foster care, but merely find a temporary and loving caretaker until which time they manage to reclaim life – and determined to make a difference in the lives of mothers and their children, despite her lack of resources.  This former “problem person” isn’t famous or successful by celebrity definition, yet for those of us who know her, she’s a Mother Teresa of South Africa. Thank you Miriam for mentoring me and my family on how best to be a “problem!”

KH

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