I wish it were possible to somehow insert an additional line into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech –
“I have a dream that one day we will be a nation and communities of faces.”
A New York City speaker at a 2003 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked if anything positive came from 9/11. His response resonated with me. He replied that if anything good came from 9/11, it was this:
For the first time ever, New York City’s 8 million residents became a “city with faces”—referencing the pictorial wall of remembrance, in which pictures of some of the 2,977 victims from more than 90 countries were posted by grieving friends and family members.
I’ve thought a lot about faces and memories of faces since that evening.
As a child, church was seldom an option for me and my siblings. Living in Kenya this frequently meant we attended a remote, mud-bricked and mabati (tin) roofed church.
In early 70’s Kenya, particularly in rural areas, black-white encounters were still relatively uncommon. As a young boy, who would rather be fishing or playing ball, it was bad enough I had to attend an hours’ long service. Time was made worse by Kenyan children’s intense curiosity with my white person’s hair and skin.
Typically my parents would allow my siblings and me to leave mid-service and either play outside or sit in the car and read a book. Sitting in the car was a reprieve from listening to long, Swahili-Luo translated sermons, but it came with a price – persistent children’s faces, often streaked with snot and pestering flies, pressed against the car’s window, and when left partially open for air, young black arms sneaking in for quick touches, squeezes, followed by giggles.
These many years later I sometimes wonder why that bothered me so? After all, my best friends back home in the town of Kisumu were Oginga and Ogoro – Luo boys, themselves.
Were the frequently un-wiped noses and bloated malnourished stomachs simply too much of a discomfiture for an 10 or 11-year-old boy? Would my discomfort be mediated had I known their names and shared more in common with their lives? Would I have been as bothered if they were young white arms reaching in? Perhaps it was the proximity of these young faces. They were within easy arm-reach, too close for comfort. Too intimate.
I don’t know if it’s “natural” or not – it is disrespectful and shameful – but have you noticed how people of one race tend to view people of another race in a one-size, “all look-alike” category? That is – among whites, anyway, it’s quite common to hear the following type comments about Asians, for instance: “I can’t easily tell them apart! They all look so alike.” or “I just call them by their ‘English names’ because their mother tongue names are too difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.”
During my post-graduate research I came across the story of a white Union army commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was assigned the task of leading an all-black regiment. He confessed that initially he was unable to distinguish the soldiers from each other, yet “as one grows more acquainted with the men, their individualities emerge; and I find first their faces, then their characters, to be as distinct as those of whites.”
Similarly, an American missionary woman, Carrie L. Goodenough, stated of the Zulus in a letter of 1883 from Natal, South Africa, “At first I thought their faces all looked alike, but I see difference now, both in features and expression; and after one is accustomed to the Zulu type of features, many of the faces are really pleasing.”
Culture and media have combined to promote a sense that beauty is outward.
What about the many, however, who are born without a model or actor’s face, or even worse, perhaps, born with an attractive face and it’s then yanked away by an act of violence or disease? Many U.S. soldiers have experienced acute facial disfigurement due to IEDs.
One publicized example of disfigurement is Charla Nash, a 56-year-old single mother, who, several years ago, went to help a friend contain a pet chimpanzee and ended up having her face and hands ripped off. She later underwent a complete facial transplant.
I just googled “the wonders of the face” and got nothing, zero. Just a listing of links to various “wonders,” including the seven wonders of the world, the seven wonders of Egypt, wonders of Africa, et cetera.
Doesn’t anyone but me think the face should be classified as an eighth wonder of the world – even those disfigured?
I realize the face is quite daunting and intimidating if you prefer to live a life void of intimacy, which men, in particular, might opt for (but only as an act of bravado). Men such as Tommy Lee Jones’s character “Arnold” in the movie Hope Springs; the story of a 31-year marriage in an acute state of disrepair.
Arnold and Kay (Meryl Streep) sleep in separate bedrooms. They tell their last-ditch, marriage saving therapist, Steve Carell, that they last had sex five years back. Carell assigns them homework, one of which being to have sex.
It’s painful to watch, but eventually lying on a rug beside a crackling fire they almost succeed in culminating a rekindled passion. Unfortunately the moment and mood is spoilt by Arnold’s inability and unwillingness to look directly into his wife’s eyes and face while making love – apparently a long-held, intimacy avoiding trait, which is almost the undoing of their marriage.
I simply felt like drawing attention to “faces” today. I don’t know what your particular “take away” will be from this blog, if anything, but I hope you risk looking more deeply and intimately at and into the faces of friends, family, and even day-to-day acquaintances, whether it’s the check-out person at your local grocer, your librarian, teacher, colleague, even that person who frustrates you to the 100th degree.
Perhaps like Arnold, if you persist in trying and looking into the faces of those within your concentric circles of relationships, you’ll experience a newfound, even heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the others in your life – maybe even call them by name.