I woke up at 3:30 this morning from a strange, detailed dream. The setting was a fictional middle-income country severely divided by race. This may be the first time I dreamed I was black. I saw several scenes from the main character's life, in early childhood living on the streets and as a senior politician who sometimes seemed to have lost connection with his people and sometimes seemed to really be part of them. I don't know the names of any of the people, so in my lack of imagination I'm calling him Nelson even though the only resemblance is a vague similarity of setting.
I wrote down the last scene I saw before I woke up. I'll put it below the fold in case you're interested in it - just over 2 pages long. I should warn you that the scene includes references to fecal matter and refers to it with words I don't use. If that makes you squeamish, you are so advised. This is no way an attempt at social commentary about any person or people.
Nelson had just finished giving yet another speech at a five star hotel before a large group of influential people on the social inequalities and politics of the country. If it were a movie, this would be somewhere in the late middle when the protagonist is starting to feel worn down by the many pressures on him, doubting if any good will come of all his efforts, and getting cynical about the whole thing. Right now, he is so tired that the people around him are blurring and he's not entirely cognizant of what is going on, but is fighting on regardless.
As he leaves the auditorium, he is directed by his handler (in South Africa, they use the term Coloured to refer to a person of mixed racial descent ... at least according to Wiki, I apologize profusely if my use is inappropriate) to speak to a man standing by a glass wall looking out onto the terraced walkway. This is where our scene begins:
Nelson approached the tall, blue suit with the linebacker build and asked him what was wanted.
“There are some people who want to meet you,” he was told. “If you could please just step outside and wait right there for a few minutes until they arrive.”
He followed the pointing finger with his gaze and stared at the solitary patch of green grass on an otherwise overly-flowered terrace. Suited pant legs stood around the spot idly engaged in verbal sparring. While others stood around the grass, he was asked to stand on it. Before he could even nod, a blouse covered with a dalmation fur interrupted to indicate with a smile that some reporters were eager to hear from him as well if he would just step this way.
Excusing himself, he explained that he would return in a moment and left to find a restroom. His exhausted mind led him where custom had taught, past the hallways filled with suits and wood paneling to the stained cemented rooms.
He walked into the restroom and put his blue suit coat on a wooden peg in the wall. He nodded and smiled to friends he only barely saw sitting at warped taples on the left or beating out laundry on the right, and stepped over to the narrow, stall-less drains. Looking down, he saw them filled and slightly overflowing yet again, and the reason for their overflow murkily sitting on the drain left in its own indifference.
He considered just sliding off his suspenders and doing the same, but his suit would surely get filthy and he had no time or energy to clean it. He could not do that because he had work to do, and he would only be heard if he looked and smelled like them.
But what difference did their hearing make if this was how his people lived? His people needed to see and realize as much and more. This was now, and this was something at least, at last, he could fix.
Jaw set in determination, he returned to the wooden pegs and began removing his shirt, turning back the sleeves. It felt good to feel purposeful energy return to him. The others saw him and somehow divined what he was about to do.
“Nelson, no,” his friend said, reaching out to him. “This is too far beneath you.”
Work and conversation in the public room had stilled.
“Too far beneath me,” Nelson repeated questioningly. “But not too far beneath us?” He spread his arms to encompass the people in the room. “This is our mess and our problems. They will never respect us and treat us as equals, as human beings, when this is how we live.”
He circled the room, his oratory warming up as he spoke to them about “… a dignity and honor that rejects this insult so carelessly left behind for others to clean up, if ever. The dignity to take responsibility for ourselves and rise to the level we want. It is not until we live it that we will achieve it. Even if we manage to achieve our first goals, we will not be treated as equals while we live in this shit – and I pray you will excuse my language but it is what it is.”
The others nodded approvingly and gathered closer as he neared the two tables. And for several minutes he knew the exhilaration of
“But this rejection is not the rejection of violence that demands that someone else should take care of our problems. It is not the rejection of indifference that sweeps the problem from our minds, pretending it is not there, waiting passively for someone else to take care of our problems. It is the rejection of The Way Things Are that traps us in this pattern, living in someone else’s shit.”
He saw his Coloured handler moving around the room, whispering in the ears of his listeners who smiled and seemed to brighten at her words. Choosing not to interrupt the flow of his speech, he turned slightly so he wouldn’t see her and get distracted.
“There are only three ways that this room will be cleaned.” Holding up his long, wide-spread fingers, he counted them off. “One. This hotel takes up the responsibilities of its rights to property and provides us with decent facilities. This is not likely to happen for a very long time. Two. We each of us commit to not leave this behind us and we clean up after our own poop.” He lingered over the word, making the offensive almost comical. “And poop it is when it is our own. It is only shit when someone does it.
“But this only works so long as Every Single One of us stands up to do our part. And we know that not everyone will. There will always be some few who forget themselves and forget others – not only here, but in our homes and our streets and our neighborhoods. And what do we do when we see that someone has abandoned his dignity, his honor, his duty? Three. One of us, and each of us, must stand up and clean up after these problems so that we and our children and our neighbors and our friends can live in that dignity, and remember their honor, and”
His thoughts were jarred from their train as he saw a young white face sitting at a table no white had sat in more than thirty years. An eager beaver, ready to make his way in the world and knowing that here was the flavor of the month, that it was in vogue to speak the language of solidarity and be able to brag about the time he heard the great Nelson speak in “a most private and intimate setting.” He looked around him and saw that the other table had already been filled with white shirts and attentive white faces. The dalmation-furred woman was sitting there. Reporters’ hats were there, writing his words. Except for the friend who had reached out to him – who was now himself listening to the whisperings of his Coloured handler – they had all left. No doubt they were promised a small amount of money to make way so that others deemed more worthy could hear him speak without needing to mingle with the others. That was, after all, why they had hired a Coloured handler – someone who could go with him everywhere, to be their eyes and ears. Was he really so tired that he didn’t even notice?
Addressing her in his frustration, his voice lost its resonating luster and cracked as he was almost ready to cry, he said, “No. No no no no NO.” She looked at him perplexed. “I speaking to them. I was effecting social change. I was… And you stole them…”
His exhaustion made him border on the incoherent. But he could not rest or break. Not yet. He could vaguely hear someone in the distance, probably her, was trying to tell him to go on, to continue speaking to people eager to listen. But now it was too tiring. The example, the pattern he had been about to set was lost on them to whom it had no meaning.
But he would not be a hypocrite.
“Excuse me, please,” he murmured as he moved away from them and unbuttoned his shirt. “I have to clean up some poop.”
He heard their low chuckling, many of them reassured of the rightness of their place in the universe as he hung his shirt on the wooden peg.
On waking, my economist brain thought of a fourth way: an entrepreneur could come up with a business model to get paid for cleaning the segregated toilets. Not very likely, but a possibility.