As a 6-year-old, I convinced myself that a monster lived under my bed. This monster scared me so much that I never dared to look under my bed to face it and overcome my fear. Every American has experienced a similar moment of hesitation when facing fears. Often we contextualize this reaction to our trivial fears such as a spider on the wall or the imaginary monster under our beds. However, many Americans undergo the same feeling when confronted with the crime-ridden neighborhoods that you wouldn’t dare drive through late at night. According to Hatian writer Edwidge Danticat, Americans deny the existence of this country’s suffering—the “America of the needy and never have enoughs, the America of the undocumented, the unemployed, the elderly, and the infirm” (3). When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Americans reacted with horror and confusion, a reaction Danticat believes to be rooted in America’s perception of the First World as somehow incapable of experiencing a disaster in line with their expectations of the Third World (2). According to Danticat, Americans like to pretend that their problems do not exist and sometimes do not even realize that they do (2). If America does not face the poverty issue in this country or realize its susceptibility to disaster, Danticat foresees a brutal wake-up call coming our way. America needs to face its poverty-stricken, disaster-prone reality. However, America’s response to difficulties is more nuanced than Danticat suggests, which is simply “pretend it didn’t happen and hope it goes away” (Danticat 2). Rather, America knows its reality but chooses to avoid it out of fear.
Unlike what Danticat proposes, it is clear that Americans do not pretend that disaster and suffering do not exist in this country because the news exposes us to too many horrific images for that to be the case. America is known for a media that wraps its hands around every sob story it can because many Americans will continue to watch, no matter how devastating or graphic the image. On CNN, the latest headlines read “Murdered in Mexico,” “Company Denies Drug to Dying Child,” and “Florida Teens Charged After Mother’s Throat Cut.” The latest video on CNN shows the Russian takeover of Ukraine with the following commentary: “Such a state of order […] will end with the new revolution. With new blood” (CNN).The fact that these kinds of headlines dominate the top news stories is a testament to Americans’ fascination with depressing images.When Americans stop watching television and head to work or school, they might see even more difficult images such as the middle-aged woman with raggedy clothes at the bus stop or the homeless man with a cardboard sign that reads “HUNGRY” approaching their cars as they exit the highway. Even the most sheltered, well-to-do Americans are familiar in some way with the undeniable fact that suffering exists in this country.
It is because of these very images—gun violence in inner city neighborhoods or the boarded up apartment buildings downtown—that Americans begin to avoid these places out of fear. As a native St. Louisan, I am all too familiar with this phenomenon. For “county” kids like me, East St. Louis, an area wrought with poverty and crime, is a forbidden place. My fear of East St. Louis has caused me to do what the government and American citizens sometimes do in the face of similar unpleasant realities: avoid it like a plague. I recall with horror one night with my friends when we accidentally crossed the bridge connecting downtown to Illinois, heading straight into East St. Louis. I only caught a glimpse of it, an old, decrepit gas station with neon lights of every color, before we frantically spun the car around, trying desperately to avoid that decaying edge of my city. When I look back on this experience, I call into mind Danticat’s mockery of the field reporters who, in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, chimed, “This is not the America we know” (2). From the images on the news, I knew about the problems in East St. Louis. Knowing is what caused me to fear and avoid it. Knowing is precisely why Americans shy away from poverty and disaster, only allowing themselves to skirt around the edges of the problems they fear most.
Americans’ avoidance of the suffering in this country has roots in our sometimes valid and selfish inclination toward self-preservation. Understandably, the horrifying images on the news deter many of us away from the area where so-and-so was shot according to the seven o’clock news last night. More than that, we fear the ever-lurking possibility that those images on television will perhaps one day cease to be images that can be avoided. Someday it might be that the very person avoiding these realities will be faced with them first-hand, and as Danticat says, “If you manage to survive, you might end up with nothing at all” (1). More selfishly though, some privileged Americans might fear the possibility that if they help those in need rise up the economic ladder, there will be fewer opportunities for those above the poverty line. In an economy in which middle class workers are losing their jobs, the harsh reality is that helping those in need feels like a threat to an already threatened social standing. Poverty, an already frightening concept, becomes even more terrifying and worthy of avoiding at all costs when you come dangerously close to dealing with it yourself. These possibilities help to breed the culture of fear and avoidance.
Unfortunately, avoiding a fear is never the way to overcome it. America has slums. America has poverty. America has abuse. What’s worse, according to Danticat, is that “We do share a planet that is gradually being warmed and might one day render us all, First World and Third World residents alike, helpless to more disasters like Hurricane Katrina” (2). Whether we like it or not, we are always dangerously close to disaster, not only when it comes to Mother Nature but also when it comes to those around us suffering perils even worse than those we’ve seen on television. Now is the time to accept our susceptibility to disaster in the future and the everyday devastation facing those in the present.
We are aware of the suffering in this country primarily through news stories. No matter how grotesque the image, we keep our eyes glued to the television screen maybe because these images provide drama to our, for the most part, safe lives. I challenge you to consider that those images on the television screen are real people who are suffering, and they deserve the kind of attention that goes far beyond serving entertainment needs. Only after mustering up the courage to make this type of realization can we as a nation become a more attentive, compassionate place.
CNN. CNN NewsSource (2014): Web. 10 Mar 2014. <http://www.cnn.com>.
Danticat, Edwidge. “Another Country.” Progressive. Nov 2005: