By Benjameen Quarless
While I was walking at night in Washington, D.C., it upset me that so much poverty can exist in the epicenter of American justice and equality. I live in the east side of Tacoma, which has a reputation for vagrants but it could not compare to the situation in D.C. On almost every corner and crevice there was an African American asleep among felt blankets and newspapers. Furthermore, all of this is going on within sight of the White House and other buildings that embody life, liberty and happiness.
After exiting a restaurant, I saw a person in need and offered them some of the change from my dinner. It was not much, but I thought the few dollars could help this person out. It struck me when this African American woman, sitting on a stack of old newspapers, in a nook between two buildings, said something simple yet profound to me. She looked me right in my eye and with a proud and confident voice said, “I need help but not from you, no thank-you.” Although her living situation could obviously be improved, she was not willing to accept my gesture of kindness.
To me, this shows that the American dream has failed a segment of our society. On one hand, I admire this woman for her resolve to fend for herself in a society that has pushed her to the margins. However, my heart bleeds for her because she is forced to choose between improving her circumstances and keeping her personal dignity intact.
My first night in Washington, D.C. was a sobering experience; sobering in the sense that I learned a truth that was difficult to process, but also in the sense that I have come to see reality with a less clouded lens. Television and media paint a picture of the world that does not include everyone’s narrative, like the women who slept among molding newspapers. I felt like it is our responsibility as her fellow neighbors and citizens to include her story in the American narrative.
The American experience is not an ideal. There are people who live on the margins of society who are not in the thoughts of the collective American experience. Hopefully, this journey with the Freedom Riders will highlight the untold and hidden story of the 1961 Freedom Ride and broader struggle for civil rights, but more then that I hope that discourse can breathe equality into the shadowy and newspaper filled building nooks all across America.