By Diana Mahoney
They still take my breath away. I thought that by now, I’d have become immune, desensitized, overexposed. Day after day, wandering through galleries, hearing stories, gazing at blatantly honest photographs. Mangled human bodies, bloody beatings and people bent over, sobs wracking their entire frame.
I can’t understand the Rwandan Genocide. Or the Holocaust. Or the Klu Klux Klan. Stories like that of Emmett Till, haunting, chipping away at my desire to believe in the goodness of humanity. Glossy photographs of brutal police beating based on skin tone, shattered glass reflecting the bloodied face of Jim Peck, black and white film reels capturing forever the cruelty we as human beings are indeed capable of.
Once upon a time, in what would come to be remembered as one of the most horrific moments of humanity, a young girl scribbled out a sentence which would come to be remembered and repeated for decades.
“Despite everything, I believe that people really are good at heart.” Anne Frank’s infamous quote echoes through the Holocaust and into the years following. With hints of naivety and hope, she voices an idea that I can’t help secretly, yet desperately wanting to believe is true. And then I switch on the television. Or pick up the newspaper. Child soldiers. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. Inhumanity so beyond my comprehension, so polar opposite to the world both Anne and I want to believe in.
Sitting in the dark church, watching the Freedom Riders documentary for a second time, I feel my breath catch. Because I’ve met these people, ate with these people, laughed with these people, received hugs from these people. No longer are they simply characters in a story that inspires me. Flesh, blood, memories, families and stories… they’re real.
Photographs flash across the screen of people armed with clubs and hate, and images of people I shared heaping plates of steaming spaghetti with mere hours ago. I suck in my breath and try to make out their facial expressions in the dark room, try to comprehend how people can commit these atrocities against other human beings.
Later that night, after trading in the business casual look for t-shirts and gym shorts, a few of us sprawl out on one of the large hotel beds. One in the morning seems the ideal time to discuss Communism, Eminem, and reoccurring dreams.
“In Chinese culture, the perfect number is nine. Because if you reach ten, you’ve peaked, it’s a downward slope from there. Thus, nine is the perfect number because it means that there is room for growth,” Zilong, an exchange student from China, explains.
Nine. It’s the reason that each and every one of the forty of us have gotten on this bus. Nine gives us hope, that there is still space left to make a difference, space to grow. Nine hints at possibility, reminding us that we still have new heights to reach, something to strive for. That amidst all the horrific things that have been and that are, a space is created. A space full of hope, full of possibility. An avenue for humanity to begin picking up the broken pieces and begin piecing them together in a step towards redemption.
“It’s not a safe space, it’s a brave space… step up and step out.” said someone in our group as we sat around on tiny, multi-colored plastic chairs during a discussion on race. I couldn’t agree more. The world isn’t a safe space.
Be brave. I find myself repeating it back to myself constantly. I can’t understand the inhumanity, the violence. And perhaps, in some way, I’m not meant to. Nine. There’s still work to be done, risks to be taken, people worth believing in, potential. Nine. We haven’t peaked yet.