He really wanted to know

Much of what follows was a column I wrote 20 years ago, almost to the week. My then-newly declared life partner and I had returned from a celebratory cruise around the Caribbean. We had visited the Yucatan Peninsula, Grand Cayman Island, and Jamaica, and spent a couple of days at sea, being waited on. Not a bad life – for a week.

The crew numbered more than 900 men and women: photographers, room stewards, table waiters, omelet turners, engine operators, and a bunch of other people without whom the week would have been much less enjoyable.

The captain was Italian, as were most of the top-level officers.

Our room steward, a Haitian named Jean Robert, had a talent for folding bath towels into elephants and hippopotami and puppy dogs. He slipped Alka Seltzer under the door one day because someone within had been ill several times during the night.

At dinner, we were served by a team representing Guatemala, Colombia, and Honduras.

Each crew member had his or her reason for taking the job. Several I talked with were like the 27-year-old photographer from Budapest, who wanted to learn English (he’d learned it pretty well, I thought) and make more money than he would at home doing the same work. He plans to work the ship for two years, then go home and be a professional photographer.

But the one who got my attention was a 41-year-old former small-town newspaper reporter from South Africa, who took a job as a photographer on the Paradise because he had reported about “one too many dead bodies.” He noticed the tag on my knapsack, proclaiming my status as a Gettysburg Times staff writer, and thus began the conversation.

Gettysburg: Site of what arguably was the battle that turned the Civil War to the Union’s favor. What was the war about, he asked?

“I guess that would have depended on who you asked,” I said.

If one were a Southern foot soldier, one might have bought into the idea of “state’s rights” and been not entirely wrong. The Federal Government in Washington, D.C. was attempting to tell southerners to stop using slaves. Most rural folks I’ve known don’t care much for the suits in Washington deciding how life should be lived out on the prairie.

For their part, plantation owners absolutely objected to Washington telling them to give up slavery; having to pay workers for their labor can deeply cut into the company profits.

Which led to Jack’s next question: Apartheid was only recently ended, but our Civil War was more than a century past. It was easy, he said, to understand why racism still exists in the South African social fabric — but why does it still exist in the United States.

Jack was not being accusatory; he really wanted to know.

It’s something worth thinking about as we stand at the High Water Mark of the confederacy and ponder the event 158 years ago that decided the battle that decided the war that proclaimed what we, as citizens of this “more perfect Union,” stand for.

And yet …

Our news almost nightly reiterates evidence that at least some of us descendants of white European travelers still do not much care for our brethren of African, Asian or Central American lineage.

We have made some progress in the past nearly 200 years. That we are even having this discussion is proof of that.

But one might be forgiven for wondering why, after all these centuries, we still have difficulty realizing we are all one people hurtling through space on the only starship so far known to support continued existence of its passengers.

As has often been said in the past 17 months: “We’re all in this together.”

Thanks for coming along. Comments are welcome. Please share with your folks you think would enjoy it.

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