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I never did get a shoe shine at NAFSA. My black leather brogues remained splattered and stained -- not too far from a disgrace. I could have had them cleaned by an evident expert armed with effective spittle, polish and a number of impressive brushes. However, having spent the best part of five hours discussing the complex disturbances of civil rights, injustices and inequalities at the CAPA symposium, the sight of a shoeshine stand was troubling. The norm for a shoeshine stand scenario in the US goes something like this: “someone” sits on a throne-like contraption while a shoe shine “boy” polishes and buffs away at that someone's feet. The boy is usually an African American adult. Someone is usually a white business man.
Photo: Shoeshiner, 1912. (no known copyright restrictions)
The space between these people is defined by distance and inequality. The boy is visually and economically in a service (servile?) position, kneeling or sitting at the feet of his customer while performing a task that is, paradoxically, intensely personal. To tend to the feet of another person, clad or unclad, is either an act of devotion or a sign of inequality. It is, in any case, peculiarly intimate which made even more disturbing the scene I observed when the man on the throne pulled out a newspaper and began to read. The shoe shiner became simultaneously servile and also invisible; the distance between the man on the throne and the shiner at his feet became a chasm defined by race, class and, in these circumstances, what seemed an indifference to the existence of another human. I am aware of how absolute and self-righteous this sounds. For all I really know the reader was a man of great moral consciousness who needed to catch up on the news: the shiner may have welcomed the opportunity to escape from forced bonhomie into a refuge of silence. There was, nevertheless, something profoundly disturbing in that scenario. It burrowed into my brain and lurked in the darker recesses. I have not been able to make it disappear.
The scenario symbolizes, and is a potent image of, a malaise that runs deeply through American society. At some profound level, the relationship between races is characterized by historical alienation. Of course, this does not mean that individuals cannot transcend the troubled schisms in professional and personal relationships. They can and do in millions of ways but, somewhere in the undercurrent, racial fractures and historical animosities riddle the fabric of American life. There are debts not paid and truths only half told. Amnesia and repressed memory are part of national semi-consciousness. The racial divide is also concretely visible in the geographies of some urban environments where areas of poverty and areas of opulence align too often with ethnic and racial identities. Coming into the great city of Philadelphia on Amtrak is, in this respect, a chastening experience. The train travels over an area of urban blight that is shocking in its obvious poverty and is almost entirely African American in population. It is as starkly divided as anything that I witnessed in Apartheid South Africa. The train takes you, literally and metaphorically, over these streets but you soon learn not to see an area that you will never visit. At a micro level, the shoeshine stand carries a similar message of separation and alienation but it is much more difficult to avoid. At the NAFSA conference, inside the convention center where internationalists exchanged visions of global empathy, there sat the shoeshine stands: a paradox that turned rhetoric into fractured shards of broken glass.
Photo: A shoeshiner's tools (public domain)
At this stage, I would like it to be understood that I have nothing against having my shoes shined by someone else. I am blessed to have access to the Virgin Atlantic lounge in Terminal 3 Heathrow as a result of becoming a lifetime gold-card member. This is reward for thirty years of neo-thrombosis and backache. I always leave the lounge with shoes shined to mirror-like perfection. But, the system is different. You take off your shoes and hand them to someone (not a boy) who hands you slippers. About thirty minutes later you return, tip beyond extravagantly (if you are as guilt ridden as I am), and swap the slippers for now pristine size elevens. You are also able to indulge in a bit of irrelevant badinage intended to create the illusion that your relationship has some kind of existence beyond that of server and served. However, and this is the difference to me, the shiner has not literally knelt at my feet. My liberal conscience (hypocritical poseur) struts out wearing shoes in which I can see my face (impassive and only slightly blushing with repressed shame).
The traditional and iconic shoeshine stand in the US has an altogether more troubling dissonance. The image reverberates against America's tragic racial past and disturbing present; it embodies the dis-ease of American consciousness still fixated on race.
Photo: Shoeshiner (public domain)
I am not intending to suggest that America is uniquely divided or even especially racist but rather that race represents the default distinction in American society. What this means is that the histories of slavery, the oppressive injustices of Jim Crow, the hideous beatings, burnings and lynchings have not been exorcised. It means that the underlying nightmares of American history still trouble the hours of daylight. There has been no purgation, no process of truth and reconciliation. This is not a land at ease with its past.
This is a dirty secret; for all the struggles and victories of the civil rights movements, for all protestations of equality, for all the existence of a black President and an opulent African American middle class – the historical burden of a racial quagmire is still there and it is carried by both oppressor and oppressed. The someone with the shoes and the boy cleaning them represent, in a still-life tableau, precisely that persistent schism: a perverse monument to the plague of prejudice and the curse of historical injustice.
Image: Shoeshine boys posing along streetcar tracks in Atlanta, 1887 (public domain)
It finally does not matter much to me that it is not that rare to see a Black professional occupying the throne (though very rarely – never? – a white boy cleaning the shoes of a Black someone). It finally does not matter to me much that my resistance to sitting on the throne is doing the shoe shiner no favors. His economic well-being is dependent on those of us who literally or figuratively occupy those thrones. A refusal to occupy that space because of a kind of mawkish liberalism simply creates the likelihood of penury and an increase in the economic difference between the someone and the boy.
My rational mind fully understands that but, ultimately, that reality does not mean that I can ascend the throne and have my dirty shoes buffed to perfection. The simple and terrible fact is that the iconic tableau is too full of ghosts and too haunted with history. The boy kneels at the feet of the master and cleans off the mud and the muck. That is an invitation to a history that makes the heart ache and the soul sink. It symbolizes a wound that will not heal and a pain that does not end. We are all, the someone on the throne and the boy with the brushes, diminished.
So, in case you were interested, that is why my shoes were dirty at NAFSA.