"Go where people sleep
& see if they are
travels with a nomad
by Anita Roddick
Last year I crossed the great
divide, travelling through rural areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama
and Georgia for my first look at extreme poverty in America. To be poor
anywhere is always hard, but poverty in America, in a land of such plenty,
seems harder, shocking in its incongruity.
Wealth can make people insensitive.
I've always promised myself I would never let that happen to me. Journeys
like this provide me with an antidote to comfort and complacency. They
help illuminate the current state of human affairs. But I needed the right
guide, someone who can take me straight to the heart of this forgotten
stratum of society.
found a guide in Jacob Holdt, a vagabond photographer. I heard about him
through a staff member at The Body Shop's U.S. head offices in Wake Forest.
Born in Denmark 40-odd years
ago, Jacob has spent the last 20 years roaming America, photographing
the rural black communities in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia
where he made his first friends.
In the early 80s he began
to share these photographs with American university students, revealing
their country's other face to them. In addition to the slide presentations,
he also conducts three-hour workshops on racism. He has visited over 270
American campuses and continues to lecture all over the world.
A gentle force
I had never met Jacob before
this trip. I was scheduled to give a talk in New Orleans and Jacob was
journeying to meet the people he had spent time with over the last twenty
Together we visited shacks
and prisons cells in the forgotten underbelly of America. When we met,
the first thing I wanted to do was hand him a bottle of Brazil Nut Hair
Conditioner. His hair was as rough as straw and he had a long, plaited
beard which he rolled up when he went into the cities.
I quickly learned that Jacob's
personality was aggressively passive. If ever he was in adversarial situations,
he would gently talk his way out of things. Once, when every inch of our
truck was filled with wayfarers, itinerants and hitchhikers who would
normally strike fear in any of us -- Jacob never passed anyone by on the
highway - I studied how softly Jacob spoke and how intently he listened.
In our society, gentleness
is often viewed as ridiculous or insincere. Jacob showed me that nothing
is as powerful as gentleness or as persuasive as treating a person with
respect and kindness. This is how he has survived the hazards of the life
he has spent gathering the stories of the marginalized and the poor.
The power of hate
What I saw with Jacob astounded
me. I saw communities that had been excluded from society for generations.
They were sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and hopelessness under
the weight of structural racism. The hope for change, and the optimism
that I felt during the sixties when we campaigned for racial equality
had disappeared. The longer I travelled with Jacob, the more I started
to believe that there was no more hope.
I also saw the effects of
the incredible power of television -- how television is just like a pacifier
to the mind. A pale blue light flickered in the broken down shacks 24
hours a day. It seems that we have all become part of a media culture,
designed to perpetuate the myth that material wealth defines self-value
and self-worth. My insight is that racism and poverty cast the longest
shadows over America today.
While we travelled in the
truck Jacob and I talked long and hard about racism. I used to be convinced
that colour was not important in my relationships. I am constantly checking
myself: Do I understand the definition of racism? I think racial prejudice
is like a hair across your cheek -- you can't see it, you can't find it
- you just keep brushing at it with your fingers. It frightens me, and
never more than when I see the impact it has on peoples' lives.
Poverty shames us all
Poverty in the face of such
affluence is scandalous. If companies invested in communities in need,
families could work together and skills could be protected. I tried to
see if The Body Shop could set up a small-scale economic initiative within
the communities that we visited.
Although this particular initiative
failed, I believe more strongly now, more than ever, that we must continue
the fight for community-based businesses. It is these micro enterprises,
these informal networks out there which form a rag tag front line in the
worldwide struggle to end poverty.
The Body Shop magazine distributed
to stores and customers worldwide.
October 1995, Gobsmack
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Interviews med Jacob Holdt
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