He’s long gone. This man, dressed as best he could, is lost to us. The New York City street where he stood has been re-paved, many times. The street has been better treated than he.
Today, the scrappy tree behind him has fallen victim to the bulldozer. The city landscapers have taken ninety years to transform the crude dirt path into something beautiful and deliberate, finished with a design to guide baby strollers and joggers alike. And this man, dressed in tatters, steps aside to time. This man is gone.
I want to touch him, as he stands. I can’t and yet I’m somehow pulled closer, closer to his image, to his circumstance, his story. I want to be there, in that Depression-era year, and offer him water, some hot food, and a bath. While he’s bathing I’d set aside his outfit—not presuming to discard what he owns—and get him a set of basic clothes, suitable for his modesty. I’d best-guess his size until we could get to a shop and fit him properly. That, all of that, is what I would want to do. The first thing.
This man is very important to me. He’s not my color, my blood, my neighbor, nor my generation. But he is mine. He is my concern.
From this one John Albok photograph, it appears this man struggled and failed to build a life for himself. He may have been twenty, may have been fifty. He had rights but not the means to exercise them. I don’t blame, but I do judge. I judge that no person should have to stand as he stood on this particular day. I judge that no one should withhold opportunities freely afforded others.
I judge that along with the focus on seeking our stewards, we must consider providing stewardship as well.
I’ve been to Fort Moultrie. I’ve touched a shackle that bound men who were not criminals. I’ve felt a chain that held women who were not dishonorable, and who did not have an advocate. I’ve seen the manifests, the re-named names of slaves, and their critical statistics of age, skill and disposition—that is, their degree of agreeability.
I’ve seen the plan of a boat, where it was illustrated how Africans were laid out to maximize space during their terrible kidnap voyages from their African homes.
I’ve examined these artifacts very carefully, and have given them full time and attention. I’ve grown heavier as I study, thinner as I think.
This man in the photograph was born a free man. Yet without social acceptance, without the preparation of education, without mentoring and encouragement and comfort at home, he was doomed to the posture of a broken man.
This man is long gone, but he is right here. Not simply preserved in a photograph; he also lives with us, you and I, today. He’s here to remind us that good people should not stand in shame. His legacy—you see, he did leave one—was to ensure someone’s talents don’t lie unexplored. As we say, the man is gone, but this man lives. He wants you to be weighty; wants you to be thin.
In my thinking of him, I am bothered by the concept of generosity. Generosity is Man at his best, where one gives something of value to someone in need, without expecting compensation. This man may have been given a few things in his day, but did he know generosity? And this is what bothers me. Did he ever have the opportunity to give something to others, something that was needed? And appreciated?
Generosity has an upstream. The action is known to flow one way but there’s a satisfaction that only comes with giving.
My guess is this man had very little in terms of possessions. Maybe he’d held onto a doll that he saved for just the right girl, at just the right time. Or maybe he’d been generous with his time by helping a stranger set his car right on the road, when he could have just looked away. My fear of fears is that the precious dispensation of generosity may have been lost to one whose focus was pure survival.
Many years ago, a man in great need stood in rags. We can imagine, but we don’t know his story. His image speaks, as we consider what he can teach us.