The title of this piece I have pick pocketed from a man named Mark Doty. I’ve been reading a book of his, “Tell Me Who I Am,” a study of the writer James Agee. Agee began writing in earnest in the 1940’s as a journalist at Fortune magazine – if journalist is really the word to use to describe this totally unique thinker and crafter of words.
Doty is or was a Methodist pastor with a PhD in literature; I don’t know if he still lives or not. Of no importance; his words about Agee do. He spends much time exploring Agee’s extreme empathy for human beings. If you do not know Agee and would like to make the acquaintance of one of America’s finest now-little-known writers, buy a copy of his unique work, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which he created with the photographer Walker Evans.
I bring this up because I’ve not been writing much lately. It seems that no matter what I write about subjects important to me, I receive the most enthusiastic responses from readers not about the subjects but about the occasional humor I apply to them. This is somewhat off putting to me since I do not consider myself a humorist. My nature is a bit more pensive. Too much, some say.
I’ve concluded, however, that Americans are so buried with distasteful news these days they are universally yearning for escape. Therefore, their appetite for humor. Agee did not write humor. He wrote about people. The above book of “Famous Men” was about three poor tenant farm families.
Agee, who was a fervently spiritual man, talking of his book and the tenant farmers, had the following to say: “They are also sons and creatures of God, and they are God, and in essence this volume begins, with what inadequacy will be naked before you, an inquiry into human divinity.”
That was Agee speaking. Not me. Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I am not a believer in the existence of invisible gods. But I am in full accord with Agee that if any creatures should be called by that name, it is human beings. If anything approaches the potential of divinity it is humanity.
All of this here written because I have again begun attempting locally where I am presently living to be involved with Homeless people. I don’t pretend to Agee’s degree of empathy for his fellow men, but I do envision our Homeless with the similar attitude that I envision the Jews of Hitler’s time.
I believe Americans have allowed our Homeless to become our nation’s Jews. We have made our Homeless subhuman in our minds, as did Hitler the Jews in his. And clearly it is not the Homeless who have become subhuman, but we who can have so effortlessly permitted them to exist so long in the midst of all our wealth.
So, I ask you not who are they. Rather, who are we to have so calmly allowed the Homeless for generations to become a basic part of our country? To have accepted, in direct contradiction to the religious beliefs we so assertedly claim we possess, their barely surviving on the streets? And commonly dieing there.
This is not the America Agee or I was taught to believe in.
Can anyone out there tell me who we have become?
Can anyone tell me who we are?