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Thai Girl Tattle: My Jaw Meets Jesse Jackson

...I’ve been lucky in my life and fortunate too to have heard Jesse Jackson speak, a man of stature who has travelled so far in the fight against racism...

Andrew Hicks meets Jesse Jackson, the leading US civil rights campaigner.

Do please visit Andrew's Web sites

“You must be tired tonight. It’s your third presentation today,” I hissed through gritted teeth to the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Bangkok. “And I’m so sorry I’m treating you like a pop star.”

“No I’m just fine,” he replied. “Not tired at all, really”.

Jesse Jackson was at the FCCT in Bangkok, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, giving us his third presentation of the day and he was about to start his talk.

So recognizable as he strode into the crowded room, pressing the flesh with all around him, he was tall, physically impressive and looking remarkably good for his years, though he must surely have been very tired indeed.

On a tour with the International Peace Foundation’s “Bridges” series and talking on the subject of “building a culture of peace and development in a globalised world”, this was a man who “over the last forty years has played a pivotal role in virtually every movement for empowerment, peace, civil rights, gender equality and economic and social justice’.

What a life! Long before this he should have been totally exhausted by it all.

I just happened to find myself at the table next to him and he was signing autographs on paper napkins. I’ve never demanded an autograph before but this time I did and the only scrap of paper I had on me was a card for my book, “My Thai Girl and I”.

It says, “Peace, Jesse Jackson”, though it’s almost illegible. I know it says that because it really was him and it really is his autograph.

He must have given this talk many times before and he ranged widely across his work with Martin Luther King and told us of the long road that’s been travelled in the United States from lynch mobs and segregation to universal franchise and equal rights, finally culminating in the election of Barack Obama as president.

Born later or in different times might Jackson too, twice a presidential candidate, have reached the highest office? All I know is that it was fascinating to hear so major a figure speak on these issues, who has been at the center of things for so long.

He was of course a charismatic speaker though balanced and level with no histrionics, and nor did he wear his religion on his sleeve. He held my attention throughout a long speech, though he didn’t have the oratorical powers of an Obama. Indeed sometimes his diction was unclear and I couldn’t always catch what he was saying. Nonetheless it was a memorable evening, not least for my realization what a huge vindication the election of the new president is for ‘African Americans’ as he called them.

Obama’s election of course means so many things… that the under-privileged son of a single mother could make it so far, that his startling intelligence did not sink his chances in a society with anti-intellectual tendencies and that at last America has a leader with a broad world view are blessings enough. That he is also half black is just the icing on the cake.

While his predecessor, the grinning puppet of the neocons, represented the worst of America, Obama is his antithesis and represents the best, whether half black or not.

At the end of his talk, Jesse Jackson still had the stamina to answer questions and spoke volubly in the way politicians have that makes you forget the awkward question they’re supposed to be answering. One question seemed to stop him short though.

A young American stood up and asked whether, given the sensitivity with which the issue of racism treated in the US, it is a shock to him that in Asia and in particular Thailand there can sometimes be a total lack of awareness of such issues.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I get your point,” Jackson replied.

The questioner tried restating his question but all he got was a politician’s answer. Perhaps Jackson had no experience of such a thing in Asia or perhaps he was just being polite, trying to build a culture of peace. In fact he hardly mentioned Thailand throughout and its internal conflicts not at all.

In the US ‘political correctness’ has become so very important. Was it a senator who had to resign because in a speech he used the word ‘niggardly’, no matter that the word bears no relation to the dreaded ‘n-word’?

On Koh Chang recently we had the rare luxury of a television in our wooden hut and I watched a BBC interview with Whoopie Goldberg and she and the black female interviewer came onto the subject of colour prejudice. Goldberg argued strongly for being open about such issues, confronting them head on and not relegating them to the realms of mere political correctness. In this context they discussed the sheer odium of the ‘n-word’ and agreed that it too should be confronted. Ironically neither of them could bring themselves to say the word itself but stuck with calling it ‘the n-word’. With wounds so deep, confrontation goes only so far, it seems.

However, “Black is beautiful!”, the very best of slogans confronts the issue of colour. And it’s the best because it’s proud, unashamed and true. After living for many years in Africa, I know that black skin truly is beautiful so why the euphemism of ‘African American’ which so awkwardly avoids the mention of colour?

Even so, like the questioner, I too am sometimes shocked in Asia by occasional insensitivity on racial issues. I remember once in Hong Kong I called DHL, the courier company, to tell them I thought their advertisement showing that even African natives with spears could receive a parcel was highly offensive. They didn’t begin to understand.

In Thailand I find the leading brand of mops, “Black Man” with its logo of a fuzzy black head and the slogan, “Think of Cleanliness, Think Blackman” highly inappropriate. (See www.mop-bm.com). At a houses and homes trade exhibition in Bangkok, I put this to a nice public relations lady on the “Black Man” stand. She knew exactly what I was talking about but said the brand was so well established with loads of goodwill that they couldn’t possibly change it even if it was offensive to a few non-Thais. When exporting mops, however, they used a different brand name, she said.

Do Thais think that different rules apply here, that they’re on a different planet, or do they not care about giving offence? You can buy Negro brand hair dye in the local shops and Darkie toothpaste with its get up of a black minstrel in a top hat only tweaked its name to Darlie a few years ago.

As a child I was reared on stories of the idiot black child Epaminados and collected golliwog stickers off pots of Robertsons’ marmalade, and yes, I think that these post colonial racist assumptions were contagious. Golliwogs in England are now consigned to the past, but not yet in Thailand. In out house, little Nan has a charming Golly attached to her mobile and while it’s pretty harmless and she has no idea what it represents, it does suggest that the point put to Mr Jackson at the FCCT may have some substance to it.

Black faces are great for marketing as they make teeth look so white, even while I was hissing through mine that night nine weeks after breaking my jaw, my mouth still wired tightly closed.

My smashed teeth were turning yellow with plaque so I went to see a dentist in soi 71. As I gazed into her eyes above the white mask as she bent over, examining my mouth, she said to me quietly, “I see you’ve got a fixation.”

“How ever do you know that?” I nearly blurted out, before realizing she was talking about the intramedullary arch bar fixation in my mouth that’s made my life a misery for so many weeks.

“You’ll have to get it taken out before I can do anything useful for you,” she concluded.

So that Sunday I had the metal work taken out of my mouth and it was one of the more horrible experiences of my life, proving perhaps that I’ve had an easy ride so far. It took a three hour operation under anesthetic to put the fixation in and an hour or more without any pain killer to take it out again.

Imagine your worst of all nightmares where your teeth are smashed and falling out, when your mouth’s full of barbed wire and blood and you’re chewing broken glass. It was just like that but worse.

The arch bar across the upper and lower teeth for tying my jaw closed were secured with a tightly twisted wire around almost every tooth and each of these had to be cut with wire cutters. There was a sickening crunch like a tooth being smashed every time a wire was severed and then the broken wire had to be pulled out through the gap between the teeth. It felt as if it was taking pieces of gum and broken tooth with it.

My mouth was full of cut wire and of broken arch bar and spitting out a mouthful of blood and mucus, I realised there were still some bits of wire inside. Yes, it wasn’t much fun.

That was my small torment, but imagine how it must be to have a lynch mob hunting you down. They deliberately smash your face, baying for your blood and then they string you up.

I’ve been lucky in my life and fortunate too to have heard Jesse Jackson speak, a man of stature who has travelled so far in the fight against racism. And all I did at the FCCT was to treat him as just another celebrity and ask for his autograph.


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