note: this hasn’t been edited yet.
my first two weeks at The Gray Lady have been eye-opening. everyone here is articulate and intelligent, which is what I expected. I’ve been told that the national desk is anomalous in a lot of ways. two of the editors on this desk are black, and of the news assistants and news clerks who staff this desk, all but one are black or Latin.
last Saturday I talked to Jerry, one of the aforementioned black editors, during the lull that always follows the bulldog being put to bed.. Jerry’s a ferociously likeable and unpretentious dude with an easy way with words and a subtle accent that betrays his Mississippi roots. Jerry used to work for the Associated Press, and was stationed in East Africa for years and raised his young children there.
“There’s no discernable benefit to being black in Africa,” he said.
I raised my eyebrow.
he said that the African people who lived in the regions he covered often thought he was a Western-educated African who was trying to pass as a Westerner (Jerry has a complexion and features that would probably prompt American blacks to assume he was African-born before he unveiled his slight Southern accent). he said that it’s not common for people where he was in East Africa to use their hands and gesture when they spoke, and the mannerisms that we take for granted —— placing one’s hand on your chest when referring to oneself or moving your hands quickly to emphasize a point —— were seen as Western affectations.
he told me how when he joined the staff here, he was sent to Rwanda the third day after the fighting broke out in 1994. he was scheduled to work the night shift here, and the editors told him to get on a flight that evening. he tried to go home and grab some clothes, but they wouldn’t let him leave the building.
“They said they needed me on the flight tonight,” he said.
one of the other editors went upstairs and grabbed $60,000 in cash (“We used to have a deparment here for that kind of stuff,” he said) for Jerry to use for his seven weeks in Africa.
When he landed in France eight hours later, he called his wife, who was in San Francisco, and told her he was en route to Rwanda. a few hours later, he would be in a humid camp, encircled by the bodies of murdered Rwandans that were stacked “ass-high” as he put it.
he said he managed to keep his emotions reined in for the entire time. a photographer who was with him, put forth his own steely facade, which Jerry said fell to pieces a few weeks in during a rainstorm. everyone fled the center of a village to escape the rain, except a toddler, who stood in the rain and mud, refusing to leave her mother’s dead body.
he paid an interpreter and a guide $100 a day to show him around and help him travel. he said in a few instances, everyone was *leaving*, but he was snaking his way toward the violence.
Jerry said they were wrapping bodies in gym mats and piling them roadside. there were men in a truck who came buy to dispose of the bodies in mass graves. he and a friend, a correspondent who he’d known for a long time, asked them why they were tossing people, who were obviously alive, but extremely weak onto the trucks to be buried in the mass graves.
“I’m only coming down this road once,” the man said to them. “they’re going to die whether it’s now or later.”
Jerry said he and his friend managed to pull one man, who was still breathing, from the truck. they placed him on the side of the road.
“we at least wanted to give this man the dignity of not being buried alive,” Jerry said.
when he finally got back stateside after his seven weeks were up, the Times actually owed him $500 for all the palm-greasing he had to do while he was there to get assistance.
he never cried once, he said, until he got back to Princeton, NJ, where when he saw his kids, everything he’d seen promptly rushed to the surface, and he fell to pieces.