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Box-cutter's Tale

After September 11th, would Amos Jacob pass muster?

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My brother César, an Ecuadorian, and I were in a local department store recently buying perfume for his girlfriend. We had made the purchase from one salesclerk and were ready to leave when another salesclerk approached us and, after examining my brother close enough to get his phenotype, said carefully, "It seems like you have been in Florida recently, haven't you?"

César, who was wearing a T-shirt with the word "Florida" on it, said yes. The woman continued to inspect my brother's dark skin and black hair and beard and took note also of his broken accent -- which, of course, revealed him to be a "foreigner," perhaps from the Middle East.

Based on her attitude and body language, my brother and I knew immediately what was going on in the lady's mind. She was witch-hunting from her comfortable workplace, trying to spot anyone who looked like the image she had of a terrorist. She was playing patriot and soldier at the same time, doing her part from the perfume counter in the war against terrorism.

She continued to request information from my brother. "Did you come with your family? Where else have you been in the U.S.? New York? What are you doing in Memphis?"

At this point I decided to intervene, carefully using the words "my brother" in order to call her attention to our kinship. I am a blue-eyed guy and look more European than César.

I explained that my brother was a frequent traveler to Miami and New York and was now visiting my wife and me in Memphis. I told the clerk, "We all are from Ecuador, South America, you know?"

Her demeanor immediately changed. She gave us a wide smile and I could see her trying to locate Ecuador on an imaginary world map. "Oh, Ecuador, yeah, Ecuador," she said. "You speak ah Portuguese, right?"

"No," I said. "Spanish."

She ended by saying, "Well, y'all have a wonderful day, and thank you for shopping with us."

César and I left the store in silence, both immersed in our own thinking. I love America and its people. It is home for me now. I am also wounded by what happened in New York. The sales clerk had, of course, been unaware that on the same day that the planes destroyed the World Trade Center, my brother's 7-year-old daughter and her mom were in New York and had planned to visit the towers in the early morning -- to see New York "from the top down." But a delay at home had kept them from leaving on time.

I commented to my brother that perhaps people like the perfume lady would start lynching anyone who looks, according to their standards, like a terrorist, including people with colorful skin, different accents, different clothing -- or even whoever might have bought a box-cutter during the past month.

As I drove through the streets of Memphis, I told myself that anger blinds us all and we can all make horrible mistakes. Many cars with red, white, and blue ribbons passed us. "Oh, shut up!" I yelled. "I have a box-cutter in my office!" My brother and I laughed hard, very hard. Then we continued on in silence.

César is a doctor specializing in human genetics and cancer research. He was in Memphis to visit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. I wondered if the salesclerk knew that Amos Jacob, a Lebanese-Syrian American, founded the hospital in 1962.

The name Amos Jacob is unknown to most people, however, Amos and Danny Thomas, the great entertainer, were one and the same. He changed his name to succeed as a star in Hollywood. Today, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fund-raising arm of St. Jude, keeps alive the dream of Amos Jacob, a quote from whom, in the pavilion at St. Jude, seems appropriate: "He who denies his heritage has no heritage."

Guillermo Paz y Mino is a visiting assistant professor in the department of biology at UT-Memphis.

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