Culture & Society ---
You will usually find them on the street corners of Manhattan on the Upper Westside and elsewhere. Stands showcasing women's hand bags, women and men's hats, scarfs, sunglasses, wallets, cellphone protectors, and other items, most, if not all of them, made in China. The sellers are mostly very dark-skinned men, presumably from the continent of Africa. One such stand is located a block away from my school, with a tall, thin, dark-skinned young man in his late twenties (or so I thought) in charge. He has been selling at that location for the past ten years or so, and during that time as I passed back and forth no words were exchanged between us, until one day when a heavy wind blew one of his hats in the middle of Columbus Avenue. I ran into the middle of the street to retrieve it for him, and after that we would say 'hello' to each other whenever I passed by. But it was only until this past summer that I stopped to talk with him and have been doing so ever since. His name is Hakeem, and we have become quite good friends.
Before we actually started talking to each other, I assumed the following: Here is a black man from Africa, probably from one of those war-torn, impoverished countries, coming to the USA, perhaps with very little education, to escape hardship. My thinking continued...Having gotten to these shores, he probably connected with other of his countrymen who are also involved in street-vending and who are most likely being exploited by some wealthy trader forcing them to sell these cheap, made-in-China goods seven days a week. After our first conversation I found out that he possesses a law degree, that he is married with two children, and that his wife is also studying law in his homeland, Senegal. The vending business he runs is his own, and he regularly sends the money back to his country to support his family. Already he has been able to purchase a house in Senegal with his earnings. And he is not in his twenties; he is forty (looks darn good for his age). I usually try, to the best of my ability, not to make assumptions about people and about situations, but sometimes this tendency does tend to get the better of us.
[Photo Art by Ric Couchman]