After the latest Boko Haram massacre, I called my brother in Nigeria — and finally started to understand what I’ve been missing.
In a year in which we saw time and time again how little black lives matter in the U.S. it was a sad reminder that to most Americans, African lives mean even less.
I couldn’t understand it. Why is it like this? Why can’t people see? Racism, yes, but not just racism; people I know to be dedicated to social justice had nothing to say about what had happened in Borno State.
But in the height of my self-righteous outrage I realized something: I hadn’t talked to my brother.
When I first saw the musical “Annie,” as a kid, I wasn’t all that interested in the zippy orphan star. I fixated, instead, on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his bulky wheelchair. Polio put him there, I learned; this was the first I’d ever heard of the virus, from which even White House-bound men weren’t exempt.
I took from that discovery something simple and a little selfish: a child’s sense of relief that Americans had once feared an often-crippling disease until, one day, a page of the script was flipped. In 1952, less than a decade after F.D.R.’s death, a vaccine emerged that reduced the number of U.S. cases from a high of nearly sixty thousand, that same year, to virtually zero, by 1979. After that, polio could be written up as a relic for museums and musicals; we could grow up to be the scourge’s historians, we were told, and not its memoirists.
That “we,” of course, has since proven uncomfortably limited, a symptom of its own “Annie”-style naïveté. Today, polio still claims a certain corner of the globe.