Art Brown was showing me his art work. He produced a large piece of white paper, on which was drawn a small face surrounded by bold red strokes that swept in two large arcs toward the top of the page. The words he had crayoned at the bottom of the page read "The late Aunt Minnie encased in a lobster claw."
I knew he had lived the last two decades of his 64 years in Maine, where lobsters are abundant, but still I was mystified at why he had decided to encase Aunt Minnie in one of their claws. When I asked him about it, he grinned and explained, "Well, I was trying to draw a Christmas angel—but it didn't come out quite right."
"Look at this one," he said as he held up a drawing labeled "Hey, lady, you got eggs in a nest growing in your hair, in case you haven't noticed!" He explained that he had gotten a bit carried away with her bouffant hairstyle and had to add the nest to justify all the hair.
We laughed together as he held up his drawings one by one. After he had shown them all, he became suddenly serious, and his gaze rested on me. When our eyes met, they were filled with tears. So much was between us; but so much was lost.
I thought back six years to the 10th-floor balcony of a YMCA in New York City, late at night, with a stream of yellow cabs below and the East River in the distant view. Art, my favorite college professor, had brought 20 other college students and me to East Harlem for six weeks. It was my first real glimpse of desperate poverty, racial alienation, and rage born out of generations of suffering.