Hall of Asian Mammals
am at an empty Mexican restaurant on Columbus and 84th with my 11-year-old
little sister, Ashley. Ashley is not my real little sister. She
is black, and lives in the projects on Avenue C. I am white, and
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. Ashley is my little sister from
the East Village Girls' Club. As her big sister, on the first Saturday
of every month I take her out to lunch and then to a museum.
commenting on the restaurant's decor -- there is a paper maché
chili pepper lamp hanging from the ceiling, a sombrero on the wall,
and a plastic cactus in the corner -- because I don't know what
else to say. Ashley is not much of a talker, and I've already asked
her about school, books, and her friends. She stares at me vacantly
until the waitress saves us with a basket of chips and a bowl of
we finish eating, Ashley and I head south on Central Park West.
We are going to the New York Historical Society on 77th. The early
December wind is blowing our coats out like sails, and Ashley is
trying to light a match from a book she picked up by the restaurant
door. She can't get it to spark, so I show her how to fold the top
of the book over the back and pinch the match between the two flaps.
pull it out fast," I say.
works, and as we walk Ashley lights the matches one by one and drops
them onto the ground. By the time we get to the Historical Society
she has burned through them all. I imagine her going home and telling
her mother that today, her big sister taught her how to start fires.
the museum, the only noise is the clattering of shoes on the marble
floor. It sounds like a shuffled tap dance. At the information desk
we collect our clip-on pins and a few pamphlets. We are here to
see the "Slavery in New York" exhibit, but Ashley is more
interested in checking out the gift shop.
on," I say, steering her away from a rack of postcards, "This
is supposed to be really cool."
exhibit is crowded and it is difficult to get close to anything
on display. Impeccably dressed old ladies slither past us and pop
up to block our view. I try to get Ashley to read me some of the
plaques. She sighs and sounds them out slowly. She skips all of
the difficult words without trying.
a while I take over and start reading them to her. "Wow,"
I say, "Almost 12 million people were taken out of Africa and
forced into slavery. If you spread it out, that's like 80 people
a day for 400 years. Crazy, right?"
dunno." She walks away from me.
her to a makeshift well in the center of the room. There are voices
coming from inside. We rest our elbows on the rim and peer over
the edge. At the bottom, the faces of female slaves flicker up at
us from a movie screen. They are talking and laughing as they haul
buckets of water. Behind their heads is a cloudless blue sky. I
look at Ashley and wonder if she is looking at her reflection.
is amazing," I say hopefully.
she replies flatly.
wander through the rest of the exhibit. At first, I gesture enthusiastically
at things -- a peeling photograph of a slave who lived to be 115
years old, a reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation -- but
by the end I have given up. Ashley is fiddling with the zipper on
her coat, and she has folded her print-out of the Historical Society's
floor plan into a paper airplane.
In the last room, there is a little stall with a velvet curtain,
like a photo booth. Ashley goes inside and sits down on the wooden
bench. I wait for her, peeking through the space where the curtain
does not quite meet the frame. She touches a screen and an automated
voice begins to ask her questions.
"What part of the show did you find most interesting?"
"Umm..." she mumbles. "All of it, I guess."
"Now that you have seen the exhibit, what do you think about
slavery in New York?"
Ashley pulls at her bottom lip with her fingers. Then she blurts,
"It was cool."
For a split-second I close my eyes. I feel like I have failed her.
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