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The Hall of Asian Mammals
By Lucy Baker

I 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.

I am 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 sour cream.

After 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.

"Now pull it out fast," I say.

It 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.

Inside 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.

"Come on," I say, steering her away from a rack of postcards, "This is supposed to be really cool."

The 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.

After 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?"

"I dunno." She walks away from me.

I follow 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.

"This is amazing," I say hopefully.

"Yeah," she replies flatly.

We 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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