Men in Motion

You needed to know about the hardest struggles of the people there in order to understand the land


Men in Motion
by siamak vossoughi

I sat next to an old white man on the bus. I read a book and looked out the window trying to see the America that the book was talking about. I couldn't do it. The book was The Underground Railroad. I couldn't see it but that was all right. It didn't mean it hadn't happened.

The old man was dying to look at the book. I could understand it. A brown-skinned guy like me learning about the real history of his country. It was strange enough for white people when a Middle Eastern-looking guy treated them as an object to be studied, rather than the other way around. And then when he did it with the history that they didn't really want to talk about, forget it. The old man was twisting himself up in knots.

I felt sorry for him. But more than that I felt glad for the power of books. Nobody could really say anything to someone who was reading because they didn't know how they were reading. It was just a book, one of many they might read. It wasn't a flag, in other words. I could see why white people back then had decided to deal with the whole thing by not allowing slaves to read. It was difficult to enslave somebody you saw reading.

And when you saw somebody reading, you were watching them in motion. I was in motion on the bus - going from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin - and I was in motion in myself - going from the South to the North. It was a good match.

It seemed like the thing you needed to know when you were new to a place. You needed to know about the hardest struggles of the people there in order to understand the land. I needed to know about the hardest struggles of the people of Iran too, in order to understand that land. I figured I knew what I would read next.

And I still couldn't see it when I looked out the window, but I knew it didn't work so directly as that. I knew it would hit me some time later. It would hit me some time later that the cornfields I saw were like the cornfields that runaway slaves had hidden in for the night. It would hit me that the river I saw was the same one they'd used to escape. I laughed at how it wasn't the way that people generally encouraged a fellow like me to become more American, but actually it was the most honest way to become more American.

I smiled as I read to let the old man know he could go ahead and ask me about it if he wanted to. I was interested to talk to him about it. I had a system when it came to these kinds of conversations: Act like a student. I spoke like we were all in a classroom together and everybody was a learner.

"How's the book?" he said.

"It's great," I said. "There is a whole lot I didn't know about, that's for sure."

"We've come a long way since then," he said.

I wasn't quite sure who we was because there didn't seem to be very much me in his we.

"Well," I said. "It certainly is good to read about it, to hear the actual stories from slaves themselves." I felt myself getting a little closer to the visions of cornfields and rivers as I said it. They were the kind of thing that would make a whole bus ride worth it.

"I look forward to the day when we will be past it," he said.

"I don't know how it is to be past history," I said. "I am not from America, but I am trying to learn about it."

"If you want to learn about America, I could tell you some stories," he said. "My grandfather was in World War I and my father fought in World War II. The Philippines."

I didn't say that I thought that both of those wars were white people fighting over the rest of the world, along with Japan. I didn't say it because he was speaking about the stories of soldiers. That was different. They went beyond the war itself. World War II had been from 1941 to 1945 for the U.S., but there had been soldiers living with an unawareness of the war long before 1941, and there had been soldiers living with an awareness of the war long after 1945. There would be a time when I could say what I thought about the war, but this was not it.

"My father told me about how those Filipinos fought just as hard as the Americans. They fought side-by-side against the Japanese. It's a damn shame that they weren't recognized for it."

I didn't say that I thought that American imperialism had just replaced Japanese imperialism after the war. There would be a time for that too. There was nothing that people held on to more tightly than their stories, and if those stories involved their mothers and fathers, it was even tighter.

I listened as he told me his father's story. It was all true: The war was true and The Philippines were true and the Japanese were true, and the hunger and thirst and misery on the island were true. It was all true except the way he told it, which was more like a movie, the way it got to choose where it began and where it ended. It was all true except the way he seemed to hold on to it, like a coin in his pocket, like a coin that had been minted in 1945 and had its date stamped on it and that was that. I didn't believe that part of it. I didn't believe that it wasn't still in motion. What had happened was done but why it had happened was not, at least not the way he seemed to be telling it. Just because there were words for it like war and invasion and soldier, it didn't mean that those words were answers.

I wasn't worried about the cornfields and rivers as the bus rolled through the warm afternoon. Even if I didn't have those visions, they were still true. Even if I didn't have them, I would have something like them. They were the only place a person landed when he fell anyway, though they didn't have to necessarily go with falling.

They would still be beautiful too, the cornfields and rivers, with or without the visions. That was the thing about studying history: It wasn't meant to be at the expense of the present. It wasn't meant to suggest that our time alive was any less alive than anybody else's. It was just a way to learn more of the whole story.

We entered Wisconsin and the old man said that he'd been born here but he'd lived almost his whole life in Illinois.

"There is a good story in here about Wisconsin," I said. "It was one of the places slaves stopped in along the Underground Railroad, on the way to Canada. There's a story of a woman who was escaping who was caught by slave-catchers in Wisconsin. But the town where they caught her was a very abolitionist town. So the white people of the town went to the house where she was being held overnight and they formed a mob and started demanding her release. Finally the slave-catchers had to let her go. Even the sheriff of the town wouldn't help them. When I read it, I thought that it was like the opposite of a lynch mob."

Nobody told you anything about how to be Iranian in America. Nobody told you anything about how to be Iranian in America and want to know the real story of America, and to even tell that story to Americans. And nobody told you how to do it when that story included slavery as thoroughly as it did cornfields and rivers. There were plenty of people who helped along the way, but you didn't really know until you did it, and then it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Who cares where I was born, I thought. You know where I was born? I was born in a place where good things made people smile and bad things made people cry. Given that, it was absolutely crucial to me what happened in an abolitionist town in Wisconsin a hundred-and-fifty years ago. If that town had any cornfields or rivers anywhere near it, it went without saying. I shouldn't even have to explain how crucial it was to me what happened there.

The old man did not say anything. He did not say anything all the way to Madison, Wisconsin.

"I wish somebody had told me that story when I was a boy," he said. "My whole life might've been different if somebody had told me that story when I was a boy."

He was staying on the bus. "Your whole life can be anything it wants," I said.

I said goodbye and got off the bus. I felt glad for Madison and the warm evening and the friend's wedding I would be going to, but I felt more glad about everything the old man would see looking out the window.


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more from siamak vossoughi

 I enjoyed reading

by Escape on

 I enjoyed reading this.Like any country,The real history of America is spread out through the land.And like the land,History is not a fly over or just one happening..More like a long hitch hike and alot of turns,bridges and damns.I've found too,American's are always proud of the land.Slavery was not just an 'American thing', there were even other wars over it around that time in the World in 1850..For instance the Taiping Rebellion.It's never forgotten in America,So many town's in the North have Civil War Monument's,many,many died 'Freeing' the Slaves.They never forget in the North.



by Midwesty on

Does this story starts with ignorance but ends with innocence, the ignorance of an urban Iranian about the rural Americans who have always volunteered for what they innocently thought was good for their country and the world?

I have always enjoyed talking to the Americans, white or black, who were born before the-media-tamed-with-greed-and-ignorance generation took over.

In WWII Americans were called the Army of Light by millions other than whites.


I am "white"

by waldo on

I bow to your superior intelligence. I apologize for my ignorance. My ancestors were the most evil people that have ever existed in the history of the world, even though they were being persecuted all over Europe before they came to America. It is amazing how smug this guy is. People like him are the reason there will always be tribalism in this world.



by gunjeshk on

Maybe the boy in the story should have considered how most "white" Americans are overwhlmingly descendants of penniless immigants who never participated in traditions of slave-holding and who as serfs and peasants escaping Europe were practically slaves themselves . . . The narrator is quite judgemental and superior in relation to the land that is peacefully harbors him.

Reality is few societies exist that do not have some history of slave-holding in their past, including Iran.

I don't mean to be critical but the smugness of the storyteller is really unattractive. Discussion of race in America is only more crippling if all it merely generates is more blame and more self-satisfaction. 

The ending was very nice. The first part of the story is colored heavily by the narrator's ignorance and his false notions of superiority to the man next to him.   

Dariush C

Many of them Anglos think

by Dariush C on

Many of them Anglos think blacks are to blame for being black, not them for their crimes. Just as many others have always been to blame in the past, today and will be in the future. Because Anglos are always the good guys and always right.