Little Things Are Big

In the 1950s, segregation and ideas about "race" shaped the way Americans in all parts of the nation saw one another as well as the way they saw themselves. As writer Jesus Colon discovered on a subway ride in New York City, those ideas also influenced the decisions people made about one another.

"I’ve been thinking; you know, sometimes one thing happens to change your life, how you look at things, how you look at yourself. I remember one particular event. It was when? 1955 or '56...a long time ago. Anyway, I had been working at night. I wrote for the newspaper and, you know, we had deadlines. It was late after midnight on the night before Memorial Day. I had to catch the train back to Brooklyn; the West side IRT. This lady got on to the subway at 34th and Penn Station, a nice looking white lady in her early twenties. Somehow she managed to push herself in with a baby on her right arm and a big suitcase in her left hand. Two children, a boy and a girl about three and five years old trailed after her.

Anyway, at Nevins Street I saw her preparing to get off at the next station, Atlantic Avenue. That’s where I was getting off too. It was going to be a problem for her to get off; two small children, a baby in her arm, and a suitcase in her hand. And there I was also preparing to get off at Atlantic Avenue. I couldn’t help but imagine the steep, long concrete stairs going down to the Long Island Railroad and up to the street. Should I offer my help? Should I take care of the girl and the boy, take them by their hands until they reach the end of that steep long concrete stairs?

Courtesy is important to us Puerto Ricans. And here I was, hours past midnight, and the white lady with the baby in her arm, a suitcase and two white children badly needing someone to help her. 

I remember thinking; I’m a *Negro and a Puerto Rican. Suppose I approach this white lady in this deserted subway station late at night? What would she say? What would be the first reaction of this white American woman? Would she say: 'Yes, of course you may help me,' or would she think I was trying to get too familiar or would she think worse? What do I do if she screamed when I went to offer my help? I hesitated. And then I pushed by her like I saw nothing as if I were insensitive to her needs. I was like a rude animal walking on two legs just moving on, half running along the long the subway platform, leaving the children and the suitcase and the woman with the baby in her arms. I ran up the steps of that long concrete stairs in twos and when I reached the street, the cold air slapped my warm face.

Perhaps the lady was not prejudiced after all. If you were not that prejudiced, I failed you, dear lady. If you were not that prejudiced I failed you; I failed you too, children. I failed myself. I buried my courtesy early on Memorial Day morning. 

So, here is the promise I made to myself back then: if I am ever faced with an occasion like that again, I am going to offer my help regardless of how the offer is going to be received. Then I will have my courtesy with me again."

* The word Negro was commonly used in the early and middle years of the last century to refer to an African American. Its use reflects the time period.

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Connection Questions

The following are some questions for classroom discussion to help students connect the history presented in this website to their own lives and the choices they make everyday.

  1. Create an identity chart for Jesus Colon like the one below. It contains words individuals call themselves as well as the labels society gives them. What words does Colon use to describe himself? What words might others use to describe him? Include both on the diagram.


  2. What dilemma does the narrator face? What risks does he perceive if he tries to help the woman? Would the dilemma have been different if the woman had been in danger? If the incident had taken place during the day?
  3. Jesus Colon describes labels that others have placed on him. What labels does he place on the groups to which he belongs? On other groups? How did those labels shape the way he perceived his choices? The decision he made? Why does he have regrets? Did he make the right choice? Would your answer be different if he were a white American? who is the victim in this story-Colon, the woman, or the larger society?
  4. Political scientist Benjamin Barber defines civility as "a work of the imagination, for it is through the imagination that we render others sufficiently like ourselves that we view them as worthy of tolerance and respect, if not always affection." What does courtesy mean? How are courtesy and civility related? Colon writes that he "buried his courtesy" that morning. What does he mean? What is the significance of that loss?
  5. Create a different ending to Colon’s story. What do you think Colon might have done? How do you think the woman might have responded to the action you have imagined for Colon? Describe the effect of that action on Colon.

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Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.