Back in the New York City subways, after two years in Niger, blacks no longer looked the same. 

Before the Peace Corps, straphangers of another color were invisible at best. Not that one made much eye contact with anybody, of any color, in the trains beneath Manhattan; but if there was one category of person that in my pre-African life I had unconsciously learned not to be caught staring at, not even to think about, it was the young black male. 

As with most white kids from the suburbs, slavery had always been a remote concern for me, a forgotten Civil War unit embedded in a high school history lesson. But now, as if for the first time, I was witnessing its legacy. The men riding this underground train wagon were, of course, the descendants of African slaves. Anyone with the slightest historical consciousness knew that. But only now did that abstract fact mean anything to me. All of a sudden-- all of a returned Peace Corps volunteer sudden-- I became really curious about what ordinary, subway-riding, blacks thought about their ancestry.

Rumbling together in the IRT, each of these sons of Africa absolutely intrigued me. Which part of the continent did his forebears come from? Did he ever think about them? Did he ever wonder if his ancestors were from the coast or from the savanna, if they’d spoken Swahili or Hausa? Did such names even mean anything to him? Did he ever really ponder the enormity, as I was now doing for the first time, of the path that began in the vastness of Africa and ended in the congestion of Harlem?  

  I yearned to make contact with these black men. I wanted to say to them, "I know where you come from. In fact, I've just lived there, with your cousins.” Yet I also knew how absurd and unwelcome that would sound.   

Holding my tongue drove me to an even more preposterous thought - that I, despite my white skin, was more African than they! For sure, it was a small slice of Africa that I could claim, but it was a slice I knew intimately. Peace Corps had trained me to learn, think, and live in an African language. Knowing even one language in the rich Amharic-to-Zulu repertoire Africanizes the mind more than any ideology that elevates skin color.

Overcoming reverse culture shock, I quelled my subway urge to initiate unsolicited “interracial dialogue.” But a quarter of a century after Peace Corps in Africa, I still catch myself moving to lock hands with every black man I meet. It is a holdover conditioning from a world in which you always acknowledge a man's existence by shaking his hand.  

It took two years in Africa to learn this most basic lesson in conferring dignity and respect. But – and this I believe – there is no more direct way to bridge the unavoidable space of uncertainty between any two strangers, of any color, in our big, wide universe.


Bill Miles is a political scientist and the former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University.