by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Ionce wrote a book about five young basketball players, all of whom were black. The book was purchased by Hollywood. They wanted to make a movie.

I flew out for a meeting, and over shared bottles of Evian water, one of the female executives began gushing over the story, the way Hollywood executives often do.

“There’s just one little thing,” she said. “Do you think we could make one of the players white?”

I was tempted to say, “Sure, just tell me which one, so I can warn his mother when the film comes out.”

But I resisted. Some ideas are too dumb to bother with.

Another dumb idea surfaced last week. This one was to erect a statue outside the Brooklyn fire department headquarters.

The proposed statue, commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks, was to be a 19-foot bronze rendering of the now-famous photo depicting three firefighters as they raised a flag above the Twin Towers rubble.

In the photo, all three firefighters are white — which is not surprising, since most of the Brooklyn fire department is white.

But the statue’s benefactors — like my Hollywood executive — wanted to change “just one little thing.”

They wanted to make one firefighter black, one Hispanic, and leave the other one white.


Effort is a noble concept

Now I understand the motivation. All races pitched in during the Sept. 11 crisis, and a statue honoring the unity of that effort is a noble concept.

Fine. Go ahead and build one. Start from scratch, come up with a concept, make it anything you want.

But recasting a photo? That is political correctness taken to a ludicrous degree, a blunder of a blinder, changing reality to fit a fantasy. Doing so would show as much insensitivity as the problem its builders were trying to correct.

Look, there is nothing wrong with three white firefighters raising a flag over rubble. It happened. It was captured on film. It was an inspirational American act, and I bet most black and Hispanic citizens felt a lump in their throats when they saw it.

They didn’t say, “Hey! Where’s one of us?”

They didn’t say, “There goes the white man, showing off again!”

To suggest that two of the three heroes need to be colorized is insulting to the actual firefighters and insulting to the minorities you are trying to include.

Everyone knows the truth. Who’s kidding whom?

Compromise is in the works

Fortunately, late last week — after an outcry from the photographer, the families, fellow firefighters and the public — the developer dropped his plans. He said a compromise plan would be worked out. Maybe someone told him starting a fight is not the best way to build a memorial.

Besides, the very presence of that statue would create a political irony too pathetic to ignore. While the statue outside would symbolize a cozy, three-way racial harmony, the actual firefighting force inside would still be anything but.

Maybe someone wants to look into why Brooklyn, a borough that is 35 percent black and 24 percent Hispanic, has a fire department that is nearly 95 percent white.

That’s a different cause for a different day.

Personally, I don’t see the hurry to erect statues. They are still sifting through the rubble of this tragedy. Families are still grieving.

Statues are designed to stand for decades. Their construction requires thoughtful perspective. In many ways, we are still too wounded for that.

But we haven’t lost our intelligence. In fact, I’m hoping we’ve grown up a bit since last September and realized that bravery and heroism come in all shades
— and that the only real colors that mattered Sept. 11 were red, white and blue.

So I’m glad they dropped that idea. Colorizing real-life people is not a practice we want to get into.

Besides, somebody was going to have to call their mothers.

And it wasn’t going to be me.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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