Jesús Colón

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In Little Things Are Big by Jesús Colón, what dilemma does the narrator face and what perceived risks deter him from helping the woman?

Quick answer:

The narrator faces a dilemma because of his fear of being hurt by the woman's attackers. He also fears that he may be arrested or beaten by police if they see him helping the woman. The risks that the narrator perceives include being attacked by white men and women, and being arrested or beaten by police. If the woman had been in danger during daylight hours, then there would be less risk for the narrator trying to help her.

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Note that the historical events I described above are largely in the South. Jesus Colon's experience was in New York City in 1955 or 1956. Below, I include some resources that will help you understand race relations in New York City during that time period and also help you to put into context Colon's experience at the subway.

1)To stand and fight: The struggle for civil rights in post-war New York City by Martha Biondi.

This link takes you to a review on Biondi's book, which documents the civil rights struggle in the North and New York City after WWII. Biondi discusses desegregation in public housing, law enforcement issues, and unfair employment practices in New York City. With the help of African-American activists, the New York legislature created the country's first fair employment practices committee in 1945. Biondi also documents police brutality in New York City between the early 1950's and mid 1950's (this is the time frame of Colon's dilemma at the subway station).

2)Discrimination and race relations: reports from the New York City Commission on Human Rights (1935-2005)

3)An interesting report from the link at (2) concerns the problem of segregation in public housing in New York City in the mid 1950's. Here, Dr. Frank S. Horne pointed out that white families were moving out of public housing as fast as non-white families were moving into public housing during that period. In his report, Dr.Horne discussed possible reasons for such an occurrence.

I hope this provides you with everything you need to understand my answer above.

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In Little Things Are Big, the narrator struggles with his decision to help a young, white lady who has just gotten on the subway train. She has a baby on her right arm, and her left arm is clutching a suitcase. Two children, possibly three and five years old, walk in behind her. She obviously has her hands full.

The narrator surmises that she may have trouble navigating the long flight of steps down to the Long Island railroad and up to the street when she disembarks at Atlantic Avenue, the exact place he is going to. However, he hesitates in offering his assistance. He laments his dilemma, as his Puerto Rican traditions have always supported and respected the necessities of courtesy in everyday life.

If he helps an attractive, white woman with three children in the middle of the night, he risks her thinking that he is trying to be fresh. Perhaps, she might also think that her life and her children's lives are in danger and so, scream loudly for help. If this happens, the narrator will surely risk being arrested just for the crime of trying to help. In helping her, he will also risk others thinking the same thoughts and perhaps, reacting the same way.

As for whether the narrator's dilemma would have been different if the woman had been in danger or the incident had taken place during the day, a few factors may be considered:

1)The comfort level of the woman in relation to minority men offering assistance during such a time.

2)The comfort level of bystanders in relation to minority men offering assistance during such a time.

3)Depending on the nature of the danger, the willingness of others to aid the narrator in helping the woman if the need so arises.

The narrator states that his story is set in 1955 or 1956. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Plessy vs. Ferguson 'separate but equal' clause was unconstitutional in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. The Supreme Court also ruled that established segregation of black and white children in public schools should be phased out over time. In 1955, the brutal beating and murder of Emmett Till, an African-American teenage boy, shook the nation. He was alleged to have whistled at a white woman in a store in Mississippi.

Between 1955-1956, Rosa Park's act of defiance and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott highlighted the practice of segregating blacks and whites on buses. So, the narrator experienced his dilemma during a time of great conflict and changing public opinions in American history. The fight for Civil Rights, especially in the 1957 desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, led President Eisenhower to deploy soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students who were attending Central High School in Little Rock for the first time.

So, based on historical events during the period of the narrator's story, one may conclude that his risks may not have been any different had the time of day been different or the element of danger been present.

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