356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

When my family moved to Seattle in late August of 1947, I was eager to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. As we drove west through flatlands in eastern Colorado, I expectantly peered from the back seat through the windshield, but saw only low clouds blocking my view of any mountains. The clouds grew taller as we approached, and for half-an-hour I grew more desperate to view the Rockies. At last, when I began seeing trees and valleys among the clouds, I realized that I had seen the Rockies all along, but their being snow-covered in late August prevented me from recognizing what I was looking at. Had it been winter, I would have seen them sooner. My summer expectations got in the way of my seeing.

It’s not so much that seeing is believing as just the reverse: believing is seeing (or hearing). “It’s true if you think so,” says Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. We see “what our prejudices presume to be there,” says Thoreau. Travelers on Cape Cod once reported a black man holding a white man at knifepoint by the side of the road, a scene that turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station holding a microphone to the lips of a man he was interviewing. In going through old National Geographics from the nineteen-teens and twenties, I have come across photographs of bare-breasted African women nursing babies under the title, “Black Madonna,” suggesting a verbal veil of social acceptability to make the image suitable for a prudish and mostly White middle-class readership.

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