Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Talking My Truth

There has been so much in the news over the last couple of weeks that I find it difficult to choose a single topic. As you may have noticed, I'm an inconsistent blogger. I tell myself that I will blog at minimum once a week but the best laid plans....

I ran across a link posted on Facebook to an article proclaiming that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is calling for "crippling sanctions against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capability." I read the brief article and there were no surprises; Iran and nuclear weapons capability is not at the top of the wish list for most nations. What caught my eye were the 30 comments following the post in which the overwhelming majority's views are summed up in the comment, "I urge crippling sanctions for him," referencing Netanyahu.

One commenter suggested that if the players can't get along in Jerusalem, the UN should just nuke it. I think he was kidding. Another declares that Israel has been playing the anti-Semitic card since its inception. (Somehow that reminds me of something.) Yet another declares that he doesn't want his tax money to support Zionism. One lone woman protested that Israel had to defend itself because it couldn't trust anyone else to do so. She was soundly attacked and dismissed for her alleged Zionist views.

Interesting comments, however it seems to me it's like arguing which is worse, a scorpion bite or a bite from a black mamba. Nuclear weapons capability in the hands of Iran, Israel, the U.S. or any nation is as scary as hell. That some of us already have that capability doesn't mean that everyone else should get to have it. No new profileration and disarmament with regards to current weapons should be the focus, not a bitch session about Israel.

I confess that I have empathy for Israel. I don't agree with its policies towards the Palestinians but I can understand the impetus that drives those policies. I think that Israel mistrusts that anyone will look out for its interests with the same diligence that it looks out for its own interests. I actually understand that position. I understand because I find myself having problems trusting that the white majority in this country has the best interests of black people at heart. I understand exactly why Reverend Wright talked about chickens coming home to roost. I fully comprehend Michelle Obama's statement about being proud of her country for the first time; I still haven't been able to say that. I work on being a rational person as opposed to giving in to my anger and frustration, but they are still a part of me.

I was 11 years old when I read The Diary of Anne Frank. When I finished the book, I knew that she died, but I didn't fully understand the larger backdrop of the war and the concentration camps until my 10th grade history class. Mr. Sewell was an amazing teacher and what our textbook left out about WWII, he filled in with supplemental materials.

I recall how betrayed and bewildered I felt as I learned the full horror of the Holocaust. I couldn't understand how the world allowed this to happen. I couldn't forgive the world for allowing Anne Frank to die. I became a student of the Holocaust at the age of 14 and I'm still bewildered by it. I've visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. twice. The first time, (1991 or 1992) I didn't make it all the way through.

I began crying out loud at the "Tower of Faces," a three-story room that contained photographs of an entire community of Jews that were murdered over a two-day period in September 1941. The train car filled with the tiny shoes of children and the fragile high heels of women, mingled with the work shoes of the men, all of them victims of the gas ovens, strangled me and my sobs were more like gasps. When we reached the level with the medical experiments I was no longer able to speak. I held my friend Becca's hand as if it were a lifeline.

I wanted to finish all of the levels but "Voices of Auschwitz," the room with the recorded voices of survivors, was the one that did me in. Voice after voice telling of murdered mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. I was no longer crying, I dissolved into an uncontrollable sobbing that I could not stop. Realizing that I was disturbing the experience for others, I got up to leave. Becca, always a good friend, took my hand again and we descended and exited together. I cried for Anne Frank, for the millions that died, for the forever scarred survivors, and for a world that could allow such horrors to happen.

The Holocaust wasn't about the atrocities of Germany, it was about the whole world turning its back on Jews, the disabled, the mentally ill, gays and lesbians, and all the other groups deemed unfit and massacred by the Third Reich. If you are not fully familiar with the history leading up to the concentration camps, do a little Internet research.

Start with the S.S. St. Louis, a ship allowed to leave Germany in 1939, bound for Cuba, with more than 900 Jewish refugees on board. When Cuba refused to grant them asylum, they sought permission to land in the United States but were denied. Canada also refused to grant them asylum. The killing of Jews in Germany was already underway. Eventually the St. Louis returned to Europe where England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands admitted the refugees. Nearly a third of them eventually died as part of the Final Solution as the Germans overran Belgium, the Netherlands and France within the next few months. The strands of anti-semitism reached far, including deep in the belly of the U.S. The signs read, No Coloreds, No Jews Allowed in the North as well as the South. The same country clubs, golf courses, businesses, and other groups and organizations that did not allow Black people also didn't allow Jews.

Does the suffering of a people justify inflicting suffering on another people? I think not, but it does explain the source of the mistrust and the anger. My purpose is not to evaluate the conduct of the modern nation of Israel. The complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are way too deep to be sorted out by me.

My attention was captured by the comments on the article because of a personal identification that I've had with the Holocaust since I first read the diary of a young girl with whom I strongly identified. The more that I've learned over the years, the more that identification has gone beyond a child's identification with another child's suffering.

I see the nation of Israel as fighting desperately to keep its truth in front of us.
I identify with this need for truth because I see the same desperate struggle in my own experiences as a Black woman, especially amidst the current climate where racism has pulled off its white hood and is riding across the country announcing its resurrection.

I never believed that racism was dead, but I did believe that it was on life support. I wanted to believe that Obama's election was a sign that we were entering a post racial era, but the revisionists are at it again. The Governor of Virginia has set aside an entire month to honor the Confederacy under the guise of, "We are just honoring our ancestors."

Well it doesn't fly. Those ancestors treated my ancestors like cattle; they branded them, sold them, divided families permanently, raped the women, beat and abused men, women and children. Now, comes the ultimate insult, a new level of abuse--it wasn't about slavery it was about the economy and states' rights. The right to do what? To continue to make slavery a part of the economy.

The highest court in this land ruled conclusively in Dred Scott [60 US 393 (1857)] that slaves were chattel (property). Slaves, as well as people who had been slaves, or who descended from slaves, were not protected by the Constitution and could never be US citizens. Without citizenship status, African-Americans were denied access to the courts, and couldn't sue for their freedom, even if they had a contractual agreement granting them free status. The Supreme Court also ruled that Congress had no right to prohibit slavery, nullifying the Missouri Compromise. It would take the 13th amendment to overturn Dred Scott.

My first year in law school, like 1st year law students across the country, I had to take a course in property law. One of the assigned readings was of a case in which a landowner had sold two female slaves to a buyer and then died before the slaves had been transferred to the new owner. The son and heir of the landowner argued that the sale was null because the slaves were a part of his inheritance. He wanted to return the money and keep his property. I don't recall the outcome of the case. I only recall reading a legal case arguing ownership of the property at issue--two Black women.

I don't write about this stuff because I want pity or sympathy. I write about this stuff because I think that lies are dangerous; because I believe that if we misrepresent the past we compromise the integrity of the present.

I write about this stuff because I get so angry sometimes that I have to find a way to vent that anger and writing is preferable to cussing out strangers who cross me. I write about this stuff because I am tired of hearing people attempt to wipe out the past with the declaration, "I've never owned slaves;" or "My family never owned slaves." I'm never certain what response is desired to such statements. Thank you seems a bit much. Let's try a little substitution. "I've never abused a child."  Gee, thanks a lot!

Really want to move forward? Then recognize that slavery was just the tip of the iceberg. Black codes, Jim Crow, the denial of civil rights, segregated schools, and the current manifestation in the guise of states' rights aka the tea party are all part of the white privilege that accrues to the White majority regardless of whether you seek it out or not.

The first step in healing the past is acknowledging the full truth of the damage that arose from that past, no matter how distant. The harm that oppression does to the victims is passed from generation to generation. Healing cannot begin until truth is acknowledged.  

I write about this stuff because it is my truth.


Bennett said...

Dear Sheria,

Thanks for the thoughtful post. As a ~50 yo cauc male, I do know that my grandparents, coming from Czechoslovakia in the '20s, were never involved in slavery, had close black friends in the very integrated JW church in Oakland that they attended. I was raised admiring Ghandi and ML King and came out of my childhood outraged at racism, past and present.

I do what I can, confront it whenever I see it, speak out against it, and raised my children to do the same. My step daughter married a very nice man from Senegal in January and I'm looking forward to the grandkids.

I am one of the many, and it saddens me to know that the inherited baggage that I carry will not lift from my shoulders in my lifetime, and that the color of my skin is a reminder to some of injustices past.

This is nothing in comparison to being on the receiving end of today's ignorant racism and hatred, I know this. But I want you to know that we are many, and we do speak out, and we value ALL our sisters and brothers that we meet on this path of life.

Please keep writing, we are reading.

I am one of the many.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I love you, Sheria. I really do. You are one of the smartest people I almost know. This is a very well-written and important post.


Mark said...

I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood outside of New York, I almost converted because I wanted to be like my friends, and also consider myself a Holocaust historian. Unfortunately, one of the legacies of the circumstances of Israel's birth has been Israeli exceptionalism. Like American exceptionalism, it's a belief that somehow one's nationality or history makes one immune from the arrogance of power or racism.
When human beings occupy other human beings militarily, the occupiers suffer as well as the occupied. Because you have been a victim does not make you immune from victimizing.
Israelis are human beings before they are Israelis or Jewish. As such they have a full-range of political thought, they are no more monolithic then here in America we are. I align myself with the Israeli left, which believes the only way to peace is security is accomodation with the Palestinian people. I certainly don't question the historical desire for a Jewish state and its justifications. I certainly reject terrorism. But terrorism can be used to justify a lot of bad behavior, like settlements and theft of land and water.
I object to the Iranian regime, their anti-semitism is infuriating as well. Unfortunately, Arab regimes use the injustice felt legitimately by Palestinians to justify all sorts of internal oppression and the hunt for nukes. The sooner we resolve this issue the sooner we can remove their justification for nuclear weapons: right now the Iranian fear of invasion isn't even paranoid.
One can be pro- and anti- a lot of different policies from a lot of different countries. I have been vehemently against American, Israeli, and Iranian militarism, I am not anti-semitic, anti-American or anti-Iranian.
I really object to the rejection of nuance in this part of the world. You can feel the occupation of the West Bank is full of injust practices without being anti-semitic; you can differentiate between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people. The middle east will never resolve if both sides remain unable or unwilling to imagine the experience of the others: this is the invaluable service Americans can provide. We need to take whatever stance makes it most likely to bring peace, even if that means tilting less toward Israel. We arent doing them any favors in the long run if the stance breeds more terrorists than gives the anger underclass a country to build.

Nance said...

Like you, I became a fascinated, horrified student of WWII as a young teen. I learned more in those years than I can possibly recall, but I would have remembered the S.S. St. Louis, I'm sure. Thank you for that lesson; I owe it to historical honesty to keep my heart a little bit broken until the end over the Holocaust.

And I love you for opening your own heartfelt truth to teach us and remind us of our reasons for shame. I'm a Southerner; back there somewhere, I relative I can't name may have believed he owned another human being by law. I owe it to historical honesty to keep my heart a little bit broken until the end over slavery in America. This post is a service.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Tragic treatment of both, thanks for sharing.

Sandra Moreano said...

Thank-you for the post. I am glad you have a place to educate and vent. The astonishing part of your entry is that you sight history that isn't all that long ago. After all my grandmother was born in 1889 so culture from one hundred years is truly still in our culture.

Cathy said...

Enjoyed reading your truth. Found myself agreeing with alot of it, certainly about nukes. Slow disarmament instead of this steady build-up. I can see however, why every 3rd world country expects to have the right to uranium and heighten the ability of humans to blow each other apart. It's instinctual. Especially if you've been kicked around (Jews) or shoved to the back of the bus for too long (your familiar feeling). As for the Holocaust I believe it was an extreme example of how humanity can become so misdirected that it fails to see the horror in using human skin for a lampshade. It was when humans could buy and sell other humans, could kill and torture them - that familiar feeling should be hitting you about now. It was about mankind's worst day and we're still living it, Diane. I don't know the answer but starting this experiment all over sounds pretty reasonable to me. And the first page in the Book of New Beginnings should read: Remember the past.

Anonymous said...

Great -- heartfelt and truthful -- post, Sheria.

I'm so glad I've found your blog (following your comment from The Swash Zone, and, in part, through Nance's blog -- hi, Nance! :)

One thing leads to another in the blog-o-land, and, before you know it, you are surrounded by kindred spirits. Hope to be a more frequent visitor from now on.

Alan said...

On the nuclear issue, I spent a day at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/index_e2.html) Recalling that horror still brings tears to my eyes. What ever your ideology, nuclear is NOT an option.

NinjaKamui said...

Are you a journalist? Because you write like a truly great one.

Michael said...

If you'll give me the chance to choose between a scorpion bite and a black mamba snake bite, I would rather choose the second one. Why? Both will definitely cause death if not given an immediate attention, but this snake's bite won't let its victim suffer for too long.:) Source: blackmambas.net