The Great Work of Remembering

Friends who visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum warned me about the shoes. “It was the smell,” they said.

They are housed in a simple room lined on each side with piles of shoes taken from the Majdanek concentration camp when it was liberated by Russian soldiers in 1944. And on the wall above, a poem written by Moshe Szulsztein reads, “We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. / We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers / From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam, / And because we are only made of fabric and leather / And not of blood and flesh, / Each one of us avoided the hellfire.”

They were right. The smell was haunting, as was the sight of so many shoes without owners—all of them faded to dull brown or lifeless gray, pressed flat beneath the weight of time and memory. But it was the train car that undid me.

I stood in the middle of it, and even though the doors were thrown open so visitors could pass through and the entire space was well lit, I couldn’t help but imagine it as it once was. I have read many survivors’ stories about journeys in such cars, how hundreds of people were crammed in each, the living forced to relieve themselves where they stood and trample on the dead to make space to breathe.

One such story is recorded in the second volume of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, Maus, which I was fortunate to study as a graduate student. This amazing work—a visual narrative of his parents’ experience in Auschwitz and the decades of trauma that effected their family after its liberation—speaks to the power of memory and the importance of capturing it accurately.

On January 10, 2022, Spiegelman’s book was banned by a unanimous vote by the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee on the grounds that it was inappropriate for eighth grade students. Their reasons? Nudity, curse words, and descriptions of suicide, all of which one board member found “completely unnecessary.”

A portion of the school board’s meeting minutes from January 10, 2022.

Yet these things aren’t arbitrary or superfluous, considering the stories being told.

The scenes where characters are nude take place in Auschwitz when prisoners are stripped of their uniforms and evaluated by a Nazi doctor to see if they are healthy enough to work. The curse words fly from the mouths of Nazi guards as well in the scenes set in the present day as the artist and his father wrestle with the pain and misunderstanding such trauma causes.

And the suicide? Speigelman’s mother, unable to live with the memories of her time in a concentration camp, killed herself in 1968. Her death is part of both his father’s story and his own, and it cannot be simply wiped away because it’s unpleasant for readers.

One of the “offensive” pages from Maus.

But Maus isn’t the only book being pulled from library shelves. In Wentzville, Missouri, the school board voted 4-3 to ban Toni Morrison’s masterwork, The Bluest Eye. One member, Sandy Garber, voted in favor of the ban to “protect children from obscenity.” And Amber Crawford, the parent who filed the challenge, calls Morrison’s exploration of the psychological damage created by racism “a garbage book.”

Both boards fail to grasp the truth that hatred—whether it comes in the form of racism or antisemitism—is the true obscenity. It is the garbage our country continues to wade through.

Sadly, very few white people are willing to wrestle with “The Peculiar Institution” upon which our country was founded or the painful effects racism has inflicted (and continues to inflict) on communities of color. Instead of listening to their stories—honoring their pain and taking steps to make up for the damage—white lawmakers are twisting themselves in knots to ban anything that might begin such a necessary and healing conversation.

For instance, in Texas, a Republican lawmaker named Matt Krause recently drafted a list of 850 books that deal with topics such as sexuality, racism, and U.S. history in an effort to target and remove any materials that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

Likewise, a Senate committee in Florida has approved a bill (pushed and backed by Republican governor Ron DeSantis) that would protect white people from “feeling ‘discomfort’ over the history of racism and atrocities committed by their ancestors against Black and other Indigenous people.”

The book banning, the race to stamp out CRT (which isn’t being taught in public schools by the way), and the battles over problematic statues and monuments all have one thing in common: white fragility. I know the term is controversial. Up until a few years ago, I would have balked at it too. However, I’ve done a great deal of research and soul searching over the last few years. I’ve been asking myself the vital question “What if I’m wrong?” over and over again when faced with information that pushes me out of my comfort zone.

As a result, I’ve begun to understand just how much pain and suffering racism has caused communities of color in this nation and how it continues to damage all of us because we refuse to face our collective past. This stubborn refusal keeps us from what is known as real talk—speaking to one another in love and sharing genuine communication, even if the subject matter isn’t always pleasant.

Because I am a supporter of the Equal Justice Initiative, I received a calendar from them that chronicles the racial history in the United States. These are the entries from this week:

  • January 23, 1957 – KKK members force Willie Edwards Jr., a Black man, to jump to his death from a bridge in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • January 24, 1879 – A white mob accuses Ben Daniels, a black man, of theft for trying to spend a $50 bill in Arkansas and lynches him along with his two sons.
  • January 25, 1942 – A white mob in Sikeston, Missouri abducts Cleo Wright, accused of assaulting a white woman, from jail, drags him behind a car, and sets him on fire in from of two Black churches as services let out.
  • January 26, 1970 – In Evans vs. Abney, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Georgia court’s decision to close rather than integrate Macon’s Baconsfield Park, created by Senator Augustus Bacon for whites only.
  • January 27, 1967 – Deputy sheriff shoots and kills Robert Lacey, a Black man, in Birmingham, Alabama during an arrest for failing to take his dog to the vet.
  • January 28, 1934 – After Robert Johnson, a Black man, is cleared of rape charges in Tampa, Florida, a mob abducts him from police custody and lynches him.
  • January 29, 1883 – In Pace vs. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a law criminalizing interracial sex and marriage.

For each injustice listed, there are likely dozens if not hundreds more that happened on any given day. Some of them, like those involving poor decisions made on the part of the Supreme Court, are frustrating. Others, like the deaths of Willie Edwards Jr., Ben Daniels, and Cleo Wright, are heartbreaking. I know it’s tough, but take a moment and think of the physical agony and fear these men (and in Ben Daniel’s case, his sons) experienced before their deaths. Consider the people in the church congregations who left worship only to be faced with the horrific sight of a man burning in the street. Put yourself there. Suffer with those who suffered.

Also, look closely at the years in which each act of violence took place. Yes, some happened more than a century ago, but that doesn’t mean they’re all part of a dark and savage era far removed from our own. Several of these events happened in my grandparents’ lifetimes. Two—the deaths of Willie Edwards Jr. and Robert Lacey—happened after my mother was born.

I know it’s daunting to consider just how evil racism allows us to be, what it has compelled people like us to do in the name of “white superiority.” It’s hard to face the fact that your people, your kin, likely participated in one or more acts of racial violence, discrimination, or prejudice. We want to push such knowledge away with both hands, to shut our ears and eyes to the truth. It’s easier and safer to remain ignorant, to continue in our naïveté at the expense of our fellow human beings. But that’s what led us here, beloved. It broke us then and continues to break us now. It leaves us hollow, a people with half a soul.

Compare this to the Black community’s willingness to engage in real talk about Bill Cosby in a new documentary by W. Kamau Bell. You can see it in their reactions; they aren’t eager to talk about the once untouchable comedian. After all, he was a hero to so many in the 1980s when The Cosby Show was at its zenith. As one interviewee says, “You can’t speak about Black America in the twentieth century and not talk about Bill Cosby.” So yeah, it’s tough to admit he had severe moral failings, that he raped countless women and got away with it. But as another interviewee says, “It feels like I have to have this discussion.”

What a difference that makes. Rather than continue to live with the lie that Bill Cosby sold them, rather than continue to lionize him as a paragon of virtue, people of color are willing to have the hard conversation, to clear the air and speak truthfully about the man and his legacy. This only happened a few decades ago, but by bringing the truth (however hurtful it might be) out into the open and claiming it, a kind of healing will take place.

I wish the white community could do the same about so many things in our past. Such lament would hurt deeply. It would grieve us to the core, but oh, when we were done, what good would come of it! Instead of wasting our time avoiding discomfort, becoming more morally weak and flaccid by the day, we could grow strong and straight and true. We would know ourselves for the first time—the good and the bad—and move forward as whole people.

An accurate accounting of history is an incredible gift. Through it, we understand both ourselves and how our nation has evolved over time. We can learn from our mistakes and avoid making them in the future. But when we remove books that “cause psychological distress,” seek to silence voices we disagree with, and cling to and prop up lies, we are doing ourselves tremendous harm. It is the great work of remembering rightly—however painful it may be—that will save us all.

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