Tag Archives: Facing History and Ourselves

Chilean Chronicles, Part 93: On Albie Sachs and Giving Thanks

Aidan's safe arrival in Santiago is a source of gratitude for us.

Aidan’s safe arrival in Santiago is a source of gratitude for us.

I’ve learned a lot from Albie Sachs over the years.

The South African freedom fighter and classical music lover whose taking the other as a Supreme Court Justice elicited a tear from then-President Nelson Mandela endured solitary confinement and a car bomb in Mozambique that cost him much of his right arm and part of his vision.

I first saw him at a conference in New Haven, Connecticut that Marc Skvirsky and I attended with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. Among many important things he said that day was that although Mandela had near-perfect pitch with the people he led, one should not mistake the leader for the source of the victory he and so many others had dedicated their lives to winning.

Speaking in his mellifluous baritone voice, his left arm moving animatedly, Sachs also cautioned against moral relativism.

Apartheid was evil, he said. We were better. And we won.

A few years later, he spoke at a community event for Facing History and Ourselves around his book, The Free Diary of Albie Sachs, a work that chronicled his six-week journey with then-partner, now wife, Vanessa September, to London and other European capitals.

In his opening comments Sachs talked about the dreams that he had had as a younger man of living as a free man in a country that was being transformed from a site of intense evil to a thoroughgoing democracy with many official languages, one of the world’s most far-reaching and inclusive constitutions and open debate of the questions of the day.

He also talked about living with a woman with whom he wanted to spend his life.

These dreams, he explained, had all come true.

Although I understood the meaning of Sachs’ words, I didn’t feel them the way he seemed to.

Now, I do.

There are moments, and I’ve been blessed to have a number of them recently, where I literally cannot believe the abundance of gifts and love I’m privileged to experience.

Where I wake up wondering not so much what I’m going to do, but which delicious set of options we’re going to explore together.

The past few weeks, which have seen Jon come here for a couple of weeks so that we can work on a project about Chile’s past, present and future.

A week later, Dad and Lee, whom we had seen in Argentina and Uruguay, were in for a week after their glorious two weeks plus tour that took through Argentina and down to the southernmost part of the continent before heading to the spectacular views of Torres del Paine, up into Chiloe and meeting us again in Santiago.

There are the gains that the students in my Data Journalism class have made, the pair of conversations in the next couple of weeks sponsored by the Fulbright Commission in which I’ll share preliminary results about my research into the nation’s 2009 Transparency Law, the news we’ve heard about the memorial event in Essen led by the indefatigable Gabriele Thimm that she told us was the best ever and the plans we’re formulating to advance the project, the events that we are planning in Wellesley and Cambridge and Arica or Punta Arenas.

All that is beautiful, and one of the most meaningful parts for me and for us is that Aidan got here on Sunday for what will be a month together in Santiago, in Northern and Southern Chile and in Peru’s fabled Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

He’s just returned from a semester in which he traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and the United States before he set foot here. It’s a treat to spend any time with him, let alone such a concentrated dose, and, in parts at least, Internet-free zone.

Underneath all of these experiences is a sense of possibility and flow, of the great fortune of being in a space it feels deeply possible to successfully integrate family and friends and language and investigation and teaching and writing and networking and traveling and food and drink and discussion and applying for new opportunities and converting those that arise and working more and more to do what we all need to do in life, which is to steer the ship of our lives.

This is not to say that we live in a perfect world.

Far from it.

Indeed, some initial discussions with Aidan have only reminded us how deeply flawed the world is that we will leave to his generation.

Nor is it to say that I’ve always felt this way.

That, too, has not been the case.

Indeed, my appreciation of this moment is deepened not only because I am more aware than before of life’s finitude, but because this more profound sense of possibility and authority comes after years of having a different gut-level conviction.

So, as Hannukah begins, after we’ve had one Thanksgiving meal and before we’ve had another, with a series of Chilean adventures behind us and more ahead, with family having departed and our son here, the sun shining in a cloudless sky, the breeze rustling the curtains of the room where Dunreith and I are next to each other, I am immensely grateful for my life’s abundant gifts.

I imagine that wherever he is, Albie Sachs is giving thanks, too.

Chilean Chronicles, Part XXX: Speaking about Dr. King and Dr. Bass at St. George’s College

Leon Bass bookThings are starting to groove here in Santiago, and it feels deep down good.

For starters, Dunreith and I have found a favorite, reasonable restaurant, La Republiqueta, a funky joint on Ave. Lyon, right where we stayed when we first arrived. She goes for a quesadilla salad with all kinds of seeds, while I have a sandwich with three kinds of mushroom and cheese. Throw in a mate to feed her burgeoning passion for that drink, a seltzer water for me, and a tip, and we’re out of there for less than $25.

From there we’ve established a firm, if not unbreakable, nightly ritual of splitting a chocolate bar filled with marzipan and a glass of the latest red wine we’re sampling during the next episode of the original version of “Betty, La Fea,” the inspiration for the American series, “Ugly Betty.”

A project that I’ve been working on around the Chicago Boys, the group of young Chilean economists who trained under Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and applied his theories in Chile, is starting to bear some early fruit.

I’m having a terrific time with my students, who call me either “Profe” or “Jeff Kelly,” and am starting to connect with more colleagues at the university.

Dunreith is making great strides in Spanish, understanding just about everything and being able to speak more and more.

We’ve got our travel plans to Argentina and Brazil in October just about salted away.

I’ve started running again after a three-year hiatus, and my body is holding up well so far.

Dear friends Lisa Cook and Jim Peters will be flying here on Sunday morning for close to a 10-day visit.

And this morning I confirmed a speaking gig at St. George’s College, a private, English-language school, for next Wednesday, August 28.

Hugo Rojas, a law professor with whom I first connected in 2008 during my second attempt to land a Fulbright, connected me to his wife, a teacher at the school.

As justice-loving people the world over know, this year will mark 50 years since Dr. King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech.

Although he had delivered a similar version of the speech earlier in Detroit, King’s abandoning his notes and delivered an impassioned call for the nation to be true to its founding creed and that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners shall eat together at the table of brotherhood is a high point in American oratory and history.

Twenty years ago, dear friend Dennis Downey and I, along with our ladies at the time, attended the 30th anniversary March on Washington.

Fifty years ago, personal hero Leon Bass was in the crowd of 250,000 people, weeping as he heard Dr. King describe his prophetic vision for the nation.

I’ve had the great privilege of knowing Leon for close to 20 years throughout his ceaseless commitment to fighting bigotry by talking for organizations like Facing History and Ourselves and the Anti-Defamation League.

Over that time we’ve become close friends.

He attended the second wedding Dunreith and I held at Look Park, giving us a check for $100 and telling me to go see a friend called gourmet.

A couple of years ago, after more than a decade of pushing from me and other people who love him, Leon published his autobiography, Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of the Dream.

It’s a remarkable story that begins in 1925 and continues until today.

It’s a story of tradition and race and service and family and humility and seeking to find the courage to do the right thing.

Leon takes the reader through his childhood in Philadelphia, where he grew up with four brothers and one sister. His father, whom he revered, was a Pullman Porter. His mother ran a proverbial tight ship. As Leon’s told thousands of audiences, “If corporal punishment was child abuse, I was abused many times.” But he always makes it clear that he knew his parents loved him and wanted the best for him.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Leon volunteered to serve in the army, but was dismayed, and later furious, to find out that the country he had pledged to serve with his life, if necessary, was treating him as if he wasn’t good enough by making him stand at the back of the bus and eat at the back of restaurants.

He survived the Battle of the Bulge before having an experience that, as he described it, brought the blinders off and helped him understand that hatred was not limited to those who detested African-Americans.

This occurred in 1945, when he witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and saw what he called “the walking dead.”

Bass spent about four hours in the camp, and that time was enough to alter his life’s perspective, even if he didn’t speak publicly about it for decades.

He returned home from the war and became the first member of his family to go to college, generally, but not always, heeding his father’s words to not go running his mouth so that he could complete his education.

“Once you get that, no one can take that away from you,” his father said.

Bass eventually graduated, becoming a teacher.

In the mid-50s, after some initial reservations, he became a follower of Dr. King after learning about his endorsement of the discipline and philosophy of non-violence.

One day, King came to Philadelphia, and Bass brought his class to hear him speak.

“He was a little guy,” Bass recalled, referring to King’s comparatively small stature. “But then he started speaking and I recognized him for the giant of a man that he was.”

King’s message to the students was direct. Not all of you may become doctors or lawyers, but whatever you do, you be the best at it. If you have to sweep the streets, so be it, Bass said later. You sweep the streets the way Michelangelo painted his paintings.

Bass was mesmerized, and, when the March on Washington came, he made his way down from Philadelphia to hear King offer his soaring rhetoric that endures to this day.

Bass later became a principal at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the toughest in the city, if not the entire nation. He served there for 14 years before retiring in 1982.

About a decade before that, while at the school, he came across a Holocaust survivor talking to a class in the school.

She had lost almost all of her family, but the students were not interested in hearing about her pain.

Bass intervened, and, for the first time since that day in Buchenwald a quarter century earlier, spoke publicly about what he had seen.

What’s she saying is true, he told the young men. I know because I was there.

After the class ended and the students filed out in silence, the survivor implored Bass to start speaking in public.

You’ve got something to say, she said.

He has done it since.

One of my favorite parts of working at Facing History was taking speakers like Leon around to talk with students.

Leon and I traveled with his wife Mary, who was starting to be in the grip of Alzheimer’s, to Springfield, where he spoke to the entire student body at Cathedral High School.

I took him to Dorchester High, where, in his mid-70s, he stood down a group of unruly students by telling them, “You want to talk, you can come up hear and talk,” and then staring hard at them.

And I had the pleasure of working with Leon to tell his story in 20 minutes at a Facing History dinner that honored his years of service to the organization and that included a tribute by Dr. Calvin Morris, my former boss at the Community Renewal Society and one of Leon’s former fifth grade students.

Indeed, Dunreith and I later traveled to Cleveland, where Leon was again honored by Dr. Morris. That time, I got to have lunch with a select group of former Philadelphians that included Leon, Dr. Morris and one of Dr. Morris’ former students who had been a substitute teacher at Benjamin Franklin the last year Leon was a principal there. (They jokingly told me they’d let me hang around as a token Bostonian.)

Dunreith and I called Leon last night.

He sounded a bit tired when he answered the phone, but perked up when he recognized my voice.

He had just buried Claude, his last remaining sibling, on Friday.

I’m the last rung on the totem pole, he told me.

Even though there was mercy in his brother’s passing as he had suffered for a number of years, sadness crept into Leon’s voice.

We talked about our families and his attendance at Obama’s second inauguration, an experience he treasured. Although he’s not doing as much travel as he used to, he’s still speaking up for justice and still working to build the world that Dr. King described so memorably a half-century ago.

I told him about the speaking opportunity next week at St. George’s.

I’ll tell the students about Dr. King, I said. But I’ll tell them about you, too.

Reading bliss at Border’s and Barnes & Noble

Edward Hallowell's Shine is one of several books I read yesterday.

I’ll admit it.  I can be a boring date.

When Saturday night rolls around, I’m generally, if not always, up for dinner and a few hours reading away at a local bookstore.

While Dunreith and I very much enjoy frequenting The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, last night we were carless and decided to go in the afternoon to Border’s, and, after a tasty meal at Dixie Kitchen, to Barnes & Noble in downtown Evanston.

At Border’s, I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s exquisite Half of a Yellow Sun.  I wrote about this book earlier in the week and don’t want to give away the plot, but will say that it provides an unflinching look at the war in Biafra from 1967 to 1970.

In the book’s afterword, Adichie explains that her parents and other family members lived through the devastating conflict, which saw an estimated 1 million people die from death, disease and starvation.

“May we always remember,” she writes in the afterword’s final words before supplying a list of books she consulted for the writing of Half of a Yellow Sun.

Thanks to her magnificent work, that permanent memory is more likely.

For those who want to see and hear the 2008 MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner, here is her Ted talk in which she draws on her childhood reading experience to discusses the danger of a single story.

I didn’t want to launch right away into another novel, so instead picked through the new arrivals and ended up reading the following books, each of which I may write more about later, at Barnes & Noble:

-Hal and Judy Runkel’s The Scream Free Marriage. In this book the authors argue against the idea of tending exclusively on your partner’s needs, but rather focusing on one’s own feelings and representing them authentically in a calm and connected way.

-Edward Hallowell’s Shine.  Harvard psychiatrist Hallowell, whose previous work Driven to Distraction was a national bestseller, identifies a five-stage process for leaders to get the best out of the people they supervise.

Continue reading

Facing History’s Homophobia Workshop, Resources about Bayard Rustin

Rustin

Dunreith facilitated a session about Bayard Rustin at Facing History's homphobia workshop today.

Dunreith co-facilitated a workshop about homophobia today for Facing History.

Unfortunately, while America has made fitful if incomplete progress on issues of race, in many circles the hatred of gays, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning folks is still acceptable.

As a former middle and high school teacher and adviser to a Gay/Straight Alliance at Longmeadow High School, I can attest that young people in these categories have their dignity, self-esteem and even physical safety assaulted, sometimes on a hourly basis.

And, even more unfortunately, many times peers, and even other adults, stand by and do nothing.

This silence gives comfort to the abuser and makes the victim feel even more alone.

This is the context in which Dunreith and her colleague Denise Gelb offered the workshop.

One of Dunreith’s sessions focused on Bayard Rustin.

Rustin’s name has become more recognized in recent years, but the architect of the March on Washington still generally is not nearly as well-known as other civil rights luminaries like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis or other people from that era.

It’s a shame, because Rustin’s brilliance deserves to be recognized, while the pain he experienced from inside and outside the movement also merits scrutiny.

Dunreith drew on a number of resources for her session, which combined aspects of Rustin’s biography-his youth in West Chester, Pennsylvania, his fearlessness about issues of race, his early commitment to nonviolence and serving time in federal prison for being a conscientious objects are just some of his foundational experiences-with information about his being ostracized because of his being gay.

After being arrested in Pasadena in the early 50s on a “morals” charge, he decided to suppress his sexual desires. One of the biggest betrayals of his life came when Dr. King acceded to his resignation after Adam Clayton Powell threatened to charge that King and Rustin were gay lovers.

After a period of exile, Rustin reconnected with King and other civil rights leaders in time to pull off the March on Washington, and to see the civil rights establishment back him when Strom Thurmond started attacking him.

While many see the March as the high point of Rustin’s public life, he continued to push for nonviolent change, receiving heat starting in the mid-60s for backing the Democratic rather than the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City. He later was accused of being out of touch as the doctrine of Black Power ascended later in the decade. 

In addition to working on issues of nuclear disarmament, Rustin did finally find committed and long-term love toward the end of his life.

Dunreith weighed looked at two videos, Out of the Past, which has a self-contained section about Rustin, and Brother Outsider, which is a full length documentary feature about the civil rights strategist.

University of Illinois-Chicago and gay studies pioneer John D’Emilio has written an authoritative biography of Rustin, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.  I also read this week a slender book by Rustin about the movement’s past and future directions.

Whatever resource you choose, please take the time to learn more about this remarkable man, who was born to a teenage mother, raised by his Quaker grandparents and worked tirelessly to help the nation be truer to its word.

Dave Burk’s alleged prejudice, Terrence Roberts’ memoir

 

Terrence Roberts' memoir sheds lights on current issues of race and homphobia.

Terrence Roberts' memoir sheds lights on current issues of race and homphobia.

President Obama’s election last year elicited many assertions that we are now a ‘post-racial’ society.

Would that it were so.

As the flap about Geneva High School teacher Dave Burk’s alleged comment to a class about ‘black fags’ shows, racism and homophobia are far from vanquished in American society.

Student Jordan Hunter, who came out last year, has filed a complaint against Burk, whose lawyer says he is cooperating fully with authorities. 

In some ways, the incident illustrates both how far our nation has come and how much work on these issues yet remains to be done. 

Terrence Roberts’ recently published memoir, Lessons from Little Rock, provides valuable perspective on our nation’s tortured and fitfully forward moving path on race and other issues of diversity as well as riveting detail about the courage he and other members of the Little Rock Nine displayed in their successful effort to desegregate Central High School more than 50 years ago.

Much love and gratitude to Dunreith for getting me a copy of the book.  

At this point, the experiences of the Little Rock Nine have been widely chronicled.  Starting with Melba Pattillo Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry, several of the nine black students have written memoirs.  Elizabeth Jacoway has written Turn Away Thy Son, a scholarly and personal account of the year.  And many civil rights histories describe the horrific and daily abuse to which Roberts and the other eight students were subjected.  

With such an already crowded field, it might appear that there is little to add to the conversation, but Roberts finds plenty.

His work is distinctive for several features.  To begin, he has a lengthy description of his life and family before his junior year at Central High, painting a loving portrait of his mother and six siblings.  This is an important section because it reminds the reader both of the sources of his strength of character and of the importance of not defining his childhood solely by this single year, as significant as it was.

Roberts also continues the story after the 1957 school year, when Gov. Orval Faubus made the decision to close all Little Rock high schools rather than permit continued integration.  The book contains a depiction of his work 40 years later as a desegregation for the Little Rock public schools, an opinion piece he wrote for a local newspaper in 1997, the text of a speech he gave introducing then-President Clinton and brief descriptions of the other members of the nine.  

I’ve had the privilege and honor of meeting Roberts through Dunreith’s work at Facing History, and he writes very much like he talks, with insight, attention to detail, humor and vision.  He relates in the book anecdotes of survival, non-violence and self defense that inspire, and even awe, the reader. 

Roberts closes the book with the following statement,

“We must continue to find ways to extricate ourselves from the bondage of racism and our tendency to discriminate based on race.  Successful eradication of all vestiges of this cancerous growth on our society will not be easy, nor will there always be obvious road signs on our journey … Do we have the motivation or desire to accomplish this feat?  This is the first question, and it must be answered in the affirmative if we are to realize even one fraction of the goal before us.  Certainly it will not be an assignment for the weak of heart or those with doubt-filled minds.  But if the true visionaries up take up the challenge, we can find a way to make it happen.”

Roberts’ stirring words bring us back to Burk and Geneva High School and Jordan Hunter.  As a former adviser to Longmeadow High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, I know how much courage it takes for a young person to come out to his peers, let alone take the stand that Hunter is taking in calling for Burk’s removal.

Roberts’ memoir reminds us of America’s dark racial past and fitful progress, while his closing question gives us a way to understand the current situation and Hunter’s courageous action.

Turkey and Armenia’s accord, books about the Armenian genocide.

 

Taner Akcam's book is just one of several about the Armenian genocide-a fact of history that was largely omitted from yesterday's accord between Turkey and Armenia.

Taner Akcam's book is just one of several about the Armenian genocide-a fact of history that was largely omitted from yesterday's accord between Turkey and Armenia.

 

After close to a century of visceral and often bloody conflict, the governments of Turkey and Armenia announced an accord yesterday. 

Among the highlights: the re-establishment of diplomatic ties after a 16-year freeze and the reopening of borders that have been closed for about a century.

But one major element is missing for many in the Armenian diaspora, many of whom demonstrated before the signing in cities across the globe: a full and frank acknowledgment by the Turkish government of the Armenian genocide.

Marked as beginning in April 1915, during the bloodshed of World War I and the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the genocide led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and the forced expulsion and fleeing of many more. Estimates vary, and the figure of 1.5 million Armenians killed has been accepted by many.

To this day, Turkey denies that it ever happened.  In fact, in Turkey, to say that the genocide happened is a criminal act. 

I wrote in April about Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, a book which tells both the story of his growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s and his grandmother’s harrowing escape and tenacious fight for reparations.  

Here are some other resources for those wanting to learn more about the genocide, to which Hitler infamously referred shortly before invading Poland in 1939: 

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow mentions the genocide throughout the book, by referring repeatedly to homes that used to be occupied by Armenian families.

Turkish historian Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act uses the documentation left by the perpetrators to try to puncture the wall of denial. 

Balakian’s The Burning Tigris focuses on the genocide and the rise of the cause of international human rights movements in the United States. 

David Kherdian’s The Road from Home recounts his mother’s story of survival.

And Facing History and Ourselves, where Dunreith works, has both an extensive chapter in its original resource book about the genocide as well as a stand alone guide dedicated to it.   

 

 

 

 

James Von Brunn, Resources about Holocaust Denial and White Supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

By now, I’m sure you have heard about the shocking murder of a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by 88-year-old white supremacist and Holocaust denier James Von Brunn.

It’s a hard time for white supremacists these days.  

Events like Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, his appointment of a diverse Cabinet, and his recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be the nation’s third woman and first Latina U.S. Supreme Court justice embody all of what the haters oppose.

A sense of losing a battle often triggers desperate acts.

Von Brunn’s attack apparently was triggered by Obama’s recent visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which he called the “ultimate rebuke” to deniers. 

Here are some resources that can help give context to some of the issues raised by Von Brunn’s alleged shooting: 

To begin, Von Brunn was a failed artist, according to news reports.  Peter Cohen’s Architecture of Doom is an astonishing film that shows that many of the top Nazis, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, were, too. 

I wrote last weekabout Deborah Lipstadt’s book and blog, as well as  a web site, all of which are intended to counter Holocaust denial.

The Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Povery Law Center and where my friend Casey Sanchez works, covers hate groups in America.  The Center more generally is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the issue.

Dear friend and full professor Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy is a nimbly written and thoughtfully argued description of the re-emergence of white supremacy after the Civil War and into the 20th century as told through the life of South Carolina politician “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.  

Kantrowitz and other historians who cover this ground are walking in the very wide road carved by groundbreaking historian and Arkansas native C. Vann Woodward, whose classic work The Strange Career of Jim Crow paved the way for other works like Kantrowitz’s to follow. 

For those people interested in the context that gave rise to the Holocaust Museum where the shooting occurred, I recommend Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.  Novick argues that the events of the Holocaust have gained importance in America more because of the organization of the Jewish community than because of any change in the genocide’s tragic nature.

James Young is one of the leading authorities of Holocaust memorials; his book, At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocast in Contemporary Art and Architecture should be required reading for those intrigued by that topic.  

People seeking an overview of the Holocaust could do a lot worse than reading journalist William Shirer’s tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s  The Holocaust:  A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.  

Of course, Facing History and Ourselves, where Dunreith works and where I am a consultant, does terrific work around prejudice reduction with students all over the world.  While the organization has expanded from its original look at the Holocaust as its primary ‘case study,’ it still has a tremendous collection of print and video resources on the topic.  

Elements of Time, a collection of survivor testimony, is one of my favorites, while readers of Elie Wiesel’s Night should check out The Challenge of Memory, a video that accompanies the book and has complementary testimony for numerous points in the book.

Facing History’s resource book, Holocaust and Human Behavior, also has plenty of useful information, even as it’s more of a menu than a straight historical narrative.

Unfortunately, education and memory has not yet been a completely successful antidote to haters like Von Brunn and others of his ilk.  Still, actions like his only underscore the importance of continuing to inform people about past atrocities and continue to strive for a world in which events that seemingly were impossible, like the election of a black president, eventually become ordinary.