So already, how interesting that the same week I was finishing Clint Smith's How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America*, I also happened upon Dara Horn's article "Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse?**" with its secondary headline "Using dead Jews as symbols isn't helping living ones" in the just-arrived May 2023 print issue of The Atlantic.
I read both with great interest--Horn's because it seemed almost heretical for a Jewish person (or any liberal person) to suggest a downside to teaching Holocaust history, and Smith's because I found its exploration of a very important topic so compelling, humble, and usefully episodic. Chronicled in separate chapters, Smith's forays to sites not only where enslaved people labored, but where they were sold, exported, housed, and separated from family--Angola Prison in Louisiana, Gorée island*** in Senegal, and the Wall Street area of New York City, to name a few--collectively and concretely captured many different facets of the history of slavery. Furthermore, each of the chapters included the voices--and thus the invaluable perspectives--of those Smith encountered officially and unofficially as he made his rounds.
Both the Horn article and the Smith book explore the popular idea that remembering and understanding history**** is not just essential, but perhaps the best way to create a world in which race- and religion-related violence, murder, and injustice ideally become relegated to the past--a world in which members of groups that historically have been subjected to violence, murder, exploitation, and other forms of injustice can live in justice and peace.
understanding the history of dehumanization, cultivated contempt, and genocide actually eradicate them? Does looking squarely at the violence and harm perpetrated
against Jews and African-Americans over time lead other people to adopt respectful
attitudes towards them and/or to take actions against racist and antisemitic practice and policy in
the present day?* In 2023, members of both groups are more apt to
be the targets of violent attacks than they were ten years ago. And much silence and inaction often follows those attacks.
I would not have even be asking the questions in the last
paragraph were others not asking them in what I was reading.
In both the article and the book, the question being asked by several people was what history specifically, or what histories, should be taught to ensure history's potential liberating, transformative effect on individuals and society. A number of the slavery history educators were as concerned about slavery education's effect on the descendants of enslaved people as they were about its effects on the descendants of those who enslaved them or tacitly accepted their enslavement. I suspect that there's probably an important, related question about how these histories should be taught if they are to foster the changes in understanding and attitude they're designed to foster. So, a warning: I am going to quote lengthily from the book and the article so you have sufficient context to understand the "new" perspectives I encountered in reading them.
I'll begin with the article. At the center of the Holocaust education "debate" is the question of whether and how effective learning about the Holocaust can be if students are not also learning about antisemitism and Jewish culture and religion. Observing a lesson at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Horn took issue with a docent's explaining to students that for German Jews in the 1930s and 40s, "'all of a sudden, things changed'" (Smith, 28).
As Horn further contemplated this characterization, discussed it with a museum official, and explored the museum itself, she realized that the museum inadvertently reinforced this falsehood.
All of a sudden, things changed.
Kelley Szany, the museum’s senior vice president of education and
exhibitions, had told me that the museum had made a conscious decision
not to focus on the long history of anti-Semitism that preceded the
Holocaust, and made it possible. To be fair, adequately covering this
topic would have required an additional museum. But the idea of sudden
change—referring to not merely the Nazi takeover, but the shift from a
welcoming society to an unwelcoming one—was also reinforced by survivors
in videos around the museum. No wonder: Survivors who had lived long
enough to tell their stories to contemporary audiences were young before
the war, many of them younger than the middle schoolers in my tour
group. They did not have a lifetime of memories of anti-Semitic
harassment and social isolation prior to the Holocaust. For 6-year-olds
who saw their synagogue burn—unlike their parents and grandparents, who
might have survived various pogroms, or endured pre-Nazi anti-Semitic
boycotts and other campaigns that ostracized Jews politically and
socially—everything really did 'suddenly' change. (28)
Given the authenticity of the perspectives the museum did share, Horn saw all the more reason for incorporating the study of antisemitism itself: people, especially young people, needed not to understand the Holocaust as an event so historically rootless, distinct, and isolated that it could never happen anywhere again.
At another Holocaust education event, after conversations with various Holocaust educators revealed to her that little or nothing was taught about Judaism and Jewish culture, Horn broached the topic with Kim Klett, a Holocaust educator with an organization called Echoes and Reflections.
I asked Klett why no one seemed
to be teaching anything about Jewish culture. If the whole point of
Holocaust education is to 'humanize' those who were 'dehumanized,' why
do most teachers introduce students to Jews only when Jews are headed
for a mass grave? 'There’s a real fear of teaching about Judaism,” she
confided. “Especially if the teacher is Jewish.' . . .
'Because the teachers are afraid that the parents are going to say that they’re pushing their religion on the kids.'
Jews don’t do that, I said. Judaism isn’t a proselytizing religion . . . This seemed to be yet another basic fact of Jewish identity
that no one had bothered to teach or learn.
shrugged. 'Survivors have told me, "Thank you for teaching this.
They’ll listen to you because you’re not Jewish,"' she said. Which is
'Weird' is one way to
put it. . . . anti-Semitism is so ingrained in our world that even when
discussing the murders of 6 million Jews, it would be 'pushing an
agenda' to tell people not to hate them, or to tell anyone what it
actually means to be Jewish. . . .. (37-38)
Reading this passage reminded me of the last place I'd encountered such a rejection of Jewishness because it was Jewishness: in the section of The Sabbath World, where Judith Shulevitz explains that many Christian groups dedicated to the idea of observing Sabbath were just as dedicated to having "their" Sabbath bear as little resemblance to the Jewish Sabbath as possible.
Finally, Horn suggests that the fact that a number of Holocaust museums point visitors away from thinking of post-Holocaust Jewish lives and antisemitism in favor of promoting activism and vigilance on behalf of others may itself contribute to the problem:
The Dallas Museum***** was
the only one I visited that opened with an explanation of who Jews are.
Its exhibition began with brief videos about Abraham and Moses—limiting
Jewish identity to a “religion” familiar to non-Jews, but it was better
than nothing. The museum also debunked the false charge that the
Jews—rather than the Romans—killed Jesus, and explained the Jews’
refusal to convert to other faiths. It even had a panel or two about
contemporary Dallas Jewish life. Even so, a docent there told me that
one question students ask is “Are any Jews still alive today?”
couldn’t blame the kids for asking. American Holocaust education, in
this museum and nearly everywhere else, never ends with Jews alive
today. Instead it ends by segueing to other genocides, or to other
minorities’ suffering. (In Dallas, these subjects took up most of two
museum wings.) This erasure feels completely normal. Better than normal,
even: noble, humane.
when one reaches the end of the exhibition on American slavery at the
National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington,
D.C., one does not then enter an exhibition highlighting the enslavement
of other groups throughout world history, or a room full of interactive
touchscreens about human trafficking today, asking that visitors become 'upstanders' in fighting it. That approach would be an insult to Black
history, ignoring Black people’s current experiences while turning their
past oppression into nothing but a symbol for something else, something
that actually matters. It is dehumanizing to be treated as a symbol. It
is even more dehumanizing to be treated as a warning. (38)
It always concerns me when I come up against the reality that for some students, the only Jews they've ever "met" are the ones they learned about while studying the Holocaust. Just something I needed to say, a reflection of the very small number of Jews in the USA and world--in large part, of course, because of the Holocaust. It also reminds me of how I bristle when people refer to Israel exclusively as "the holy land"; that characterization suggests a corollary to "the only good Jew is a dead Jew": "the only good Jew is an ancient Jew."
But back to what Horn said: I don't agree with her that Holocaust museums go so far as to dehumanize Jews when they shift their attention away from the Holocaust itself. That said, I too am chagrined by "The idea that Holocaust education can somehow serve as a stand-in for public moral education . . .." (32). Jewish lives and antisemitism itself still need our attention and activism; the Holocaust matters in of itself, even if it is useful as a case study.
Given that, Horn's discussion of the National Museum of African American History****** and Culture seems quite apt to me--and having visited that museum myself*******, I can attest to its power to convey simultaneously painful history and human dignity, resilience, joy, and achievement. But it also gets me thinking about how it's too much to expect any one historical site, any one unit of study, any one guided tour, any one lesson to fulfill all the possible purposes for teaching about the Holocaust or the history of slavery.
Nonetheless, I think the comments of many of the tour guides and educators whom Smith encountered spoke to some of those same yearnings Horn had for those who had been exploited and oppressed to be appreciated in more nuanced, multidimensional ways--above and beyond their misfortune.
On Texas's Galveston Island, "the birthplace of Juneteenth," Smith met Sue Johnson, founder of the Nia Cultural Center:
As committed as Sue was to teaching young people in Galveston about the history of slavery and its aftermath, she wanted to go even further back than that. . . .
'I didn't want them to think, Oh, we popped up and we became enslaved. No, we were thriving communities and nations and did amazing things before we were ever found by the white man' . . . 'I wanted them to see what they brought to the table, and to try to maintain and preserve who they are, and not think in order to be successful, I have to let go of my cultural stuff and adopt somebody else's.' (199)
Eloi Coly, the curator and site manager of Senegal's House of Slaves on Gorée Island, expressed the same desire to expand the history, emphasizing in his comments the psychological reasons for affirming Senegal's pre-slave-trade history:
. . . 'In Senegal, we are rewriting the history on Senegal from the origin until now. But it is something very difficult. They told us Black is nothing.' His voice hovered over the final word. 'They try to forget that things start in Africa,' he said. 'The slave trade or colonization was not the starting point of Africa.'
This forgetting, Eloi said, has deleteriously affected the collective self-esteem of African peoples. He noted that Senegal, along with other West African countries, has to make sure that it teaches a history that highlights who Black people were before slavery and who they are in spite of it. (250)
Smith's own grandmother, across the ocean in America, understood firsthand the "deleterious effect" of this "slave" view of Africans. When Smith asked her to tell him her story,
She spoke regretfully about the way she was taught to think about people on the African continent, how those caricatures specifically were designed to make them think of Africans as less than human, and how it contributed to making Black Americans feel as if slavery had somehow rescued them from the backwardness of their ancestral homeland. . . .
'We just [were taught] that Africans were nasty, bad people,' she said, a wave of shame rising in her eyes. (284)
But if more history is the answer, is all 'more history" the answer? When Clint Smith talked to Eloi Coly about his visit to some American plantations as part of a trip sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Coly explained that
He was struck by what he referred to as the 'continuation of the dehumanization of Africans.' He said, 'The problem that they have in the plantations is that they continue to tell more about the owner of the property, but they didn't focus on what happened to the slaves. That is why it is difficult in the plantations to interest African Americans.' (255)
I can almost envision Horn nodding her head vigorously in appreciation of how a wrong focus can dehumanize and alienate. And I was reminded of why Sue Johnson had founded the Nia Cultural Center:
Living in Galveston, she found there was an enormous preservation effort taking place, but she was concerned that the city seemed interested only in preserving white history. 'There was a lot of preservation of their history, but ours was being torn down,' she said. Her commitment to restoring the awareness and the iconography of her community was solidified. (198)
In many places, the impulse to tell or at least foreground only one story is alive and well. And while the story that's told may not entice the descendants of the formerly enslaved and oppressed to pay a visit, it often helps to explain why their freedom and safety are still incomplete and threatened. Smith's chapter about the Blandford Cemetery******** in Virginia, for example, gave me the best lesson I'd ever had in the durability and power of the myth of the Lost Cause: how do you argue with someone who says, "I don't know if it's true or not, but I like it"? (118)
Every chapter in How the Word is Passed shocked me into some important new understanding--and kept me reading so I could understand more about history and its repercussions. But I think the chapter that got to me the most was the one about New York City: like so many Americans, I habitually thought of the American South when I thought about the history of slavery. Smith's tour, which began at the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, illuminated the histories of both African-Americans and Lenape Native Americans.
Early on the tour, Damaras Obi, Smith's tour guide, distinguished American slavery from other slavery: throughout world history, "People would regularly be enslaved because they were prisoners of war or because they owed some sort of debt. Sometimes . . . enslavement would endure only for a specific period of time, and even if you were enslaved for your entire life, your children would not necessarily be enslaved after you" (209).
In contrast, "New World enslavement," was "based off a racial caste system, a racial hierarchy, . . . . "so that the only thing that made you eligible for this lifelong sentence was the . . . color of your skin." She then explained that race itself was "'social construct'" rather than a scientific one: "'There has never been any scientific or genetic evidence to back up the concept of race." (209)
None of that was news to Smith personally; but what he came to understand about New York City was news. Obi talked about the mortality rates for Black people in New York and some of the reasons for it, recounted acts of resistance by enslaved New Yorkers, and interpreted the symbolism--and therefore the messages--of four statues in front of the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House. From a plaque on Wall Street, Smith learned that "'By the mid-18th century approximately one in five people living in New York City was enslaved and almost half of Manhattan households included at least one slave'"(219). *********
I personally am still thinking about Obi's terse "'Almost all of our country is a burial ground'" and the research she shared about how more than half of the remains in the excavated African Burial Ground in Manhattan belonged to children under twelve years old. (229)
Part of what I appreciated in reading this chapter was Smith's description of the effect of this experience on Smith himself:
I walked through the park back to the street, teeming with the familiar sounds of the city. I had walked across the city so many times before, but now its untold history was unraveling all around me. Every corner cast a shadow of what it had once been. New York was unique in that, like Damaras [Obi] had shared, it presented itself to me as a place ahead of its time. The pretense of cultural pluralism told a story that was only half true. New York economically benefited from slavery, and physical history of enslavement--the blood, the bodies, and the buildings constructed by them--was deeply entrenched in the soil of this city. (234)
No matter what we've already learned, we always have something else to learn. And when we have to adjust our ways of seeing the world in major ways, we continue to think and feel about those changes and the new understandings they reflect for a long time.
So what am I thinking as I wrap up this very long blog post?
- First, I think that everyone should read Clint Smith's How the Word is Passed. And I rejoice in the fact that its narrative, episodic approach to the history of slavery makes it something that middle-school students and secondary-school students could read or read in part, find additional resources about, further explore in groups, etc.
- Second, both of these histories--slavery and Holocaust--need to be discussed, and not just read and pondered individually. Discussion, formal and informal, in classrooms, in living rooms, at kitchen tables, in book groups, in community meetings, is a must: In the context of relationship and functioning groups, constructing difficult and even painful new understandings has a better chance of happening authentically and successfully; in such contents, there's less of a chance of participants' being "cancelled" for their missteps along the route to these new understandings.
- Finally, if local learning********** of these histories and their legacies is possible, it should be explored for its potential to make the problems these histories seek to address "our problems" and not "other people's problems."
Of course, those three bullet points don't really answer the question posed in the title of this blog--of what words exactly should be passed, given the misunderstandings that can occur when some words are passed with the best of intentions. That's something I'm going to have to keep thinking about.
Thanks for reading my very long post if you made it this far!
* Smith, C. (2021). How the word is passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America. Little, Brown and Company.
** Horn, D. (2023, May). Is Holocaust education making anti-semitism worse? Using dead Jews as symbols isn't helping living ones. The Atlantic, 331(4), 24-39.
*** "House of Slaves" on Goree Island; image on Atlas Obscura: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/house-of-slaves
Please note: there are many more good reasons for teaching the
Holocaust history and slavery history. Beneath the line under these
endnotes, I lay out a few very important ones in an Optional Addendum.
***** Photo accompanying article in The Dallas Morning News by Deborah Fleck, September 16, 2019 called
****** Photo of the NMAAHC taken by Moises Almosny about a month ago:
*(7) I visited NMAAHC in 2019 and blogged about it: https://soalready.blogspot.com/2019/05/at-national-museum-of-african-american.html
*(8) Public domain photo of Blandford Cemetery on Wikipedia Site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blandford_Cemetery#/media/File:BlanfordCemetery.JPG
*(9) Photo accompanying WNYC news article entitled "Mayor Unveils Marker on Wall Street, Where Slaves Were Sold": https://www.wnyc.org/story/mayor-unveils-historical-marker-where-slaves-were-sold/
*(10) Photo accompanying an article in the Boston Globe: "Protestors reenact slave auction to demand name change for Faneuil Hall" by Felicia Gans, November 10, 2018: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/11/10/slave-auction-reenactment-held-outside-faneuil-hall-support-move-change-name/BkX5EWHxqywPxuqHMgsFIM/story.html
*(11) Thank you, Peter Lerangis, for this photo of Central Park shared on your Facebook page on April 7, 2023.___________________________________
So why teach Holocaust and slavery history?
Teaching history, especially history that is often denied,
sanitized, revised, or just plain overlooked intentionally or unintentionally, is
central. That the Holocaust happened is denied by some to this day, and slavery is often represented as a relatively harmless, benign institution.
In attempting to explain how both slavery and the Holocaust
could thrive for as long as they did, the histories of both explore the widely accepted notion common to both that the victims
deserved to be exploited, hated, reviled, segregated--or at least "kept
apart," subjected to violence, and murdered because they were inferior
non-Whites and non-Jews respectively, and even less than human.
history education--at least as I have come to understand it from my own
experiences of it--is designed to combat genocide and to create a world
in which Jews and others can live--thrive--in freedom and without fear
of violence, especially state-sanctioned, -legislated, or -tolerated violence. Ideally, those
encountering Holocaust history come to understand not just what
attitudes, beliefs, conditions, and laws (national and international)
fueled the genocide enacted across the Atlantic in the 1930s and 40s,
but how and when to take action against tyranny and injustice in the
present so such murderous history cannot be repeated.
and again as I have to come understand it from my own experience,
slavery history education seeks to combat genocide and to create a world
in which African-Americans and others of African descent can
live--thrive--in freedom and without fear of violence, especially
state-sanctioned, -legislated, or -tolerated violence. Ideally, those encountering slavery history
come to understand that discrimination and violence against
African-Americans, past and present, reflects an intentionally
cultivated and still existing "racial caste system" (Smith, 144) that
must be dismantled if African-Americans are to enjoy the justice, peace, and opportunities for prosperity to which they are entitled as Americans.
there's a major difference between the two history educations that
derives from the the phenomena they explore:
slavery, in contrast to the Holocaust, played
a central role in American history, economics, and politics over several
centuries: a war was fought over slavery on American soil, and in its
aftermath, organized efforts continued, legal and illegal, to protect
the exploitative status quo of slavery times and to thwart
African-American participation in democracy.
In addition, the reality of a racial caste system in America is not accepted by all. Many a conservative politician would
likely dispute Smith's characterization of the United Daughters of the
Confederacy's rationale for raising funds for the building of memorials
to Confederate "heroes":
goal [of the Daughters' efforts***], in part, was to teach the younger
generations of white Southerners who these men were and that the cause
they had fought for was an honorable one. But there is another reason,
not wholly disconnected from the first. These monuments were also built
in an effort to reinforce white supremacy at a time when Black
communities were being terrorized and Black social and political
mobility impeded. In the late nineteenth century, states began
implementing Jim Crow laws to cement this country's racial caste system.
(Smith, 144) My own belief is that presented with
demographic and courthouse records, photographs, first-hand accounts of
events, examples of legislation and its enforcement, history students of
all ages, be they in classrooms, museums, or cemeteries, can draw their own evidence-based conclusions about the degree
to which a caste system did exist, still exists, and continues to
affect African-Americans' access to social, economic, and political
opportunities routinely embraced by many other Americans. Some may
conclude that amends should be made for the disparities they identify
and the cost of those disparities over time.
Screenshot of a photo included in a Youtube video entitled "How
Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history":