when i read the text of the speech delivered by the president upon the occasion of black history month, i was so taken aback by the dimensionless name drops of token black americans, and in particular, the use of the incorrect verb tense when stating that frederick douglass “has done an amazing job,” that i was inspired to read a bit about the life and legacy of frederick douglass. i learned a lot, and have much more to say about him, but for today i wanted to share that he made conscious use of photography as a form of activism. i decided that for black history month, i will make conscious use of my black and white wednesday posts to say some things i feel compelled to say.
today i’m borrowing some photos from history (all of which i believe are in the public domain).
frederick douglass was the most photographed american of the 19th century. he used the tool of the selfie to demolish the caricature of the “happy slave” and confront racism head on with a fiercely serious look. he had something to say, and he combined his eloquent speaking with his use of photos to bring about social change. i feel like i have found a kindred in frederick douglass, though i am not nearly as eloquent and my photos are rarely of myself.
here is one of the things he had to say. “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
you simply cannot sum up his life by saying that he “has done an amazing job.” this man was separated from his mom at an age so young he could only remember the sense of her lying down to help him fall asleep, and the sense of her being gone when he awoke. he overcame extreme adversity, was beaten and nearly broken by his master before making his escape on the underground railroad. he taught himself, sought out teachers, and taught others how to read, and became an eloquent public speaker.
he didn’t only speak up for the abolition of slavery, he was also vocal about women’s rights, free public education, abolishing capital punishment, suffrage, and several other major societal issues. he was a man of integrity who would “unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
in light of an administration who acknowledged black history month without mentioning the word “slavery,” and acknowledged holocaust remembrance day without a word spared for the six million jews (not a single mention of one single jew) murdered by nazis, i am feeling compelled to unite with those who care about doing right. i will not quietly submit in order to find out the exact measure of injustice that would be imposed, i have seen how that movie ends on the small scale of my little life, and i’m starting to see a glimmer of how that played out in history, and i can’t keep quiet.
“they are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another: telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.” elie wiesel spoke out against holocaust denial, and he would know, having lived through his imprisonment at the concentration camp at buchenward, bearing the tattoo of a-7713, not one of the six million who was murdered, but instead one of the roughly three million survivors of the holocaust who would have to find a way to move on with life after his release.
within days of release, elie wiesel can be seen in this photograph, on the second row from the bottom, seventh from left next to the post. the atrocities that are represented by this image must not be allowed to repeat themselves. “We cannot indefinitely avoid depressing subject matter, particularly if it is true, and in the subsequent quarter century the world has had to hear a story it would have preferred not to hear – the story of how a cultured people turned to genocide, and how the rest of the world, also composed of cultured people, remained silent in the face of genocide.”
i will not remain silent.
the slow erosion of our humanity, the creep of one new normal into the next new normal, is the way fascism takes hold of an otherwise cultured people, and turns them to committing atrocious acts, up to and including genocide. it is the everyday citizen, charged with upholding a baseless and unconstitutional ban on immigration, who finds himself detaining an elderly woman for over 33 hours and denying her the use of a wheelchair. on the average day, the airport security person does not commit inhumane acts, but last week, he handcuffed a 5 year old child and separated him from his mother for hours. i’m sure he was just following orders.
this interview reminds us of the importance of watchfulness for the signs of fascism in our society, because of this slow, imperceptible creep that can overtake humanity. “At the Holocaust Museum in Washington…there is a placard that says “Early warning signs of fascism,” and it has a list that includes powerful and continuing nationalism, disdain for human rights, identification of enemies as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, rampant sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with national security, corporate power protected, labor power suppressed, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, obsession with crime and punishment. ” (italics mine.)
the executive order that places a ban on immigration and refugees falls under several of those headings, and the cost is in human lives. lest we diminish the gravity of the consequences of turning away refugees at our border, we must bear in mind that our nation also placed limits on immigration of jews during the holocaust, such as the 937 jewish refugees aboard the s.s. st. louis who were turned away from miami in 1939, 254 of whom ended up dying in concentration and extermination camps upon their return to germany. these were humans fleeing violence, not numbers. Wiesel also said, “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”
once again, photos drive the point home:
“My name is Joachim Hirsch. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.”
joachim hirsch was a universe with its own secrets. so were each of the six million. so were each of the 254 holocaust victims refused entry at our border in 1939 on the s.s. st. louis manifest and subsequently murdered. seeing the faces and hearing the stories of these individuals is powerful and sobering, and if i could assign one piece of reading to everyone, it would be the link in this paragraph.
i can’t keep quiet. another elie wiesel quote has stuck with me this week: “I write to understand as much as to be understood.” i’m starting to think my memory problems are inversely proportional to how much writing i’m doing, that writing helps me empty out and organize my brain, making neurons available for the daily chores. as i was washing my hands in the second bathroom i came to, walking to my office after finishing some lab work, it dawned on me that i had already washed them in the first bathroom i had passed. so it is time for me to get this jumble of thoughts out of my system, more for myself than to try and impress upon anyone else the importance of how we handle this juncture in our history.
and yet there is an urgency. i still do not wish to smuggle in any hate, or appear to attack or put on the defensive anyone who may chance to read this post. still, i find that the more history i read, the more i feel compelled to read. the more urgent my questions become when i learn that the concentration camp buchenward, in which elie wiesel was imprisoned, was liberated on april 11, 1945, by the u.s. third army. this fact collides with the one soundbyte i can recall of my poppy’s army service during world war ii, that he served under general george patton in the u.s. third army. hold up! was he still serving at that time? was he there at buchenward? are those some of the experiences that haunted his dreams? i cannot ask him, and there are fewer and fewer world war ii veterans and holocaust survivors remaining in the world today to ask. elie wiesel passed away in 2016, and my poppy, peter donnelly, passed away in 1993. this story must not die with the dwindling (estimated 100,000) holocaust survivors who are left of the (also estimated) three million who lived through the holocaust. it is up to us to not keep quiet about our history, and apply it to our present. i will save that for another post.