|Apr/May 2014 Salon|
Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream
There's a passage in Victor Klemperer's book on the language of the Nazis (Language of the Third Reich, Continuum 2002) where he recalls how he felt when he was obliged to wear the yellow star whenever he went out in public. He had already written about this in the diaries he kept of the period 1933-1944 published in two volumes under the title I Will Bear Witness, A Diary of the Nazi Years. But his tone in those diaries, especially as the situation for people like himself—those the Nazis identified as Jews—worsened, was matter-of-fact, even terse. The mere fact of those diaries' existence would have been enough to send him to a concentration camp if the thugs who regularly visited the "Jews House" in which he and his wife Eva were forced to live had discovered his writings. Besides, there was no time for self-pity or even outrage. To survive he couldn't afford the luxury of personal feelings, not when his neighbors were being carted off daily to their deaths and only his own cunning and his wife's "Aryan" status stood between him and his own certain death.
But it was a different matter after the war when he was free of the fear of lethal reprisal for expressing himself. And express himself he did in Language of the Third Reich, an amalgam of philological analysis and personal reminiscence. In this book he allows himself to express what he dared not write even privately when he was living in the constant shadow of Nazi oppression, and the effect of this book on the reader who has already lived with him vicariously those 12 nightmare years is all the more powerful, though its tone remains sober, even understated. Klemperer, the university don, didn't seem to realize how good a writer he was. His knack for putting us in his worn-out shoes during the Nazi era, as he forced himself to go out of doors to hunt down some potatoes so he and his wife could avoid starvation for the next few days, is palpable, all the more so for the sense of humiliation he felt for having to identify himself to everyone on the streets of Dresden by that yellow star on the lapel of his jacket.
But the night British Lancasters dropped their incendiaries on the city, his humiliation was over. Neither he nor his wife perished in that holocaust (it's the same fire-bombing the young Kurt Vonnegut lived through and later wrote about in Slaughterhouse Five). After ripping off the star and using the plausible excuse that their identity papers had perished in the flames, the Klemperers became just two more displaced persons in the waning days of the war. Later, when they returned to Dresden, Victor resumed his career and even became something of an academic and political celebrity.
I took all this in, as happy for the Klemperers (Eva, a talented but frustrated musician, was heroic during the war years) as if I had known both of them personally. But then the thought struck me: what if his wife had not been able to detach the yellow star from his jacket thanks to the bombing of Dresden? What if his non-Aryan identity had been affixed to him in a way no tailor could alter? What if it were writ, say, in the color of his skin (the idea that you could spot a Jew by his physiognomy was a Nazi myth)? What if Victor Klemperer had been "black" and had lived in my own country in 1933, or for that matter in 1953, or were doing so today, in 2014? It's not the first time this notion has occurred to me, but experiencing the sense of deep pain Klemperer recalls at the memory of his experiences while wearing the yellow star—not all of them negative, it's worth pointing out; some of his fellow Germans, friends and strangers alike, risked their own freedom by publically or privately offering him support—I was reminded that we who are reminded almost daily of various atrocities past and present that have occurred in other parts of the world are expert at ignoring the prejudice and abuse we practice in our own nation.
America has changed less radically in the last 80 years than has Germany, but it has changed nonetheless and in essential ways. We no longer legally discriminate. But we have not allowed those who wear our own version of the yellow star, those whose skin color makes them "black" ( a word that means different things to different people, the only common thread being ancestry from "dark-skinned" Africans), to entirely take it off.
Like other "whites" I am not reminded of this fact of American life on a daily basis as, they assure us, our fellow citizens of African descent are. But every once in a while I see "racism" expressed openly and am, naively, shocked:
* A pedestrian, young, "white," male, angered by the behavior of a car driver, a woman, at an intersection; for a while they exchange words of the usual kind, heated but neutral. But then he resorts to the N-word, preceded by the usual intensive, and the entire character of the interchange changes from a pedestrian-driver dispute to something else entirely. The woman drives away without responding.
* I sit on the stoop outside my building almost every day. Several people pass by, most of whom look my way and, frequently, smile and greet me. Except African Americans, who keep their eyes averted. I suspect the reason is to avoid giving cause for apprehension. It's a behavior I suspect they've been counseled early on to adopt along with other strategies for protecting themselves from the fear a brown face causes white people, especially older white people.
* I go out for a walk after dark and pass a young African American man on my quiet side street. He becomes apprehensive, pretends to be interested in something on the other side of the street to make sure I don't think he intends to mug me.
Imagine living like this every day of your life. To be sure, others suffer prejudice, too. Women are prey to unwanted male attention, and worse. But women are not suspected of being thieves in the local grocery merely because of their physical appearance. Nor are they apt to have someone call the cops because they look like they "don't belong in that neighborhood."
I try to imagine the anxiety of living with this kind of threat—for that's what it is, a perpetual threat of being singled out as a criminal or potential criminal simply for looking like what one is—but I have nothing to compare it with in my own life, at least nothing that exists outside my sometimes overactive imagination. And it's not just fearful old folk who see African Americans and brown-skinned people this way. Critically, the police do as well, and it's they, just a phone call away, who present the real threat to someone's freedom to walk the streets like any other person and not be thought a thief or potential rapist for no reason other than their skin color.
The closest I've come to suffering this kind of prejudice has been when I've been taken for a Jew because of my last name and—probably—large nose. I've had someone abruptly break off a conversation and make an offensive remark upon learning my last name (the standard question throughout my life on meeting someone is, "Jewish or German?" without their ever realizing it's the same question the Nazis posed). There have been other occasions as well when, usually well after the fact, I realized I had encountered anti-Jewish prejudice, though on the whole, living in a city with a very large Jewish population, my experience more often than not has been of Jews who take me for a Jew showing me special consideration. Even so, the few occasions when I was treated with abuse are painful memories, though certainly not as painful as they would be if I actually were Jewish. But even Jews aren't automatically seen as criminals and therefore fair game for police looking to up the number of their arrests or simply take out their frustrations on someone with little recourse to the protections the rest of us enjoy before, during, or after our confrontations with the law.
I doubt I could cope with that kind of prejudice on a daily basis for my entire life. It has to take a heavy toll.
I haven't mentioned the prejudice endured by Latinos or—our original shame—by American Indians, who live today in dire poverty and suffer high rates of alcoholism and other diseases caused by their social conditions. We read about Latinos in news stories about illegal immigration and about Indians in stories about gambling casinos. But how many people come upon the kind of news report I did about a reservation in the Southwest where a white man killed an Indian but the tribe was not allowed to try him, and Mrs. Clinton, our secretary of state at the time, demanded his "extradition" to our own authorities, who set him free? Imagine what an incident like that, however legal it may be, does to your sense of what you count for if you live on that reservation.
Most Americans who enjoy "majority status" know next to nothing about the history or the present of Indians, Latinos, African Americans, or any other group that has found itself on the short end of the stick in American society, including in the past Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Catholics, Mormons, atheists, and who-knows how many others who are now more or less members of the mainstream and act as if they always were. How many of us have even a rough idea how many Africans were brought to the New World during the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Or how many of that number were brought to North America? How many of us know the differences between the way slavery was practiced in South America and the Caribbean and in the North American British colonies and later in the United States? Do we really know, apart from what we see in the movies, how the "West was won," the "West" starting at, roughly, Plymouth Rock—I mean the ploys we call treaties and then the more direct means of achieving the ethnic cleansing (quaint phrase for brutal killing) of the continent? Or how we conquered a third of Mexico just because we wanted it and now insist that Mexicans who live in those states without American citizenship have no right to do so?
The chances are we have a better idea of the number of Tsutsis killed in Rwanda or Cambodians killed under Pol Pot, Armenians killed by the Turks, or how many the Nazis slaughtered in their concentration camps. We're comfortable tallying up and memorializing the crimes committed by foreigners in foreign lands, but when it comes to the millions whose blood we have on our own hands and, just as importantly, continue to make bleed both physically and psychologically, we have only the vaguest notions, with few memorial museums to help us remember.
Whatever I know about this history, I didn't learn in school but on my own, hit and miss, usually by chance. And the big picture only took shape late in my life, when it should have been part of my education back when I was being taught about the crusades and the kings of France. Hopefully, children now do learn something of our true history, though when my own children were in school, the emphasis was still on the atrocities of Europeans.
After the war, in 1946, Klemperer began putting together that book on the language of the Nazi regime for which he had been taking notes in his diary all through the period 1933-1945. It was subtitled LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii, the Latin equivalent which was his private way of referring to it during those years. The Latin wasn't just to confuse prying eyes; the diary itself would have been enough to land him in Theresianstadt or Auschwitz. He believed the Nazis had changed the meaning of the word "reich" just as they had changed the meaning of so many other words and had imported so many foreign words, along with foreign ideas and attitudes, largely from America (a fondness for the superlative being a primary example; by the end of the war even the official military bulletins, until those years always using bland, understated language, spoke of the troops fighting "fanatically," and the battles the Wehrmacht fought were always unprecedented, the greatest in history; think of Saddam Hussein's "Mother of All Battles," which turned out to be a turkey shoot for the Coalition of the Willing, itself a cute phrase. You hear now about the "mother" of all this-or-that used more or less as just an intensifier, with few of the people using it realizing from where it derives).
Klemperer speaks in his diaries as well as in Language of the Third Reich about how this use of language, giving different shades of meaning to ordinary words to make them express a mentality in line with Nazi thinking, or rather Nazi non-thinking, seeped into everyday usage until even non-Aryans were using those words and, more importantly, ways of thinking, without being conscious of doing so. We in America are subject to the same phenomenon. Language does our thinking for us, a phenomenon that was pointed out long before Klemperer wrote his diary.
Language and especially vocabulary forms the boundaries if not the content of our thought, if one can be distinguished from the other. "Black," "race" and more recently "people of color" all set the lines between which we play the game of conscious thought and the way we communicate with each other. Few of us ever question the validity of this vocabulary, never mind see how it perpetuates the very situations we want to see done away with. The phrase "ethnic cleansing" is a good example. When I first heard it used by the Serbs to describe what they were doing in the former Yugoslavia, it seemed an abomination, like one of those clinical expressions doctors use to neutralize a horrific medical situation. "Collateral damage" caused a similar reaction during the first Gulf war, similar to "Final Solution" and the "pacification" of Vietnamese villages (the same word used in the 19th century to describe the slaughter of American Indians). Now we accept all those expressions as part of ordinary discourse without any sense of their original callousness.
In this sense, Hitler won the war. Those the Nazis designated as Jews, we the nominal victors over the Nazi regime designate as such on more or less the same grounds, as do most Jews themselves. In this sense, the Ku Klux Klan have also prevailed because, despite the laws we have passed and implemented to overturn Jim Crow, we still believe there's a reality behind the words "white" and "black," which of course there is because we believe there to be, a reality "blacks" ignore at their peril just as a Jew in Nazi Germany would who refused to wear the Yellow Star because s/he did not consider her/himself Jewish, did so at risk of their very lives. And, of course, people of African American descent accept and now celebrate being "black," just as American Jews are encouraged to ground their identity on the genocide that came about as the result of the Nazis' ridiculous way of seeing human beings and even turned that fantasy into a conspiracy of "world-wide Jewry" (another Nazi neologism).
In fact, we have no other words to use when we speak of these matters and hence no other ways of thinking about them, whether we are well-meaning people or rank bigots. I certainly have none, though I use words like "African American" (without a hyphen, of course) or "people of African descent," words which in their own way perpetuate the idea of difference where my intention is to deny it. I can remember when "white" people didn't dare refer to anyone as black until African Americans themselves adopted that word to replace "Negro," now a term of denigration because it was used for so long to designate them when it wasn't pronounced in such a way as to insult them.
We keep looking for new words, as if words will do the job for us of eliminating the problem which is really a mindset that cannot let go of the idea itself. Even those of us who abhor prejudice go on believing someone is "black" if any of their ancestors were African slaves or, like our current president, derives from a free, brown-skinned African.
The Nazis were more liberal. One Jewish grandparent made you non-Aryan, but not one great-grandparent. But you can no more become un-black, even to liberal Americans, than you can become un-Jew to a Nazi or, in most cases, to the same liberal American, even if that liberal American is her/himself Jewish, or maybe I should say, especially if he or she is Jewish. Nor can you lose your black identity among fellow African Americans without risking being called a nasty name. You may be 38% Irish descent, as a prominent African American pointed out several years back, but you are not allowed to call yourself Irish American if you have any African ancestry showing. And for the same reason, we accept the thinking behind the Nuremberg Laws just as unthinkingly as we accept the thinking behind the KKK and the long history of America that has constructed out of an accident of geography a fundamental and impassible breach between everyone who is "white" and everyone who is "black," a separation that did not exist from the beginning when African slaves and European indentured servants were more or less in the same class and acted as such. The Irish in Ireland welcomed Frederick Douglass the way we did Nelson Mandela, back when the Irish were referred to as "white niggers." But as immigrants in America, the Irish learned to think and behave like other Americans, and by the time of the draft riots during the Civil War, some of them could behave as viciously as any Southern lynch mob and during those riots did so.
If you would like to read some of the books that helped lift me out of my ignorance—none of which, by the way, are out of the mainstream of orthodox scholarship—I offer the following list:
For American slavery, perhaps the best introduction to what it was like from both an observational and analytical point of view, I recommend Frederick Law Olmsted's A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States and A Journey in the Back Country. Olmsted is better known as the designer of many of America's finest urban parks, including New York's Central and Prospect parks and Golden Gate Park. But he was also a first-rate journalist whose trips through the ante-bellum South are vivid portrayals of life there as well as enlightening practical analyses of the economic and social system. And his books read as easily as any novel, thanks to their diary form which include his recording of actual conversations (he has a superb ear) and his natural story-telling abilities.
Couple Olmsted's work with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass's memoir of his days in slavery by the preeminent and probably most eloquent voice against that institution. The latter is the experience of one man in one place and does not attempt to show the bigger picture, but that picture is easily inferred and the accounts of the brutality of slave life is incomparable (the area where Douglass grew up and toiled as a slave, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is now a summer playground for the wealthiest Americans; I asked someone who has visited that area if there are any monuments to its slave history and was told they had not seen any).
Another must read is W.E.B Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, by one of the great intellects of the twentieth century. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is also essential reading and a great literary work as well.
For a scholarly account of slavery in the South, I recommend The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, by Kenneth M. Stampp, a book published in the 1950s but still for my money a good description of the nuts and bolts of how slavery operated. I discovered Olmsted's books and was prompted to read Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave thanks to the footnotes of Stampp's book.
For the history of the genocide (not a rhetorical exaggeration but used in the meaning of the word under International Law) of the American Indian, I suggest starting with the relevant chapters of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, like Olmsted's, written in the period just before the Civil War and, in this case, by a Frenchman whose take on American culture could almost have been written today rather than 200 years ago. The material there on America's treatment of the native population and the slaves is profoundly shocking and straightforward.
More recently I discovered Peter Farb's Man's Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State, a long and off-putting title for a well-written and engaging book.
These are just some of my own recent and not-so-recent readings on the subject, my attempts at a beginning of an attempt to lift myself out of an ignorance that I see now is neither accidental nor benign.