“Harbor of Hope” is a seventy-three minute film about thirty thousand refugees from the concentration camps in Europe who arrived in Malmo Sweden in 1945. Red Cross boats brought them to the harbor and the citizens of Malmo found beds, in school buildings, in museums, in any public spaces that could be turned into hospitals. Eventually some went back to Europe or to the US or other countries but over eight thousand remained in Sweden. What captured me was a statement made by the director of the film, a man whose father had witnessed the arrival of the skeleton-like survivors. When asked why Malmo offered to do this he responded, “We had been neutral in World War II. Many of us felt we had to do something now that it was over.” I interpreted this as the guilt we feel when we could have done more, or when we regret an action and want to atone.
I am interested in where this compassion comes from, where is it born in us. As a nation undergoes trauma on a large scale, can it also undergo guilt on a grand scale as well? And out of that, can it fashion policy of redemption? In Sweden there is a very open immigration policy to this day. It started in 1945 with this influx of so many tortured and beaten souls from Europe.
If we looked at our own country with great honesty, calling for testimony and witness from those who have long suffered from the consequences of our genocidal history I wonder if we would arrive at a mindset of retribution, redemption. It would take an unflinching examination of the treatment of indigenous people with all the horrors of stolen land, illness, broken treaties, boarding schools, forced reservations and marches, including the Trail of Tears. It would take a willingness to go deeply into the history of slavery and to acknowledge the consequences that still persist as a result of racism. Recently with a group of women I have known for a long time, someone declared that lynching ended in this country in 1929. In truth the last known and recorded lynching was 1968. If well read, educated and caring people do not grasp the terror that governed the Jim Crow south, up until the late sixties, and the stubbornness of prejudice that persists to this day, how can we as a country begin to lay claim to redemption or how repay the debt that we owe so many? Add to this the treatment of Mexican-Americans in Arizona and other southwest states, or the way Chinese were worked to death in California and the west, and it adds up to a grim accounting.
Yet in this history, in the stories told and journal articles and old newspaper clippings, lie the first step to fashioning a nation that centers itself in compassionate and activist response. Recently in Tulsa, as a speaker for the National Writing Project, I listened to teacher after teacher, from grade school to college, talk about the way student research into the events of their hometowns and the effects of this on the way their neighbors live now had inspired young people to action. In Tulsa itself, home of one of the worst destruction of black citizens and their homes in 1921, a high school teacher takes her students on walks on the exact ground where the killing and burning occurred. After their minds have learned through careful research, they learn with their bodies, by finally walking the actual terrain of the event. In Tulsa this year students could trace the effects of that history to the recent racial killings in their city a month ago.
I know this learning goes on all over the country. I know with the access to Internet archives, any of us can explore our own city, what went on there and how it tracks with present day events. For example, in his book Sundown Towns, historian Robert Loewen describes Edina, Minnesota as one of the spaces where people of color were instructed to be out of town by sundown. They were welcome to come and clean houses, deliver mail, take away garbage, but like many such white places across the US, black and brown people were expected to disappear as the sun set. What does this say for places today, for gated communities, areas of our cities, suburbs, where this may not be as explicit but is still an expectation?
Instead of banning books, as Tucson Arizona has done in eliminating a highly successful educational program called Mexican American studies, we need to study this very program to decide why, for fifteen years, it did so well: why it graduated more students from high school and why it encouraged more students to apply to college. I believe it had to do with the emphasis the school board in Arizona disapproved of: the connection between history and voice and story and present day culture and music and politics. I find that students not only want a discussion of what really went on but also want to talk about taking this knowledge and changing things. Contrary to what we might expect, when students learn truths they have sensed all along, they do not fall into despair, they become galvanized. This includes white students who join them, who also take classes in cultural studies or studies of poverty. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t precisely what many in power today , many who have profited off the backs of Mexican Americans, African Americans, indigenous peoples, and others are afraid of: alliances of whites and people of color in social justice action.
Unlike Sweden, which moved to address a need when it arose, in the United States we continue to avoid knowing at all. Instead of calling for a halt to the policies and practices that perpetuate poverty and oppression of black and brown people, we deny this even happens. We especially deny that the consequences of our very founding are interwoven into every system of our national policy to this day. Perhaps it is with the young, who demand to know, and the teachers who are willing to tell them, we will come to a reckoning. We can hope.