Why I Picked It Up
A lot of my work around inclusion in museums is with history museums and understanding the how and why different people can be exposed to the same set of facts and draw incredibly different conclusions. Example: Confederate monuments.
More Traditional approaches to the past argue that by removing the monuments, we erase the past and don't learn from mistakes of the past (and they ignore the facts about why the monuments were erected in the first place). To more Neoteric audiences, this is perplexing as removing racist monuments doesn't erase the past … especially when there are museums and historic sites that are better suited to sharing that history.
Germany has a very different approach: one that remembers the atrocities of World War II, but without statues to Hitler, Himmel, or other Nazi leaders. What can we learn from that?
For years, Germans adhered to a mythology that the men in the German army were good people who fought in defense of their country, and only the leadership were responsible for the atrocities of WWII. About 20 years ago, however, that myth was totally busted by an exhibition that traveled around Germany and made the case that atonement is the responsibility of nearly everyone.
WWII was only 80 years ago. For twice as long, many white Americans (many of southern descent, but not always) have been adhering to a similar mythology: their forefathers fought in defense of country and for noble causes. Many note their ancestors either 1 - didn't own slaves or 2 - were good masters (their wording in both cases). As if either are defensible in a social system that benefitted white people by exploiting and torturing millions of individuals.
Not all white southerners perpetuate this mythology. I don't, for one. I feel remorse for what my ancestors did, I know my family (and I) have a legacy of privilege because of this past, and I try to advocate for a more inclusive society now. I think reparations are necessary. But what is the difference between my ideology and the millions who think otherwise? How do we productively encourage the soul-searching and atonement required of all of us?
Neiman notes that in American public memory and discourse, we throw the word "Nazi" around, but we have no real understanding of what led to the rise of fascism in the first place. Heck, most people don't even really know what fascism is. Yet stepping back and understanding the causes of hate is crucial … for understanding the how and why of Nazism, but also for America today.
And that is why when those who are more inclusive compare American slavery to the Holocaust, those who are less inclusive get their hackles up. How can American slavery compare to the murder of more than six million Jews? Their visceral, defensive response prevents them from actually examining the historical record. The Nazis were inspired by American slavery and post-war segregationist laws as well as the genocide of tens of millions of Native Americans after European invasion.
But we can compare. Not to prove that one event caused more or less harm than another, but because these events are all atrocities meriting critical study, atonement, reparations, and reconciliation. That is, comparative redemption, not comparative evil, as Neiman writes.
Tzvetan Todorov suggests that "Germans should talk about the singularity of the Holocaust, Jews should talk about its universality." If we take the same approach, whites should talk about, and take responsibility for, the singularities of both American slavery and Native American genocide … and we should not talk about its universality. White people talking about its universality is a form of denial. Yet as a researcher, I see white people trying to talk about the universality of our past all the time. "White slavery" comes up in comments from museum-goers often enough that I have actually coded for it. That is disgraceful.
All of this begs the question: is history a way to think about the future, or is it a comfort? For many white people, it is a comfort. And that discomfort they feel when confronted with American slavery and genocide represents a mismatch of expectations, where comfort is rooted in privilege and white supremacy, and the discomfort manifests itself in guilt, shame, anger, or even rage. (We saw that come to fruition at the US Capitol on January 6th.)
Who are the aggressors, and who are the victims?
After WWII, it took time for Germans to see themselves as the aggressors, and not the victims. (Are you responding with shock here? Me too. But this is important.)
Of course many Germans suffered during and after the war; that was their lived experience. They were bombed, had loved ones die violent deaths, and suffered hunger and pain.
Moving past that suffering, and understanding the harm caused to others, is where atonement comes. And it may take generations, with those who did not experience the suffering themselves being the ones to reach atonement. Which begs another question of why Americans can't get there, since the suffering that happened in the South during and after the Civil War is not in the lived experience of any of us? Why do so many still have the victim mentality?
I was still contemplating this when I explored Richard Supa Josey's storifyme that brilliantly lays out generational historical trauma. Richard's writing primarily in the context of the African American experience, but Neiman argues that generational historical trauma also exists for the families of the aggressors, and it can manifest in different ways: depression, mental illness, anger, aggression. (Sound familiar?) Should we be thinking about generational historical trauma when it comes to white supremacists and those who are not inclusive? Bear with me for this thought exercise (as much as it may go against your instincts; it did mine, at first), not to evoke sympathy but to instead understand the causes of hate.
There was suffering during and after the Civil War, which for many whites manifested in anger and grievance as victims. This doesn't mean that those the whites had enslaved didn't suffer more (they did), but instead an acknowledgement that suffering was widespread and yes, it included white people. We have to acknowledge that suffering to understand the effects of it today that are so harmful to our society.
For some families of white people, that suffering (and the outcomes) are a form of generational historical trauma that continues to manifest itself, as we keep seeing with right-wing riots and aggression. Additionally, it takes a lot to admit your parents, or grandparents, or ancestors were world-historically wrong. That doesn't excuse clinging to that wrongness, or defending it. But for those who want to effect change, understanding the difficulty can make it easier for us to help people take the necessary steps to effect changes in attitudes (rather than expecting them to make the leap without help). Thus, rethinking it in this way can help us address the problem and develop more effective solutions that actually contribute to greater equity and a more just society.
I'll be honest. I found Neiman's chapters on Germany much more interesting than the chapters she wrote about the United States and Confederate monuments. I'm deeply familiar with our story, and the German story was something I had not examined much. In the book, Neiman spends several chapters exploring how race, slavery, and segregation are remembered in the South, particularly in Mississippi. I found these chapters compelling, thoughtful, and appreciated how she sought out a variety of perspectives. By doing so, she makes the case for change, but also recognizes the humanity of those who hold values that fall in the repugnant range of the spectrum. It is only by recognizing that humanity that we can find a place to start conversations that may change minds and develop more inclusive attitudes. And this takes a painfully long time, especially when so many internalize the events of the past in incredibly personal ways, and see judgements about the past as personal judgements.
Neiman concludes by saying we need to do more than simply apologize for slavery. We need to make good on the sins it caused … sins that continue to be felt today. Reparations are necessary. And I emphatically agree.
But to do reparations with justice requires us, as a country, to rethink our history. And in my research on behalf of history museums, that is something most Americans are loathe to do. Instead, we get significant numbers of people making comments like "don't rewrite the past." For many, there is an instinctive aversion to that more honest assessment that requires us to acknowledge that the United States (and its residents) has been less than honorable. Right now, based on what I see in the attitudes of so many Americans, I don't know we will get to that more just and equitable society anytime soon.
Read or skip? Read. I thought this book was well-written, thoughtful, and compelling.
Full citation: Neiman, Susan. Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. New York: Picador, 2019/2020.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.