“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” ~ Mother Teresa.
I am not sure when it is that we begin to be curious about our parents’ lives before we were born. Perhaps it is when we hit our rebellious teenage years, sure we have all the answers and our parents know nothing. We may know their origin story, how they met, when they got engaged or married, but in the case of my parents, stories of living through World War II were sparce. My mother would have been about 16 when War was declared in 1939, 22 when peace was declared. Her only brother’s body was left in a mass grave somewhere in Europe. We heard snippets about saving up rationed food items like eggs for a wedding cake; recycling clothes; my father pausing university to do social work ‘for the cause’. They were in Liverpool at the time, a city trashed by German bombs with thousands killed and buildings destroyed. And yet I don’t remember hearing of the fear, the dread, the nightly air raid warnings, the dashes to go below ground to hide from the swooping bombs.
It is often through fiction that we get close to experiencing another person’s life. I recently started a book set in World War II. The narrator, an American female radio reporter stationed in the UK captures those stories for those back home. She travels through Europe with Jews trying to escape on train, from Austria, through Germany, down to Portugal never knowing when they would be yanked off their journey of hope, of despair. In one town in Europe she reports on an occupied town where every morning a group of violinists serenade the town with a beautiful rendition of the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony: dot dot dot dash. This was not a musical interlude, it was a defiant one – the sounds represent the letter V (for victory) in Morse Code. Can you imagine?
I have also recently read the book by William Melvin Kelley, A different drummer, a novel set in the 1950s, which told the tale of an imaginary Southern state where all of the ‘negroes’ one day decided to depart the state for more promising northern states leaving the white folks flummoxed and bewildered. It is a fascinating read, written by a black man, but from the perspective of those perplexed white folks.
It is one of either the most tragic or most effective legacies of oppressive regimes worldwide, the policy of divide and rule. The history of the descendants of the enslaved Africans in the US has been systematically and thoroughly buried. It is only those who are curious, who seek the truth, who have uncovered a piece of those stories. Like my parents, those who live through horrendous times don’t find it easy to share first person stories of their harrowing past. To relive it is to feel the pain once more. Which is why it seems so shocking now for many (both black and white) to be learning bits of history from postings on Facebook. How many people had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until this year? How many other stories have yet to be made famous, how many more tears can be shed?
Divide and rule. It is usually those who are most oppressed who learn the art of pulling down others to survive. All that a colonizer has to do to ensure that the status quo is maintained is to reward one class of people. One stratum of society is given a vestige of power and wealth, and they will ensure that ‘Massa’s’ plantation runs smoothly in his absence, whole governments will continue to send its wealth to the colonial coffers. Whether it is Jamaica, India or Africa, the ‘elite’, once left in control, ensured that the underclass would be kept in its place.
This feeling of superiority has led to prejudice and bigotry to this day. The descendants of enslaved Africans who became Jamaicans came to the US and looked down on their cousins who had toiled on Southern plantations, not understanding their journey. Not knowing what it felt like to be (to this day) looked upon as an outsider, not a real American. In the US those in power managed to convince the dirt poor white sharecroppers that no matter how poor they were, at least they were better than the ‘emancipated’ slaves, by virtue of the color of their skin. To this day. And to this day the canny politician uses this same tactic, this same lie to prevent unity, to stop people from seeing that we are all in this boat together.
It is our responsibility to keep sharing the stories, keep revealing the truth, until we expose the cover up for what it was: a strategy designed to keep people in their groups, for there is strength in unity. Empathy is built through story-telling, it is how we can invade the skin of another, feel their emotions, and understand their struggle.
One of the phrases that emerged out of the Oprah style of talk-shows was ‘I hear you’. Very often we think we know what someone else is going through, we are quick to say ‘I feel you’, but do we really? Do we really take the time to hear and feel the story of an ‘other’ – someone whose experience has been markedly different from our own? It is more comfortable to stay in our corner, to hang with those we understand or who understand us. The challenge is to broaden our horizons, to go beyond.
This Friday morning I celebrate the story-tellers, the ones who find ways to captivate us with a tale, to speak for the voiceless, to allow us to experience the life of another. And in this country, even as we see those who are desperately clinging to their old ways, their hateful ways, let us be optimistic that the times they are a-changing.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!