Some Musings on Reparations, Teaching Civil Discourse and Collective Memory.

Blog. It has been a while. The drafts of post that linger for a year, (but not quite years yet..) because of perfectionism ceases for a moment. Forgive the lack of proofreading.

What is the trend line of my most recent thinking? One of my good friends and colleagues often says that I am interested in everything, and he doesn’t know how long I will hold onto an idea until I jump to a new passion or idea. He means this as a compliment (I think). For me, it is a muddled web most of the time. How could my interest in comparing governments connect to my fascination with Gilded Age Boston, and then the politics and history of memory and memorialization? Sitting at the lunch break for the Universities and Slavery Conference at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard is one of those moments where I start to sort out my tangled web of ideas I am mulling over…so bear with me as I jump around a bit.

My junior year independent study at St. Lawrence was on the lack of official public recognition about the French complicity in the Holocaust. This was inspired by a single comment in the Caen peace museum when one of my professors (Bruce Weiner) lauded the fact that the Caen museum actually acknowledges this component of French history. Junior year I took the topic on. Russo’s The Vichy Syndrome became a core part of the way I thought about the role of collective memory. I traveled to France thanks to a research grant to look at the way French museums talk about World War II. (Everyone was in the resistance was the main conclusion, excuse the sarcasm). My interest in this topic was not radical as I picked up a new book in the Logan airport, Sarah’s Key that had invited this topic back into consciousness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was teaching AP Comparative Government and talking about the legacy of colonialism for developing countries (a theoretical introduction to the unit before we study Mexico and Nigeria) and I was struck yet again by questions of responsibility. What is the Western World’s responsibility in former colonies where they erased traditional leadership, supported feudal authority and then left? How do those countries “Get to Denmark” (we had just read parts of Fukyama’s Origins of the Political Order) ? I found myself again coming back to the notion of reparations, writing it on the board and asking my students if it applied here as a possible solution? What form would it take in this case, when in a statement that is astounding lack of political correctness one of the Nigerian interviewees says, “the British should come back”. The Director of the Royal African society was our next video, who talked about the profound lack of self-confidence as an important legacy of colonialism. Jury is still out on how I think about these sources….

A few weeks ago in Art History we looked at art theft, and considered the Rape of Europa. Again, reparations to Maria Altmann seep into that story of paying for past crimes as a small attempt to repair several layers of violation of a social contract. When I applied for my MALS program at Dartmouth (which I have set aside for a variety of reasons) I wanted to enter the creative writing program. I wanted to begin to experiment with the role of historical fiction in the history classroom. I was specifically curious what would happen if we made students write from the perspective of Nazis, it is much easier to empathize with the victim, but how do we help students understand the systems and modes of thinking that led to the perpetrators acting the way that they did (without become apologists)?

And now I find myself at this conference. The topic of reparations began the conversation with a keynote address this morning by Ta-Nahisi Coates. As he was queried about his “Case for Reparations” piece, he challenged Universities “to make the language of Reparations respectable”. On Monday of this week, Dr. Eddie Moore visited our school to kick off a student led unconference day on the topic of privilege. In the smaller conference setting he outlined the system of white supremacy for our students and how the “mission statement of the United States” entrenched in the constitution and Declaration of Independence was only a reality 3% of the time. When I probed him about what constituted the 3%, and what would have to happen to shift the bar for him, he said reparations; and that he believed we give too much credit for basic human treatment.

I am reminded of “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. I am reminded of the debate about the role of media in our society and positionality, how much can the media give the public unbiased facts with which to make up their minds about society, and how much does their experience in the world always color their interpretation? What is the water we swim in right now that we don’t even recognize? Is it mass incarceration? Is it rape culture? Is it the fact that our conspicuous consumption is propped up by workers who have few rights and make less than $1 a day?

I am also struck by the challenge of turning the lens inward. How do we have this conversation without alienating people? Coates said some people will be “affirmatively ignorant” and yet the parts of his talk I found most compelling are when he ventured into different territory pondering, “would we cease to function if we had to acknowledge it was THAT bad?” Another scholar on the panel, James Campbell, later talked about PTSD and the notion that societies can collectively experience trauma. Coates said we have to do more than call the “affirmatively ignorant” people “deplorable” as Hillary did, we have to ask WHY they are deplorable?

Most surprisingly in one of his final comments he said something along the lines of: “I am not an activist, I am a writer. ‘The Case for Reparations’ was part of my journey to understand the Civil war. The question about reparations is answered for me. Yes.” He then spoke of how being a writer means he needs to pursue the questions most captivating for him at that moment. I wondered about this, and while he says as a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge this plunder, but at the same time pivots away from calling himself an activist. Yet he also encouraged playwrights and artists to reconsider the images we have of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind) and change that, to become activists of sorts. I think I can affirm that anyone should pursue the questions they find most compelling, but at the same time how do we have this conversation if people can pivot away from it? Some of the comments from the crowd asked how to we can lead the uninterested to water and “make drinking attractive”? This seems to be a central question: how to convert the ignorant to be less ignorant? (essentially the task of educators)- but on a single way of thinking that is absolute truth… which I am wary of.

Yet I am also teaching American History with the most politically engaged group of students (conservative and liberal) that I have ever worked with. Every day I wonder if I am being true to my belief in free speech and open discourse in education. I am intimately aware of the power I have to direct the way students think, and wonder how much do they parrot my ideas back at me? How much room do I leave them to disagree? How can I be balanced in an age of Donald Trump? Probably a question for another post, but I can’t help but feel the question of how to talk about this is intimately linked to how we invite civil discourse into our classrooms even at the expense of the beliefs that ground our ideas? The University of Chicago’s Statement about Free Expression seems to be the closest thing I can come to supporting, but I still do have questions about the role of power dynamics in free speech even at universities.

Sven Beckart’s is an organizer of the conference and his A Global History of Cotton (which I will admit is lingering on my bedside table beneath a pile of student essays, bookmark starting to impress the pages) inspires a new class we will offer next year, Advanced History of the West. A combination of AP US and AP Euro in a two-year course that rejects the notion of the history of America existing as a topic we can study independent of global events. Textbooks we use have been doing this for a long time, but we still require a year of “US history” to graduate- it seems a nationalistic project to our department we are excited to poke holes in. How will a study of the constitution be enhanced by genuine time to cover the Enlightenment? How will we consider the world that the African Slave Trade made in a more global context?

The lunch break is ending. Natasha Trethewey, Vincent Brown and a panel on “Slavery at Harvard” are up next..

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