William Gibson said “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Likewise that the past is still alive today. I deeply appreciate people who tell their own stories, so that I may understand, like Hamden Rice’s story of his father who grew up in the south. I don’t have relatives who experienced what it was like to be black in America before Martin Luther King. I have a different family history that I see in reflected in events from the past year.
A Story from the Past
“You must go visit your great aunt Miri” said my grandmother, telling me of her cousin for the very first time. I had planned a trip to Spain and Miri lived in Portugal. I was 17 when I learned that my Unitarian grandmother’s Christian Scientist parents, had converted from Judaism. The second World War that I learned about in history class was about to feel eerily close. I had learned German on a whim, wanting to acquire a third language, never realizing that it might connect me to my heritage.
So I found myself, walking the streets of Lisbon, chatting in German, learning about my not-so-distant relatives. There had been three brothers — my great-great-grandfather travelled to America long before the troubles started. Miri’s father had married a Catholic and was able to be anglicized. Uncle Kurt had been handsome, never married, and had not left soon enough. He was taken to Auschwitz and never seen again. Miri had fled Germany during the war. She travelled through eastern Europe meeting André, who had been raised to be a Hungarian count, both fleeing for the lives, eventually finding their way to Portugal.
I asked my grandmother later if there was something they could have done. She told me that the brothers in Germany wrote letters asking to send money so that they could travel to America. Her father refused, with fresh memories of the Great Depression and his own wife and daughters to care for. He didn’t believe that they could really be in such danger, until it was too late to get anyone out.
Sitting on Miri’s back porch, sipping gin and tonics, Miri said “We would never have named our daughter Sarah.” She had been telling me about settling in Lisbon and raising her own family. She went on to tell me something I’ve never heard before or since, perhaps too every-day an occurrence to record in our history books. She said that all of the women had to sign their name with Sarah before their actual name, and for the men it was David. So at the bank, and anyone you did business with, could easily identify you as Jewish. Slowly, bit by bit, the state took away their identities, their heritage as Germans, and made them strangers to their neighbors and friends.
Creating the Future
I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America today, any more than I know what it was like to be Jewish in the 1940s. I do know that if I do nothing, the world could easily slip into a reality where I don’t want to live. Now and then, I can do things that make a difference. I believe the small things that each of us do every day change our reality. By deciding what small actions we take or ignore, we create the future.
Yesterday, instead of posting this story, I first spent time to write a few small things that I think we can do to be allies to our friends and colleagues who experience the terror of being black in America today.
“Through our scientific genius we have made this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. ”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln University 1961