“And Words Are All I Have…”
In Art Spiegelman’s Maus II, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize (not a bad feat for a comic book about Auschwitz), Art speaks to his therapist Pavel, who like Art’s father is also a survivor of Auschwitz, about the terms of survival and death. At one point, given the burden of retelling his now-deceased father’s story and the fact that all who died in the Holocaust never got to tell their stories, Art quotes absurdist Irish playwright Samuel Beckett:
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
After a framed pause, Art then remarks that, of course, Beckett did “say” these words, and so talk and writing — the formulation of coherent and incoherent words and sentences— go on.
As one of those who loves using words, talking and writing, I am glad that Beckett’s insistence on nothingness didn’t take hold, although, admittedly, sometimes I wish it would.
For instance, just two weekends ago at a White Supremacist rally in Gainesville, Florida (Home, of course, of the University of Florida), three white devotees of White Nationalist firebrand Richard Spencer, “…pulled up in a car alongside a group of anti-Spencer demonstrators, and soon, the police said, one of the three began to chant “Heil Hitler.” After a protester hit the car with a baton, one of the Texas men pulled out a handgun and fired a shot” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/28/us/white-supremacists-rallies.html).
I have written before of my almost inconceivability of anyone in the United States adhering to or professing fidelity and allegiance to Adolph Hitler. It might be free speech, but at what point is this speech also treasonous?
I also remember the line in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where someone suggests that the best way to combat Nazis is through timely words. Woody’s character then suggests that “satirical essays in the New York Times” can’t hold a candle to or effectively substitute for “a few bricks or baseball bats” when it comes to Nazis.
Now, I’m not a man of violence. I would rather use words, but I realize as well the violence of words — how they instill fear, psychological harm, and are meant to suppress other words or actions.
I remember that phone message I received years ago that claimed the caller knew where I lived; that he or “they” were watching me; that the message he most wanted to leave was the one he closed with: “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil.”
As best any of us could determine, that caller, who was later found and identified as someone who had a police record for indecent exposure, was responding to a review I gave in our local newspaper: a very positive review of Spike Lee’s film of Malcolm X.
How dare a white man use his words to rave about a biopic on the famous Black Muslim leader?
I keep hearing the words of our fearless leader regarding the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where, according to him, there were very bad hombres on both sides. Wow, talk about taking a stand against hate.
Art Spiegelman shows us in Maus that there were also some bad Jews who collaborated with Nazis during the Holocaust. So in case no one had ever thought of this, yes, Jews can have some shady hombres in their midst. But if that’s all you gather from Maus or the Holocaust, well, you might be a bit limited, or have some sort of agenda that you’ve brought to the lamp-lit reading table.
I have also written in other forums about Douglas A. Blackmon’s highly credible history, Slavery By Another Name: his account of the tribulations of and outrages toward African-American people after Reconstruction. Today, I came across these words that tell a short but deeply troubling story:
“The St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 featured an exhibit of live pygmies, transported from the Belgian Congo — then reaching a gruesome apogee of colonial slavery under King Leopold strikingly similar to that emerging in the U.S. South. After the fair, one of the pygmies, Ota Benga, appeared briefly as an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, before transferring to the monkey house at the Bronx Zoological Park — initially sharing a cage with an orangutan named Bohong. After several years as a freak curiosity in the United States, Benga killed himself in 1916” (240).
Bohong, presumably, was left to grieve.
I don’t know which words here to focus on more, or what to do with any of them. Is silence appropriate now?
I understand that seeing a pygmy in 1904, or 08, or even 1914 might cause confusion and wonder. But putting him in a “monkey house?”
On the same page, Blackmon reminds us that “in the same year that Benga appeared at Central Park West, the Carnegie Institution funded the establishment of the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York.” This institute became known as the Eugenics Records Office, charged with “collecting data on the inherited characteristics of Americans,” which, among other words and deeds, “was the backbone of a highly successful campaign to promote sterilization for ‘feebleminded’ and other ostensibly inferior genetic stock, strict laws against racial intermarriage, and stringent limits on the immigration of Jews and southern Europeans to the United States” (240).
Which brings me to the news of today. Not the terrorist attack in New York, as gruesome, horrible, and obscene as it is. No, there is other news emanating from our capitol.
Apparently, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, echoing his boss, remarked that the Civil War could have been prevented had both sides been willing to compromise:
“It was always loyalty to state first back in those days,” Mr. Kelly said, when asked about the decision by a church congregation in Virginia to remove memorials honoring George Washington and Lee, commanding general of the rebel Army of Northern Virginia.
“Now it’s different today,” he said. “But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
The comments echoed President Trump’s own claim this year that he could have struck a “deal” to prevent the conflict. It elicited an immediate rebuke from many Democrats and some Republicans, who said it played down the moral culpability of the slaveholding South” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/us/john-kelly-civil-war-compromise.html?emc=edit_th_20171101&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=28992152&_r=0).
I hope you read the other words in this story, especially those of author Jay Winik who wrote April 1865, about the war’s end: “Kelly is right that the image of Robert E. Lee has been perverted in this debate,” Mr. Winik said. “But I think he would have been the first person to say take down these Confederate memorials, so they aren’t a stain and an eyesore, and cause more people pain. He would tread lightly and speak softly.”
White House press secretary SH Sanders weighed in to the debate, suggesting that Civil War Historian Shelby Foote told filmmaker Ken Burns that indeed, a compromise before the war could have been reached.
“‘Because you don’t like history doesn’t mean that you can erase it and pretend that it didn’t happen,” said Ms. Sanders, as reporters pressed her on whether she was suggesting that slavery should have been preserved in the interest of peace.”
Man. What part of history are we trying to erase? That Lee was an honorable soldier? That the Civil War was fought over land? That slavery wasn’t so bad?
For his part, Ken Burns used his own words in the story: “Many factors contributed to the Civil War,” he wrote on Twitter. “One caused it: slavery.”
Sometimes I just don’t know what to say. But then, that is what this blog is for.
Thanks for reading my words. And for other tales of freaks and horror in the 20th Century, please check out Beth Macy’s amazing Truevine, “Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: True Story of the Jim Crow South.”
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