2020 has been one hell of a year. We’re banging our way through this pandemic the whole way, making things hard on ourselves as usual. We’ve also got fresh wounds this year from the legacy of racism, Jim Crow, and slavery, with reactions that are simultaneously angry, reflective, completely justified, and overwrought. All the Holocaust survivors are slowly dying too, although this has been noticed less in the public venue. Those that remember it as adults are at least in their 90s, and the kids that survived the camps are in their 80s. World War II books have gotten popular again in the last couple years and I think the reason is that there’s a cultural subconscious need to make sure we don’t forget the lessons of evil learned in WW2.
This year I’ve been reading and learning about both those evils: slavery and racism and World War 2. As usual, I’ve tried to eschew the fashionable literature, or at least read more than what’s being swept off the shelves in the present moment. This has led to lots of new topics and crises in history that I knew nothing about.
New topics and more learning is usually great. This time it’s simply sad. We need to do our best to remember history, lest we follow the trope and repeat it to our doom. We don’t do a good job at this. As important as slavery’s legacy and the Holocaust are, we treat them as isolated examples of what can go wrong with human nature. But they aren’t isolated. They’re single examples in a long line of human failings.
I’ve been having a conversation with a few friends about when and how to introduce adult-level media, language, and topics with our kids. Basically: how long do we shelter them. Different parents will have different answers to this question, but somehow all of our children will go from being afraid of ghosts and monsters to handling adult topics and understanding in about ten years. The World War II book I’m reading now is based on a true story from the perspective of a 17 year old boy. There’s a scene in it where a 7 year old Italian boy dies and several others are maimed by pulling the pin of a small grenade left in the grass, not by evil Nazis, but by opportunistic Italians trying to take advantage of the situation of war. I don’t have an answer for how and when is the right time to introduce the scarier or more adult parts of the world to children, but I know it was too soon for those kids, and for most of the children of history. Any age is too young for it.
Even in the middle of a pandemic, with reminders of racism and slavery and social unrest, with a polarized political system and a TV-celebrity caricature of a president, most of us still live in the safest, most prosperous, most peaceful time in history. 9/11 was the only attack on U.S. soil since the Civil War and our entire country generally follows the rule of law and maintains the peace. There are plenty of problems for sure, but compared to history, it’s the best.
We are all incredibly lucky, and it’s easy to see this with a simple game: Pick a time in history and ask yourself if you’d rather be in the top 1% of the population from that time or a poor person in America in 2020. Even those living in poverty today have access to more medicine, more technology, a higher standard of living, and more freedom than those in a large part of the 20th century. And for any time before that, it isn’t even close.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks from her play Topdog/Underdog:
People like their historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly, like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.
In 2020, it’s important to remember that most of history was raggedy and bloody and screaming. We keep a few select items in our collective conscious - like slavery and the Holocaust - and well we should. But there are many more that we don’t know about and are not strongly present in our culture. We need to learn and know more of our history, not just to maintain our humility and revel in our great good luck at living in 2020, but also to celebrate the progress that’s been made and the heroes and movements that made them happen. The story of slavery is incomplete without Wilberforce, Lincoln, Douglass, MLK, and many others. The story of the Holocaust is incomplete without the Allied victory and heroes like Sir Nicholas Winton.
History is more raggedy and bloody and screaming than we care to admit. As another reminder of that, here’s a list of lesser known examples and facts from recent history for exploration and research.
- The Armenian Genocide during World War I.
- The story of the Clotilda, the last (illegal) slave ship to bring slaves to America. The last woman from the ship died in 1937. The Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa was notorious for raiding other areas and selling captured Africans to European traders.
- Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery… in 2007. There are still estimated to be anywhere from 90,000-600,000 slaves in the country. Here’s a list of countries that abolished slavery in the 20th century Ethiopia in 1935. Turkey in 1924. Saudi Arabia in 1962.
- The genocide and re-education camps for the Chinese Uyghurs, happening right now.
- Unit 731.
- The Bosnian War, including genocide and the Srebrenica Massacre.
- This photograph. The photographer was so distraught by it that he committed suicide 4 months later.
- The Nanking Massacre.
- There’s estimated to be 38-46 million people in slavery, right now. That’s more than all of the slaves in the US ever.
- William Wilberforce who pushed for abolition in the United Kingdom.
- The freedom of Hong Kong and the elimination of the “one country, two systems” policy.
- The Great Purge in the USSR.
- Pinochet and dictatorship in Chile.
- Military coup and dictatorship in Argentina, setting back the country decades.
- The Killing Fields in Cambodia.
- The Arab Slave Trade, which was larger than the Transatlantic Slave Trade but because eunuchs and women were more desirable there are far less descendants comparably.
- The My Lai Massacre by US Troops in Vietnam.
- Lynching postcards, finally banned in 1908.
- The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in China, killing tens of millions. It’s amazing to me how few know this.
- Papa Doc and the totalitarian Haitian regime from 1957-1971.
- The Tulsa Massacre, devastating what was previously known as Black Wall Street.
- The Western Sahara Conflict, still going after 50 years.
- The Janissary troops of the Ottoman Empire, made up of Christian children from the Slavic states of Europe, enslaved under Devshirme, forcibly converted to Islam, and made to have total devotion to the Sultan.
- The very term Slav is derived from “slave”, because it was so common to take people from the Slavic areas as slaves.