Of Nazis and American Naiveté

Novelist Jessica Shattuck wrote a New York Times op-ed about the emotional quandary of loving her grandmother, an unrepentant Nazi. “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi” is a delicate lyrical piece about the complexities of human nature and the intersections of the ordinary, the commonplace, the heinous, the monstrous. She tries to approach the conundrum of loving someone complicit in horrid acts against others without denying the potency on either side of the equation.

But her piece, which I recommend, is not what got me thinking. I’ve heard so many reasons/excuses of white women for loving their wonderful grandmothers, aunts, sisters, whatever — even though those beloved relatives support the current White House incumbent who puts babies in cages and lets some die — that I’m immune. These plaints are usually accompanied by reasons why said granny, aunty, big sis, whatever, is not a bigot, even though they support one. I will give Shattuck credit, though, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat her grandmother’s past. But that’s not my issue.

It wasn’t the argument, it was the comments. I read them because the NYT comment section is moderated, so I need not fear grotesque sentence abortions, inchoate profanity, or blatant hate speech. And yes, despite this, there was the typical right-wing bellowing from someone named “Larry in NY” who characterized Shattuck’s sensitive exploration — which he correctly identified as a parable — incorrectly as “despicable . . . fear-mongering” from a “radical liberal.” These days, that kind of screed gets to pass as civil public discourse. Really, Gray Lady?

No, it wasn’t Larry or the many who labeled Shattuck’s questing as disrespectful to her grandmother or, on the opposite pole, cowardly, because she waited until her grandmother’s death to publish it. Nor was it the progressive voices who warned of being “lulled into neither thinking about nor having compassion towards those ‘bad’ others (immigrants, people of color, and the poor).” It was “grberton of San Diego” who had me seeking solace in my professorial ethos of trying to teach the ignorant, the logos of rational thinking based on facts, and the pathos found in American poetry.

Here’s what brberton said:

I think it’s only fair to point out that courage is relative and correllates [sic] to the direct threat. It’s easy for US citizens to have the courage to resist in our own country. It’s easy to point fingers at ordinary Germans. No one is going to come in the night and take us away. Our families will not be split apart and sent to different camps. Our husband[s] and fathers will not be shot. If your friends and neighbors were disappearing and you indeed knew the rumors, who among you can say with certainty that you would be the stand-up resistor? Plenty of brave Germans died resisting and should be celebrated. So far in this country we have not witnessed power from the point of a gun. I shudder to thiink [sic] of the absolute terror that would strike the heart of any faced with that choice.

Let’s just skip on past the misapprehension about the nature of courage, and head straight to the staggering ignorance of American history that this presumed citizen (“our country”) exposes. Let’s take it sentence by sentence, interspersing the analyses with evidence from poets, poets from the Americas, poets who actually spoke up when these events were happening.

1) “No one is going to come in the night and take us away.”

That’s exactly what their ancestors did to my African ancestors to bring us here. That’s what the slaveowners did when we got here. That’s what the Klan did among African Americans. Although, to be fair, sometimes they came in broad daylight. If you don’t believe history, believe my witness Frances Harper, born of free blacks, an active worker for the Underground Railroad.

He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.

Frances Watkins Harper (1825–1911), from “The Slave Mother

2) “Our families will not be split apart and sent to different camps.”

That’s exactly what the current administration’s ICE policies are doing to Hispanic families right this minute and they’re threatening to go even further. And concerning these first two points, what about the internment of German-, Italian-, and, more extensively, Japanese-Americans during World War II? American citizens were taken from their homes and put in camps. Executive Order 9066 was put in action by none other than the beloved president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My next witness? Toyo Kawakami, interned as a child in an American concentration camp.

I have dredged up
Hard fragments lost
I thought in years
Of whirlwind dust.

Exposed to light,
Silently rough
And broken shards
Confront belief.

Toyo Suyemoto Kawakami (1916–2003), “Camp Memories”

3) “Our husbands and fathers will not be shot.”

That’s exactly what’s been happening all over the country to African American males in Ferguson MO, various parts of Florida, South Carolina, New York City and elsewhere. It is also what has happened to Indians and Sikhs thought to be Muslim (OR). And this doesn’t even get to stabbing with swords (NY), knocking down Jewish tombstones (PA), burning down mosques (TX), mailing out bombs (FL), and getting hunted down and shot (GA). And that’s the physical violence. This psychological violence starts in childhood, wounding the hater and the hated. Countee Cullen, active during the Harlem Renaissance, can show you how that goes. (And by the way, who is the “we” that makes that “our,” brberton?)

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Countee Cullen (1903–1946), “Incident”

4) “If your friends and neighbors were disappearing and you indeed knew the rumors, who among you can say with certainty that you would be the stand-up resistor?”

That’s exactly what ordinary people did when Black girls were reportedly disappearing in D.C. People, a lot of people, prominent and everyday people alike, are standing up. When Stephon Clarke was murdered holding a cell phone, people stood up. When kids in Parkland FL were being gunned down, fellow classmates and teachers stood up. Some died for their courage. Rigoberto González, son of migrant workers, born in California but raised in Mexico for his first decade, knows what it means to live as if you have been “disappeared.” He is speaking out now.

A strand of hair pretends to be
a crack and sticks to glass. A piece
of thread sits on a seat, pretends
to be a tear. The bus makes believe
No one cried into their hands and smeared
that grief onto its walls. The walls
will keep the fingerprints a secret
until the sheen of oils glows by moon.
rows of ghosts come forth to sing.

Until that keening rocks the bus
to rest, the fumes intoxicate
the solitary button — single witness
to the shuffling of feet and a final act
of fury: the yanking of a wetback’s
shirt. The button popped right of
the flannel, marched in the procession
and then scurried to the side. The lesson:
if wounded, stay behind to die.

Rigoberto González (b1970), from “Unpeopled Eden

5) “So far in this country we have not witnessed power from the point of a gun.”

That’s exactly what happened in 1877, when the National Guard shot and killed forty striking workers. And let’s not forget all the “unofficial” killings in Charleston, Ferguson MO, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, and various Florida locales. And what about Kent State? Soon after the Kent State killing, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were singing about it.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Neil Young (b1945), from “Ohio”

What bothers me most is not just the gobsmacking ignorance of American history and current events, but the assumption that this brberton’s world is the only possible world (“our husbands . . .”), that this take on life is the only possible take (“we have not”), that nobody could possibly have a different experience of this nation (“take us away”).

Dear brberton, you need to know that throughout this country’s history, danger has been real and courage has been real, not relative. From the Civil Rights marches in Birmingham to the Women’s Rights marches across the country, people stood up. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X knew they could be killed (and they were), but they stood up. People still challenge authority.

Business people question the authoritarian nature of the current administration, knowing that one tweet could undermine all they and their employees have built. Americans with and without public platforms are out in the street, knowing that some panicking police chief could let loose the reins of common sense and injure citizens.

Some municipalities have already passed laws absolving drivers of responsibility if they hit protesters who are on foot. Small, but vocal and heavily armed citizens are threatening us with their astroturfed rage, their very real guns, and their wannabe coronavirus vectordom. But nurses, doctors, and physician’s assistants, who risk their lives daily saving others, are putting on their masks and standing up to these unmasked threats.

Talk to somebody, brberton. Talk to somebody outside whatever mono-racial emotionally gated community you might inhabit. But bear in mind that to accept the truth, you will have to give up at least a bit of the privilege that has allowed you to disregard documented American history for so long. As Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post, aptly notes: “Perhaps the ultimate marker of privilege is not having to be conscious of it.” We could help you.

We could help you know your country better. You can still love it after you get to know it. We do. And you could know, just as Jessica Shattuck knows, that we can love you despite what you have been willing to allow, ignore, excuse. Maybe these musings will be your pin. Take it, pop your bubble, and then you can help, as Langston Hughes asserted:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.) . . .

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again . . .

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!

Langston Hughes (1902–1967), from “Let America be America Again”