Born and raised in the Midwestern United States, I learned quickly not to bring up subjects (past, present, or future) that might cause strife at the dinner table.
Not with my immediate family – where discussions, dissent, and even discord were welcomed as long as tones and topics remained respectable (and even the word “respectable” remained rather broad and undefined) – I was raised into a family were the idea of talking about something/talking things out was the only way that they would/could actually get solved/be addressed.
But elsewhere I found this to be a problem: The holiday tables of my grandparents and great-grandparents. My second-cousins and their friends. The unfamiliar homes of classmates and their parents. The tables of strangers and in the workplace. Riding public transportation. In the aisles of grocery stores. At neighborhood barbecues, where everyone laughs and drinks beer, but-don’t-offend-the-man-who-sometimes-shovels-your-walk-for-you-in-the-winter.
I was born in Hackettstown, New Jersey. I don’t remember the coast. My older sister, Kaela, born two years before me in Freiburg, Germany, remembers more. She remembers leaving, at least. We moved to Huntsville, Alabama for a brief period, where my sister was born in the humid, mid-August heat
And then drove north to St. Paul, Minnesota.
This is being written in the time of Donald Trump. Judge Roy Moore was recently defeated in the Alabama special election, arguably the largest shift of the tide since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in November of 2016. Moore, an accused sexual molester, at best, and the owner of such regressive philosophies as homosexuality is “sin” and deserves punishment, and that times were better during slavery, was defeated in the general election by 2 percentage points by Democrat Doug Jones. This is 2017. This is acknowledged.
That Judge Moore could have run such a race, and garnered such staunch support, even from the President of the United States, speaks to a larger issue at present: That the sort of mentality that kept slavery as the status quo, racist Jim Crow as the unofficial law of the land, without much, if any, accountability. And we as a society today are not doing much, if anything, to pay for the sins of the past; we as a society are not doing much, if anything, to right society’s wrongs. Far too often it is left to the individual, or specific, individual groups, to try and provoke change as United States culture in general continues to stumble forward as if the American dream still provides what those of a certain background still claim that it does.
We need to address our past, acknowledge our wrongs in more than just the ripped pages of high school history books, and in the hushed tones of, “…it was a different time, then.”
The past, then and now
This is Minnesota, now. The cold north. Shiver cold. Cold-shoulder cold. Stuck together in small spaces for more than a few months at a time cold, and conviviality is often feigned in order to maintain diplomacy cold.
My father came from Stuttgart, Germany, the home of Mercedes-Benz, Porsche. Also home to Monte Scherbelino, a ruinous monument to the destruction of WWII (the Third Reich). Monte Scherbelino, which translates to “Mountain of Shards,” but could more accurately translated as “Mountain of Tears,” is a man-made mountain from the city’s bombed-out ruins. A reminder for Germans why it should never happen again, and our responsibility in making sure that it doesn’t.
A point of reference: If the Twin Cities were bombed the way Stuttgart was, all of St. Paul was turned to rubble and dust, destroyed. This was Stuttgart after WWII. The remains are what make up Monte Scherbelino.
My grandfather in Stuttgart was too young at the time to serve in WWII, but too old to be oblivious or unaware of Germania and the Nazis. When I knew him late in life he walked with his shoulders stooped, shuffling with short steps barely lifting his feet when he walked. But kept moving. The walk of a man defeated but unwilling to concede. My grandmother was the cook and the host. She walked upright until the end. If we needed something, it was her who went to the kitchen to get it; even after we were old enough to get it for ourselves.
“We saw the big planes overhead,” she told me about her life as a young girl with dark hair during the time when Nazi flags hung over street corners and government buildings and swastikas were more than just a symbol. “Big, gray planes dropping big, gray bombs. We hid beneath our desks when the sirens went off. We put our heads down between our knees.”
It was a different time, she said.
But the past never truly stays in the past. Not all the way. While it may fade/while it fades with each passing day, the colors still manage to seep through in what we do, what we say, and how we see the world. My grandmother would take the extra rolls, crackers, packets of jam, pads of butter, anything else that was offered complimentary at restaurant tables and put them in her purse (should things ever get bad again).
And these pasts are also used to make a point in the present. As evidence, support, or dismissal of current dialogues.
“We can’t say anything,” my grandfather said from his seat at the head of the table, putting his knife and fork down against his plate. Talking about Germany’s lack of support for the United States’ War on Terror and attacking Afghanistan in 2001.
“Germany,” he said, “can neither go to war nor speak out against it. We’re called Nazis still. We’re called Nazis when we talk about anything in the world.”
But with countless museums, monuments, and the testament to murdered Jews, and legislations prohibiting holocaust denial and prohibiting similar ideologies, it seems that is not only unfair, but tone deaf. Oblivious, even. You would never name your child Adolf. Hitler is no longer a name, it is a dirty, four-letter word. In 2017, this is still acknowledged.
Germany has addressed its past in ways most countries, especially the United States, have not: A sort of national psychoanalysis to keep something like the Third Reich, Holocaust, or anything close to it, from ever happening again. This is the only way to prevent the past from repeating itself/from happening again: Because a past unaddressed will rot. If we do not bring those dark things done in the name of power, greed, ill-digested ideology, or even, somehow, with the best of intentions, then they will fester; they will rot the country, its culture, and its society, from within.
“It was conscious,” my father told me in German (translated). “We demanded to know how this could have happened. They didn’t want to talk about it. There was a general embarrassment, certainly, and a want to just move on. But the people weren’t going to let that happen. We (the German population) wanted answers.”
The past in the future
So now we wonder what really is real about our country and culture in the United States. Do we still praise (so many) of our nation’s forefathers who we know owned slaves? Who built a country on the still-warm remains of indigenous tribes?
The foundation of our country which left the pain and suffering of so many from its memories, is remembered through monuments to those we know committed immoral acts.
If we are struggling with our identity now, as Americans, it is because we never fully addressed/we still struggle to address, those dark things in our history. What our country is based upon has been found wanting, so now we have been left with something of an unfinished legacy, full of half-truths and victories won on the backs of the oppressed far too often swept under the rug.
It was because I was able to talk about these things with my family that I learned how very different people can see the (exact?) same subject – i.e. how very different the world can look to different people, even though we walk on the same sidewalks and stare up at the same sky.
How so very different perspectives can be.
Then even if we are to discuss our past, and it is the same historical event we are discussing, we struggle to come to a common conclusion. Especially about how to address it, move forward, today; our current responsibility to that event.
As my high school history teacher taught us, “History will always exist, and it must be addressed, but not necessarily cherished. Painful truths must be swallowed like a bitter pill: only then can we quell the stomachache that perpetuates the divisions in this country. Building upon the notion of melting pot in America, not of oil and water…”
In this world, two people can have completely different points of view, and believe-without-question theirs is the correct and only one. What must happen is a collective acknowledgement of what is morally/ethically correct and actual progress to make sure we continue in that direction.
“Once history is understood, moving forward, we can move forward not with our individual pasts and places dictating our actions, but together. We can appreciate the otherness of our neighbors without feeling the need to defend our own. We can learn to love our neighbors in ways that have eluded our society from its creation.”
Read next: The Guilt of Tangential Crimes