“I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘the whole world’ or ‘generations before him.’I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.”
– Lois Lowry, The Giver
For a little more than three weeks I’ve been back in the classroom teaching. After a year of shaping my own schedule and indulging myself in my own research, the transition back to the classroom has required some adjustment. But I love teaching. I love connecting with students and learning from them as they learn from me. I gather such encouragement from their enthusiasm and their committed struggle through new concepts. I am happy in the classroom. And I am grateful that I’m allowed to call this my profession and that they actually pay me for it.
But as my sleepless patches of night increase, I’ve noticed a deepening sadness about this teaching. For sure it is in part the selection process – in my job I’m given endless freedom to choose my own content. Maybe a better balance is needed – more stories of courage and cooperation and hope. Because more than shock them with stories of the past, I want my students to understand the context, the relationships between people and space and time, and the overlapping of motivations and desperations and apathies. Maybe I need to do a better job finding the stories that inspire both my students and me. I think it might be more than that though.
These weeks I feel heavy with memory. I feel heavy with the responsibility of memory.
In the past three weeks I have relayed the plight of the Boers (Afrikaaners) during the South African War (known by most South Africans as the Anglo-Boer war). Though public memory associates concentration camps with the Nazis, the concentration camp was tested in Cuba and the Philippines, and it was in South Africa that they were first used en masse, by Great Britain. British leadership tried to break the morale of the Boers (who had resorted to spectacularly effective guerrilla warfare) by burning households to the ground and rounding up all the women and children. Through an intentional plan of systematic starvation 25,000 Boer children were starved to death in these camps. That was nearly 50% of all Boer children.
In mid-lecture last week, a student raised her hand to ask where the Armenian genocide fit into the story of the First World War. And like that, my lecture plans went out the window. We spent the rest of the class discussing both the genocide itself and the huge (often state-led) attempts to keep it out of history. Two-thirds of the students in the class had never heard of the Armenian genocide.
I’ve also told the story of the rise of far right groups like the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve shown actual video footage of 40,000 white-sheet-clad Americans marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in the shadow of Capitol Hill, asserting their rights as the true defenders of a Pure America. I’ve asked students to sift through the testimonies of women who chose to join the Klanswomen of America because they believed so strongly in their role as mothers of that pure, white America. And in silence, we’ve looked at the strangely proud photographic evidence of lynchings – men and women terrified, tortured, humiliated and killed because of the colour of their skin or because they chose not to discriminate across racial lines.
That is not all that I’ve taught in the past three weeks. I also told the story of Emily Hobhouse. This woman, who could not vote, who was not welcome into most professions because of her sex, courageously entered the British concentration camps of Transvaal and the Cape Colony with a camera. She served as a witness to the horror, she carried the memory and then acted in direct resistance. Hobhouse returned to London where she confronted the British Parliament with the evidence, holding her position until they moved to act on her demand for a full enquiry. That enquiry, executed exclusively by women, enumerates with horrifying exactness, the living conditions of the camp – the food rations, the treatment of runaways, the health of the prisoners, the deaths of the children. She created a public memory. She forced a light on places others tried desperately hard to shroud in shadow.
And we’ve talked about Highlander Folk School – a social justice school, created and founded in Tennessee at the height of the Depression. Initially intending to train labour activists, the school later became the central training centre for Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks among so many others. It was at Highlander Folk School that the song “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, with Highlander supporter, Pete Seeger, publishing it in 1948.
I teach adults and therefore I try not to sugar-coat history. Because they are brand-new adults, however, I know that sometimes it’s more than they feel ready for. There have been tears in my class in the past three weeks. There have been sharp intakes of breath. The students have seen things for the very first time and been hurt by the pain of the past. And while I know that connecting to their past is my goal, I also feel the solemness of this role. I know that I have been the conduit – I have brought those memories into their space. I have forced the past to take a place in their present. And right now, that feels like a very heavy burden. In the exact same moment that I understand and accept that that is my role.
I probably should have thought about these things long ago. Preferably before selecting History as my major at university. I abashedly admit that I haven’t. The truth is I chose history because it fascinates me, because I’ve always wanted to understand the past, because as a child I used to force my friends to go with me to the Glanmore House, our local museum, in exchange for a piece of fudge. I’ve rarely paused long enough to measure the weight of the moral, societal, humanitarian duty I carry as an historian.
I’m not naive enough to believe that we learn the lessons history has to teach us nor am I yet cynical enough to believe we never will. And so I keep remembering.
Je me souviens.