Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Only Please Never to Forget Us"

I've been in Prague for the last week on a January interim trip with my Wofford College colleague, Dr. Natalie Grinnell, professor of English. Natalie was inspired to organize the trip after learning that a previous group of Wofford students went to Prague in January 1969.

Those of you with a memory of Cold War events will immediately recognize why that might seem unlikely: it was a mere five months after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring.

Despite those dramatic events, two faculty members (Dr. B. G. Stephens of Chemistry and Prof. James Bass of Government) and sixteen students ventured to Prague. Marion Peavey, then director of information services at Wofford (and currently Senior Vice President for Development and College Relations) also went on the trip to write articles for The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. While they were there, a 21-year old college student, Jan Palach, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square in protest of the Soviet occupation. Peavey recounted the scene shortly after Palach set himself ablaze:
I arrived at the steps of the National Museum, where Palach set the match to his gasoline drenched clothes, only moments after the ambulance was leaving for the hospital with the badly-charred body.
Earlier this month, Peavey told this year's students that when he got there, he could still see the smoke in the air.

Palach died three days later from the burns he suffered, and became a martyr to Czech nationalism.

Knowing that we'd be there 45 years to the day, before our departure, Natalie arranged to have our colleague, Dr. Kim Rostan of the English department at Wofford, come talk with our class about memorials. The students were tasked with coming up with some way of marking the anniversary that would also acknowledge the presence in Prague of those Wofford students.

After some discussion, they settled on something simple, yet elegant. They liked the idea of somehow showing the "ripple effect" of Palach's act, which meant including water. But they also liked the idea of water in something permanent and lasting, in order to show that his self-sacrifice was not transient. Natalie dabbles in making pottery, and she agreed to supply one of the bowls she made. 

This morning, on the anniversary, the students went to the spot with the bowl.

After filling it with water, a small floating candle was placed on the surface. 

On the inside of the bowl, they wrote: "In memory of Jan Palach" 

and "Intaminatis fulget honoribus"--the Wofford College motto, which means "Shining with untarnished honor."

Peavey ended his article on Palach with this story:
As we were leaving Prague, our bus driver, a former POW in an American prisoner of war camp, gave an eloquent yet concise feeling of the Czech people. "All Czech people will always fight against oppression and injustice. It is our historical task. There is an analogy in Jan Hus of 1415 and Jan Palach of 1969--both burned to death and both signify the start of a great struggle for freedom. I ask you in the United States only please never to forget us and we shall never forget you."
Today, 19 Wofford students kept the promise that their 16 predecessors made 45 years ago.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Slavery Was No "Moment"

Sometimes a single word speaks volumes.

A few days ago, I was reading one of those year-end, year's best movies lists in the local newspaper. One of the choices was "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen's brutal filming of the true story of the freeman Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

I had recently seen the film thought it was a stunning achievement, so I was glad to see it make the list. But I was struck by the way the author of the article described it:

"Superbly made, but harrowing and difficult-to-watch film about one of the darkest moments in American history."

I was with the writer until that word "moments."

A scene from "12 Years a Slave"
Slavery was not a "moment." It was an institution that lasted well over two hundred years. Would anyone call the Constitution a "moment" in American history? The question is self-evidently absurd, yet slavery existed in America longer than the Constitution has.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on the author. I'm confident, from the context, that he had no desire to minimize slavery. Yet he inadvertently did, with that one word. He took a horrific institution that afflicted the lives of millions of people over two-plus centuries and reduced it to a "moment."

Regardless of the intent, calling slavery a "moment" has the effect of dismissing it as a bizarre aberration--something to be noticed, for sure, but also to be discounted. Just a moment, that's all. None of us wishes to be judged by our worst moment, right?

This, unfortunately, is something we Americans do all too often. Even when we are seemingly trying our best to appreciate the centrality of slavery to American history, to see it in all of its dehumanizing horror, we have an uncanny knack for saying something that effectively undermines that intent and dismisses slavery as something less than it was.

McQueen's movie is easily the most unvarnished take on American slavery ever filmed. The author is right--it is incredibly difficult to watch. What's worse is that it is incredibly difficult for some of us to accept.  Even when we see it, even when we know that this story is true, we want to find some way to say, "yeah, but …"

There is no "but." Slavery was an evil, one this nation tolerated as "necessary" long after it proudly declared to the world that "all men are created equal." It is true that most of us have come a long way since the "positive good" and "necessary evil" characterizations of slavery of the antebellum period. And yet, when faced with slavery's awful truth, there is still something in too many of us that wants to relegate it to just a "moment" in our history.

Until all Americans appreciate this reality--slavery is as essential to the American story and as much a part of who we are as the Constitution--we will be falsely comforting ourselves that it was nothing but a moment.