"If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.”
If I told you that this was found in an abandoned journal in Birkenau, written by a Jew forced into labour and despair, it would not surprise you. It surprises no Jews because stories of the Holocaust have a profound imprint on us, even if, according to some sociologists, they no longer are the Jewish identity shapers they once were.
Nothing shocks us; there is no story that is implausible in that thick catalogue of cruelty. But ours are not the only stories of suffering. There is no competition for victimisation.
It was Elizabeth Freeman who wrote those words in the beginning of the 19th century. She was a black slave working on the estate of John Ashley, a powerful Massachusetts attorney. John’s wife, Annetje, once maimed Elizabeth’s arm with a hot kitchen shovel. Elizabeth was a Revolutionary War widow who overheard a discussion about the state’s constitution and wanted to make good on its promise of liberty. She sued the state for her freedom and won.
I learned about Elizabeth’s story of loss and triumph when I accompanied my daughter’s 10th grade class to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the latest Smithsonian on the National Mall. It takes months to secure tickets. It’s fair to say that Jewish day school children in the DC area have probably been to the US Holocaust Museum once, if not several times. It was interesting to walk among them when they had to take in someone else’s collective story of prolonged anguish, the pain of centuries.
The museum “begins” on the lowest floor. Its low, dark ceilings and cramped exhibition space seem to create a spatial parallel to the slave-trade ships it documents. In 1788, a British surgeon Alexander Falconbridge who travelled on several of these ships observed: “The deck… was so covered with blood and mucus… that it resembled a slaughterhouse.” Five years earlier, an editorial in The Maryland Gazette opposed slavery with the words of the slave: “Though our bodies differ in colour from yours; yet our souls are similar in desire for freedom.”
I watched a young black mother show her two daughters pictures of the cotton fields and bales that slaves used to pick. I heard an older black woman in front of photos of segregated buses tell her friends, “I remember walking through the white section on the bus to get to the coloured section, as if sitting there wasn’t shame enough.”
In Britain, you abolished slavery in 1833. On some days in America, when race issues flare up like wildfire, I feel like we still haven’t abolished it here. In law, yes. In spirit, no. We are mired in a legacy of hate that we cannot shake. I took a photo of the Martin Luther King quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” It sounds just like something one of our own homegrown heroes and prophets would say.
Suddenly you ascend from dim light to a soaring wall with the words of the Declaration of Independence chiselled in large letters: “All men are created equal…with certain unalienable rights…” Beneath the words is a statue of Thomas Jefferson. He called slavery “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” but had hundreds of slaves who were not freed even after he died. We lived and still live in a place of sinful paradoxes that need to be ironed out into more consistent truths.
The highest floors take us from sadness and protest to black contributions in music and religion, poetry and prose, art and food and politics. It’s a story that moves from the commodification of human beings to their immense contribution on the world stage, culminating in a black president of the United States. But, of course, the story does not end there. It does not end.
When I left and looked in the direction of the US Holocaust Museum, a wave of regret came over me. We could have done the same with our story. But we didn’t. We have made our suffering our story; you can even purchase a map of all the Holocaust memorials and museums there are in the United States alone. When will we climb out of the darkness and tell a richer, happier, more complete and more redemptive story?