“If we want to call upon the Shoah to deepen our comprehension of atrocity, then we need to study not only anti-Semitism but the processes of ethnic and religious hatred, the patterns of fanatical belief, the causes of neighborly violence, and the mechanisms through which these can be contained. We need to undertake such investigations…both within the specific dimensions of the Holocaust and as they occur, and keep occurring elsewhere” (Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge 198).
As a kid, I grew up on a sedate block in a quiet neighborhood of Bessemer, Alabama, during the 1950’s and 60’s. At least I thought it was sedate and quiet. Lately, though, I’ve undertaken to investigate my own transgressions.
Like the time I allowed my dog Sandy to defecate on neighbors’ lawns. Like the weeks my dog Donald chewed up neighbors’ hosepipes, welcome mats, and even lugged a dead pig onto our lawn, and I kept begging my parents not to send Donald off to some pound or country field (They listened and paid Donald’s bills).
Like the times we kicked rubber balls, or socked plastic baseballs against the windows and onto the roof of the neighbors next door. They asked, begged, us not to, but we kept on, my brother, friends, and I. Once, my friend Robert climbed onto the neighbor’s roof to retrieve our frisbee. I suppose when a teenager walks on your roof, the sound is startling, especially when you’re in your 80's.
Like the time I sassed our next door neighbor on the other side for telling me to cut my hair. She did so repeatedly as if she were my father or something.
After these incidents, I felt alternately righteous, indignant, sometimes ashamed, but never for long enough to truly repent or stop what I was doing for very long.
I considered myself a good boy even as I participated in throwing persimmons all over the neighbor’s house one Labor Day evening. And then I lied to their face about doing it.
None of these acts in and of themselves was exactly criminal; nothing here couldn’t have been undone if I had owned my actions or apologized for them.
But I never did.
I wonder now what small or even large angst I caused. What mild or severe headaches? What tinges and tinctures of Karma did I unleash?
In studying the Holocaust and considering the religious and ethnic and even neighborhood hatreds that so many of us lived through or knew vicariously, I keep thinking about Hoffman’s work: After Such Knowledge. And I know I’m not the first to think this, and I know I’m not the first to lament this, suffer this, feel its horrible pull.
But in Bessemer, twenty years after the Holocaust, twenty years after the worst form of genocide western society had seen until that time, average citizens like our neighbors left their ancestral homes and took up residence again in other white enclaves so that they wouldn’t have to live next to a Black family. The venom spewed against those who moved, and who allowed their houses to “fall into Black hands,” surely sent tremors into their offending psyches. “We” couldn’t understand such race betrayal. “We” couldn’t believe that those good people would abandon us to the “others,” the ones we always thought would be content to live in the shotgun shacks and shantys “we” had directly or indirectly, tacitly or approvingly, consigned them to.
Even in my own family, my mixed Jewish-Gentile family, after the house next door had been sold to “one of them,” when my mother informed one of her good friends of this news, at our house over Christmas Eve supper, the friend wrinkled her nose as if the turkey were rancid.
“Uoghhh,” she said.
Those neighbors turned out to be good people; they almost became friends with my parents. Almost.
I say all of this as if I have learned enough lessons to set me free. Still, most of my friends, most of the people I have occasion to be friends with, are white. I am half-Jewish and am married to a first-generation Persian woman.
I am fortunate enough to have avoided overt violence in my life. But the violence of the more psychological sort has me gripped. And I so badly want to loosen that grip and believe so ardently that to truly set myself and those I love free, I have to investigate the nature of my chains: the ones I still wear; the ones I have allowed to shackle me.
The ones I’ve placed around my own wrists, feet, and soul.
So, now that I am a “Top Writer in Racism” on Medium, it’s time to see not how I’m bound, but what those chains around me are truly made of.