I feel apprehensive, after seeing "Twelve Years a Slave", the currently at movie theaters everywhere film, that it may inspire awards in place of the deeper discussion it needs. I mean, really, the deeper experience for those of us white and not African America--of in some ways identifying with the slave owners, or at the very least identification of the shameful history we have, no matter our ages. I've read of some people being "tired" of the "racial bashing" they feel the screen has given us with Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" and now Steve McQueen's immense and impassioned drama based on a memoir of kidnapped free black man Solomon Northup.
Where we are open to seeking or even finding, we will have more of a chance of doing so. When wondering about how come we don't tend to solve many social problems for which we have or could have answers, I happened upon a very small book by Carl Jung, entitled The Undiscovered Self. I had been pondering the how-could-it-have-happened of the Holocaust and opened the book to pages tying those events to other historical atrocities within Europe as well as the brutality and genocides involving slavery. I am Jewish so I had the knee jerk reaction I believe many of us have to "our" genocides compared to those of others, to the point that at points we don't want to share the term genocide and certainly not holocaust. But as I read Jung's passages, my intestinal tract moved to reluctant softening, and equalizing in ways.
After seeing "Twelve Years a Slave", I feel the need to admit that the people who tormented slaves, sold them as territory and did so without hard but with the cruelty of coldness amidst traces of real enjoyment of the power, were American. As such they are part of my history, at least for now even if I am not a Southerner past or present and even if my parents and their parents came to the States fleeing persecution themselves. By this I don't mean to indulge in the wallowing of liberal or Jewish (or both) guilt, but to own up to the fact that historically and psychologically if we don't grieve and account for our past and what came before it we will do no justice and will not learn.
One take--and mine as well--is that racial prejudice is often connected with prejudice against the poor in general--many poor people being either Black or in other racial or ethnic minorities. There is little sympathy, compassion or empathy for the fact that cycles of poverty also have their historical roots--ones that formed in the amputating of family bonds and of language--and that slavery itself was one huge kidnapping.
To my mind, as in the extraordinarily moving film "Pieces of April" based on a Thanksgiving family set of circumstances, Thanksgiving is best seen as a holiday, said from mouth of Katie Holmes, that we all need each other. That would mean that we have to have also a sense of continuity to the past and present and future, which might go broader and deeper than celebrating the Pilgrims only. We can account for the genocide against Native Americans and still make room to investigate our legacy of slavery.
Jung said the Holocaust could happen anywhere, and he suggested that America might be a particularly vulnerable location for another since the United States were so very much into the positive which lacked a deeper appreciation of the darker parts of our own history. We have them, and as he stated then, slavery was a big part of not only history but of the legacy which we would do well to deal with. In other words, he found America particularly lacking in the capacity to admit wrong and to find ways of dealing with the healing effects of apology and reparations.
In a world where people tend to be cynical and polarized in their views, it may be that any call to empathy and ownership of wrong doing even from the past, might lead to resistance and to a pushing back. We are weary of rhetoric and increasingly disbelieving of its sources on any side of any aisle. So right now my suggestion--now my suggestion that the best way to remedy most conflicts is to take ownership of our own parts in those conflicts--may fall on deafer ears even than usual.
Corny or effortful as this sounds, it can help, since also the more we own our history of violence or of being violated, the less we feel the urge to do more of the same. In the meantime, we may have to also hope that some of the bigger names and human beings in magnificent arenas of social entrepreneurship--Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates, and Bill Clinton and more--will have the courage to name this issue out loud and show the rest of us the positive effects of a real dialogue. This dialogue would have its investment in our sharing in the truth, and feeling as Harry Stack Sullivan once said we all were--"more human than otherwise".
Meanwhile we can start on our own, or in groups to learn and investigate the past, also as part of decongesting our emotional pathways the better to see clearly. Openness to learning about the complexity of our wars and our periods of peace, can help us empathize with our veterans, from Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the other war zones, counted out loud or not.
We are still, for better and worse, apparently free to talk to each other. Einstein has been quoted as saying, "Setting an example is not the main means of influencing people, it is the only means". Which means to me that I am thankful for this freedom and that I volunteer to be part of the conversation as well.