Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vehicle of Suffering

I have a vague memory of sitting at the feet of a very old black man at the YMCA long ago to listen to his memories of the previous century when he was born into slavery somewhere in the deep south. He was bald, wrinkled, and tiny, but his eyes were alert and his sense of humor had not been diminished by the years. That's all I can remember; none of his stories have abided in me. The fault is mine.

We don't know anyone who remembers anyone at the giving of the tablets at Sinai or at the Crucifixion on Golgotha. We've never looked into the eyes of a single Concord Bridge or Gettysburg veteran. And a week ago, the last of World War I's doughboys passed away. The memory of that terrible war has receded toward the horizon.

As a teacher I observed a sea change among students. Whereas I grew up longing to embrace history, feeling warmed by every sign that the past was still alive--the occasional horse drawn wagon on the streets of Chicago, the intact village of Salem, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln was a store clerk, the German Luger that my uncle took from a Nazi officer after the surrender--my students condescend to previous ages because of their primitive technology and quaint values.

We know why we need to study the past. History provides context without which nothing makes sense. And today, with revolution sweeping the Middle East, with Japan reeling from both natural and man-made disasters, with the long, proud history of American organized labor heading for the ash can, and with little but clamor to chart the course of our economy, context is very precious indeed.

WW I Ambulance, illustration by Elisa Chavarri for Michigan History Magazine, 2008. The late Corporal Buckles drove one of these. It's hard to paint war effectively. Here the artist uses restrained color and uncluttered composition to contextualize rather than dramatize this vehicle of suffering. Click on the picture for a closer look.


DUTA said...

Very thought-provoking post, TallTchr!

History is extremely important. It is the context that connects us to the Past to help us understand the Present and foresee the Future.

Take slavery, for instance. Slavery is a terrible, inhuman phenomenon with grave, lasting consequences to all involved.
Orwell was right. When you enslave someone, you ultimately become his slave.

After the abolition of slavery, the logical thing would have been to fully compensate the freed slaves, return them to their natural environment in Africa, and help them build their new homes.

But No, the americans wanted to have, if not slaves at least cheap workers, so they let them stay.
Nothing good comes out of this, not now not ever.

As for the descendants of the slaves, I often ask myself how come they don't say and do like the jews: "Let's go back to our Fatherland, away from the racists.
Let's show the world that we Can".
Well, my answer is that they're probably more clever than the Jews.

Paula Slade said...

History provides understanding and new pathways toward our future, but only if we listen and learn from its lessons.

Thoughtful post TallTchr.

Robyn said...

Have you read This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War - (2008) by Drew Gilpin Faust?
Amazing. There is an entire chapter about the birth of the ambulance. A wealthy Jewish man (editor? New York Times) son was dying on the battlefield and no one could get him... The entire book was very interesting.
Nice post!

TallTchr said...

Duta, I don't think slaves from Africa can be compared to the diaspora because, through ruthless separations of family members upon arrival, it was impossible for them to keep their cultural memories alive. They became Americans.

Robyn, I haven't read it and the title sure sounds depressing. But I'll look for it. Thank you for the suggestion.