Tag Archives: Holocaust

Echoes of Innocence: War, Black Power and Racial Innocence

This week I finally got to the Black Power exhibition at the Schomburg Center in New York, which recognizes the impact of Black Power and the Black Panther party during the 1960s and 1970s, both in the US and globally.  I was particularly interested in the discussion in the exhibit about children, and have been thinking about this ever since—especially because my week also included a reading of Robin Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/black-kids-discrimination.html), and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Newbery Honor Book, Echo (Scholastic, 2015).

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Blake was aware in the 1790s that Black children were not allowed innocence in white society.

Bernstein’s op-ed piece talks about the construction of innocence (presumably in the US, since all her examples are American, but her arguments can be stretched to other countries as well) as having racial connotations, beginning especially in the 19th century.  During this period, the romantic notion of the child was as an innocent, blank slate—but only, Bernstein argues, the white child.  “The more that popular writers, playwrights, actors and visual artists created images of innocent white children, the more they depicted children of color, especially black children, as unconstrained imps. Over time, this resulted in them being defined as nonchildren,” she writes.  While she mentions an exception to this (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s representation of Topsy, which was then destroyed by the popular theatre versions of Stowe’s book), and I would argue that there are other counter-examples (William Blake’s version of innocence, for example, was not confined to white children—although as his poetry makes clear, Black children’s innocence was confounded by white society), her main point is sound.  Children who are not white are often seen in white-dominated societies as threatening.

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Kenlock’s Black Panther girls are innocent of wrong-doing, but not innocent of injustice.

I looked back at the photos I had taken in the Black Power exhibit, most of which were either pictures of children or pictures of Black Arts poetry.  None of the children in the photos were smiling, and many of them could be seen as provocative, with the children looking defiantly at the camera adorned with Black Power symbols.  These photographs were not taken by white photographers who saw a threat, but Black and white photographers who saw a possibility.  White photographer Stephen Shames’ image of a Black boy in a white Angela Davis t-shirt was designed, along with his other Black Panthers photographs, to show that “‘black pride’ was not based on denigrating whites, but on showing the black community that they were in control of their own destiny” (http://www.stephenshames.com/projects/black-panther-party). Black photographer Neil Kenlock’s photograph of Black Power girls in Brixton, which was part of the “Stan Firm Inna Inglan” exhibition I saw at the Tate in London, was also reproduced here to showcase global Black Pride.  But whether you looked at these photos and saw strength or threat, it is difficult to see the children in these photos as innocent, in the sense of innocent as someone who is unknowing, a blank slate in John Locke’s definition.  You can’t be innocent if you are aware of injustice.

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Even music is not innocent of understanding injustice in Ryan’s novel that connects children across time and place.

And this is why I found Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo so compelling.  The story is really multiple stories, across time and distance and even genre, woven together through the medium of wars (both WWI and WWII) and a harmonica that is owned by multiple child characters.  The harmonica, as an instrument, is not a random choice.  Ryan takes pains to indicate how music connects us all; one of her characters comments, “Music does not have a race or a disposition . . . Every instrument has a voice that contributes.  Music is a universal language” (86) and this sentiment is echoed throughout the novel by different characters.  But the speech made here is in response to another character denigrating the harmonica as an instrument.  Music is not all innocent and even an instrument can be culpable.  Elisabeth is in the Hitler Youth, and the Hitler Youth thinks that the harmonica is “offensive” (85) because it is used to play “Unacceptable music . . . Negro music. Jazz. It’s considered degenerate” (86).  Her brother Friedrich, who is Ryan’s main character in this particular story, knows this is nonsense; music is innocent in the sense that it has not done anything wrong.  But the harmonica and Friedrich are only innocent in this one sense of the term.  They are not the unknowing kind of innocent.  Friedrich may not be Jewish, but he is under threat, both for speaking against injustice and for having a physical “deformity”—a birthmark—that may get him confined to an insane asylum or worse in Nazi Germany.  The harmonica, which is a somewhat magical version of a regular harmonica, “knows” about sadness, and can play it.

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This famous photo from WWII, which appeared in Life magazine, has often been used as a symbol of an innocent boy caught up in fascism. But just because he’s done nothing to deserve a gun being pointed at him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand justice.

The knowingness of the harmonica is explained in the next of Ryan’s interconnected stories, in which the Irish-American Mike is taught to play the harmonica by the African-American Mr. Potter.  When Mr. Potter first plays, Mike is fascinated and asks him about the sound he gets the harmonica to make.  Mr. Potter explains, “blues music is about all the trials and tribulations people got in their hearts from living. . . . Blues is a song begging for its life” (293).  Mike has not done anything wrong by becoming an orphan, but he is aware of the injustice that keeps food out of his and other children’s mouths in the orphanage—so he too can play the innocent/not-innocent blues on the harmonica.  Similarly, the next owner of the harmonica, Ivy Lopez, is innocent of wrongdoing but is still sent to a crumbling and understocked school because of her Mexican heritage.  This not only allows her to play the blues, but to understand the injustice done to another: she exposes the wrong treatment and suspicion of Japanese-Americans who have been interned.

Bernstein’s article ends with a slightly mixed message, arguing that all children should be seen as innocent but also that innocence should not be the focus—rather we should look at whether children are being treated justly.  I think most children should be seen as innocent of wrong-doing, because most children are; however, I don’t think any children—Black, white, Latina, Asian, any children—should be the unknowing kind of innocent.  We should not only ensure that children are being treated justly, we should teach them how to fight for justice for themselves and others.  Because only when everyone is working for justice will we ever achieve it.

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We Didn’t Win to Have You Here: Activism after Victories in Children’s Lit

Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments.  In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead.  Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707).  But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that.  My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen.  My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.

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Anna, in Kerr’s text, came to love France–but not all the French people loved her “kind”.

The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics.  Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious.  While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other.  So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad.  (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.)  But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France.  France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940.  Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election.  A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148).  Unfortunately, it does not remain that way.  While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”.  In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177).  The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it.  My childhood understanding of history fell apart.

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In Carlson’s book, it is the children–not the adults or the institutions–that can see beyond race and build community.

But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books.  A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years.  A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood.  But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment.  The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated.  The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32).  Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.

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Centrist or no, Macron still governs a France that, at least in part, fears the flood at the door.

Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual.  In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England.  One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books.  Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8).  The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8).  A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from.  The police do nothing.

While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast.  And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree.  The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France.  That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.

Je Suis Juif, Musulman, Français: The Intertwined History of Muslims, Jews, and the French

The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish grocery store last week in Paris revealed the racial and religious tensions in France to many people across the world.  The country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and the third largest Jewish population in the world has struggled for some time with the problems that arise from the diverse nature of their population.  Some (maybe most) of these are problems that have (France’s former) colonialism at its core; many of the members of Muslim and Jewish communities in France, for example, come from North African countries where France was once the colonial ruler, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.  Often times these communities are isolated in some way from the rest of France (the phrase “disaffected Algerian youths” comes up a lot in reports out of Paris, especially when poverty and unemployment is high or football matches go wrong).  The BBC, CNN and the New York Times have also all recently published stories about French Jews (“disaffected Algerian youths” are always Muslims; Jewish communities are rarely referred to by their national origin) facing increasing anti-Semitic attacks and wanting to emigrate from France to Israel in increasing numbers.

Religious and racial tensions are not new to France (or, I might add, to most other former imperial powers).  But the opposite attitude of tolerance and equality are not new to France either.  The French people chanting “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis juif” in large numbers and the Muslim employee of the kosher grocery store who protected a group of several hostages during last week’s incident are the other, better side of France’s attitude toward minority groups within its borders.  However, it is typical that it took a tragic event to showcase these better angels.  Historically, it took the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of selling state secrets, to help bring about the 1905 law separating church and state affairs in France; and it took the death of 30,000 Muslim North African soldiers at the Battle of Verdun during World War I to get the French government to finance the construction of Paris’s Grande Mosquée in 1926.  Both these events are prelude to another tragedy—and triumph—of French racial and religious relations discussed in a children’s book by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix, The Grand Mosque of Paris (Holiday House: 2009).

Another moment when French Muslims and Jews were united.

Another moment when French Muslims and Jews were united.

The subtitle of the book, “A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust,” struck me for a couple of reasons.  The first was that it occurred to me I had never considered the plight of Muslims in Europe during the Second World War.  The second was that it made me wonder how and why Muslims escaped the wrath of Nazism (at least enough that they could be rescuing Jewish people).  After all, one of the purported reasons for Nazis to imprison and murder Jews (not to mention other groups, including Catholics, communists and homosexuals) was that they did not believe in (the Nazi version of) Christianity and Christian values.

The answer to both “how did the Muslims escape victimization by the Nazis?” and “how did they manage to hide Jewish people?” are explained, or at least addressed, in Ruelle and DeSaix’s book—and, looked at from a certain angle, “colonialism” could be the answer to both questions.

Hitler was certainly no supporter of Islam.  He once referred to the entire population of the Middle East as “half-apes” (see the Projet Aladin website, http://www.projetaladin.org/holocaust/en/40-questions-40-answers/the-nazis-the-holocaust-and-muslims.html, for more on the Holocaust and Muslims).  But Hitler was, in the end, a pragmatist, and he saw cultivation of a relationship between his Nazi government and the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa as one path to defeating the Allied Powers, particularly Britain and France (who at the beginning of World War II were still heavily invested in and reliant on their colonial “possessions” in the region).  To placate Arab leaders such as Ibn Saud and Mufti Haj Amin, Hitler did not round up Muslims as he did other “non-Christian” groups.

In France at the start of World War II, the Muslim population was almost exclusively North African.  The Jewish population was more mixed, thanks to anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia and Eastern Europe, but a number of the Jews in Paris were part of the Algerian community.  Algerians had been declared French citizens in the Crémieux Decree of 1870, and many had migrated to the metropole.  It was these Jews, largely, that were hidden by the Parisian Muslim community.

The Grand Mosque of Paris certainly simplifies both these histories.  Regarding the Nazi tolerance of Muslims, Ruelle and DeSaix state, “The Nazis were reluctant to target Muslims.  They feared a Muslim uprising in North Africa, where they were already fighting the Allies” (18).  This statement sidesteps the anti-Semitic attitudes of some of the Arab leaders who Hitler was courting.  But to admit to Arab sympathy with Hitler’s anti-Jewish aims would complicate the book’s focus on Muslim-Jewish harmony. The authors spend a bit more time on the relationship between Paris Jewish and Muslim communities, emphasizing the unity and connections within the groups.  “Jewish or Muslim, the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures.  Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers.  They also looked very much alike” (12).  In other words, it was the lack of what Nazis believed to be typical Jewish “racial” features that allowed North African Muslims to save North African Jews.  Ruelle and DeSaix add that “only people who . . . could pass as North African Muslims could stay at the mosque for more than a few days” (16).  The indirectly-offered message of The Grand Mosque of Paris is that the Muslim community succeeded in rescuing Jews by using the German racial (and racist) “theories” against them. During a time when it was dangerous to be Jewish, French Muslims helped at least a few of them to say, “Je suis musulman” instead.