I wrote this at this time last year, but didn’t wrap up with the last line until now. I suppose its time to release it as Californians are eager for our state to “reopen” on June 15. As much as I want to see people, to linger in a cafe and share smiles, I think there’s a great deal of reflection that we still need to do in order to recover from over a year of heightened grief, anxiety, violence, and tension. Reflecting on the past century as well as our recent past might help us understand what approach we might take to healing our social divides and what’s at stake if we don’t.
Without commutes, coworkers, parties, and travel, we were left with our own thoughts, habits, and history. We turned to ourselves to ask, “Am I ill? Do I need to quarantine?” To our families: “Is my child sick? My partner, siblings, parents, grandparents?” To our friends and neighbors: “Who is at greater risk than others? Do they need anything?” Beyond a certain point, others’ well-being was unknown and out of our individual control, and any concern was exercised by wearing a mask and physically distancing from anyone outside one’s household.
With less external activity, this has been a time to turn inward. I’ve been thinking on the phrase “turning inward.” What might we notice? What might we learn? What are old lessons to find such that when we turn outward, again, will we have changed for the better? As I looked inward in search of tools I already have to get through this time, what I’ve learned from elders and ancestors, I arrived at the past pandemic. During college I learned about the period of turning inward following World War I wherein the horror of modern warfare and, in the case of Germans, shame of defeat catalyzed a period of turning inward. Reflection. What have we done? Was all the death worth it? In the US, this gave rise to the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance–movements exploring the deep interior, with revolutionary implications in the case of the latter.
Last year I became interested in the parallels with World War I-era social conflicts with that of today. We know Gravilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. Ethnic groups such as Serbians wanted to have national sovereignty and break from the Empire. The desire to have one’s ethnicity respected and to have self-determination resonates in today’s continuing efforts for racial equity.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ally the German Empire (known together as the Central Powers) were united for many reasons, among them fighting separatist nationalist movements to preserve their empires’ monoculture. When the US and Allied Forces fought against the Central Powers in WWI, they weren’t doing so for the advancement of ethnic nationalism and diversity per se, but looking back those issues were worth examining because they became core issues in the next world war. For after the period of turning inwards, when they turned outward they saw a renewed fight for monoculture, specifically white, Christian, heternormative supremacy, led by Hitler and the Third Reich. So, it’s important to consider why white supremacy wasn’t defeated.
What I learned in college was that German’s feeling of humiliation and shame was deepened by how they felt the Allied Forces over punished them for the war. While Woodrow Wilson wanted to create a multinational body to facilitate peace-keeping, France wanted Germany to accept the blame and to atone. It’s argued that because Wilson caught the Spanish Influenza, which caused cognitive impairments, that he acquiesced to France’s stance. This relatively more harsh approach lent to greater feeling of shame. That feeling of shame was ripe for a group to come along and boost German pride by insisting that not only were they blameless but rather correct and superior–an Aryan race meant to inherit the earth. Thus, the rise of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.
What do we learn from this? If we want peace, we need to find ways to hold people accountable for their unjust acts and also to forgive them. Isolating and shaming them breeds discontent and self-righteous violence. (Another lesson is that Trump could get COVID and have cognitive impairments that disable him from making (less) sound decisions?)
What else can we learn from that time? I think it’s worth highlighting the aforementioned artistic movements: a Lost Generation of white men and the fleshing out of Black people in the Harlem Renaissance. One of the Renaissance’s notable characteristics was expression of full Black personhood–dynamic, nuanced, and distinct from the old ways of portraying African Americans through a white lens. Black soldiers returning from WWI contributed to this ethos and movement through conveying their experiences of a less segregated Europe. But, the relief from oppression put them at risk during war. Today, we’re seeing deservedly increased attention to Black artists and -owned businesses. It came at the cost of black lives.
The Red Summer of 1919 when riots against police murder of unarmed Black people also inspired artists of the Renaissance. Have we learned from those artists? Have we built on the work of the anti-police activists and prison abolitionists? How was our Summer of 2016, or Spring of 2020 much different from the Red Summer of 1919 nearly a century ago?
Examining these long-standing ethnic and racial tensions connect to helping us understand the systems that failed all of us in ensuring our health and safety in the past year. Racialized and gendered agricultural and care-related labor are parts of why our society has neglected those critical sectors. Our society’s bigotry and sexism harmed all of us, and let’s not turn away from that.
What reflections and processes will help us reengage without reopening old wounds, without creating another world war?