This year I’ve read a lot of books about WWII. It’s not something I planned or sought out when I made my book list for the year. I mostly intended to read books by Black authors about African American history and African American stories but of course things never quite go as we plan.
Through random happenstance and my inability to reject my librarians book suggestions I’ve been recommended a lot of books that take place in either Paris or Germany sometime between the years of 1939 - 1945. Even though they have all been fiction they’re still based in truth and have led me on adventures in my imagination that have enlightened, saddened and surprisingly at times, encouraged me.
A dear friend of mine was recently talking to me about the fact that she’s also been suggested a lot of books this year about World War II. At first she said that she read them to be kind but now she explained that she has had to say no because they’re a bit too much for her. My friend is Jewish and reading about WWII for her is more than just a world history, it’s a reminder of her family’s painful history.
That conversation got me thinking about history and how painful it can be to read about. Not just because it makes you sad but rather because it’s a glimpse into the past of your lineage, the pain of your people.
I’m not reading a lot about Slavery or The Civil Rights Movement these days. I’m at a place in my life where despite the progress that came out of those eras, the reality of it is still painful at times for me to read about and to imagine. Maybe it’s because I know that my mother was a teenage during the Civil Rights Movement and she’s seen first hand the racism and prejudice of this country. Maybe it’s because my husband is white and when I see images of white men in America beating and abusing black and brown people I can’t help but think that some of them could be ancestors of his. Or maybe it’s a combination of those things and more.
Those thoughts and the conversation with my friend got me thinking about how much of a privilege it is to be able to read about certain big events in history (Slavery, The Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, Apartheid, Japanese Internment) without feeling the pain of it. Sure we all have that privilege in some regard but some of us more than others.
Can you watch movies about slavery without feeling the pain of someone in your lineage and that looks like you being in bondage? Can you read about the holocaust without imagining your great grandparents being herded in to concentration camps like their lives didn’t have value? Can you read about Japanese internment and think “wow that’s awful” but not feel the pain of looking down at your own skin knowing that, despite being an American Citizen, you also would have been seized and removed from your home?
History is painful and I think it’s human nature to imagine how your life would be different if you were born in a different time or era. If I was born 100 years ago my life would be drastically different than it is now, from the occupation I have and the place I live to the person that I’m married to. It all would be different.
For some, no matter how far you go back in history, you would still find yourself and your people in a position of power and of the oppressor not the oppressed. I think that there’s a certain amount of responsibility that comes with that stance in history but maybe it’s naive of me to think that a lineage of colonizing and oppressing others isn’t painful. Is it?
This is a topic that I’m excited to think more about and to have more discussions around. Is it something that you have ever thought about? If so, what are some of the conclusions that you have come to? If it’s not something that you’ve ever considered, what are your initials thoughts now that the topic has been brought up to you?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts around this and continuing the conversation around The Privilege of Painless History.