All I Ever Had: Redemption Songs

Jose Vilson Jose

My first real exposure to the atrocities of the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis probably came in elementary school, at a time when most of my teachers were of Jewish descent, and when the Lower East Side still had a strong Jewish population. Thus, I learned more about the Holocaust than any other human tragedy, even more than slavery. That might have been more relevant to the students they taught (most of the students in my class were Black or Latino with a couple of Asians and one White girl). They did the best they could in showing us how terrible slavery was, but I couldn’t blame my teachers for their focus on the Holocaust because their hurt was more immediate, and they could tell us more readily the struggles their family members faced during the Holocaust. Plus, the details are really graphic.

So what’s a young brotha gonna do to find out about parts of his history? I couldn’t turn to bachata songs because they usually reflected the sorrows of a forlorn lover, and merengue just started making obscure references to the female anatomy or a new dance. Hip-hop turned away from the Black nationalist message and more towards gangsterism, at once reflecting the greater oppression of the system and in many ways perpetuating said criminality. So of course, a group of concerned African-American women and men (about 3 of them in all) at the local Boys Club showed me the seminal documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” enticing the 20 of us with cookies and treats to come and watch as people hung, shot, lynched, sprayed, harassed, and discriminated based on the series of features we attest to as race.

Over the next few years, not to discredit any of the  educators, I didn’t hear much about the harsh realities of either harsh reality until senior year, after I hastily charged White people in general of racism and benefiting from slavery. My teacher completely leveled me for that one and made me submit a retraction, essentially. I bit it because I needed to graduate, but it only made me angrier, possibly more bitter, and more inclined to divisive discussions, and maybe more reticent in admitting how my friends of all backgrounds shaped my understanding of the way the world worked.

Fast-forward to today, and I’ve visited 2 Holocaust museums thus far, and both of them made me think thoroughly about the comparisons and contrasts we can make between the Holocaust and the Maafa (African Enslavement). While the Jews who helped raise worldwide awareness of the Holocaust through monuments, museums, and a motto of “forgive but never forget,” the more widespread descendants of the slaves and murder victims of the Maafa across the Americas don’t yield the same reverence.

Is it because of a racial difference, and the expansion of the definition of what it meant to be white in the earlier part of last century? Could it also be the differences in access and prioritizing education between White Jews and descendants of Africans who were enslaved, education the key in solidifying catastrophic events in history? Is it because we can’t directly implicate the United States for reaping benefits from German Jews, but we can most certainly see the legacy of slavery throughout the Americas, and we can hold America responsible for reparations in America? And is it because somewhere between 2 to million 6 million people died in the Holocaust all across Europe but somewhere between 50 to 100 million people died in Africa, and all across the Americas? I assume it’s a strong mixture of all these questions.

Nonetheless, when I walked through the halls of the Holocaust Museum in DC, I never once heard anyone say “get over it,” deriding those who have been affected negatively by that experience. Never once did anyone question whether this Holocaust was true (there are Holocaust doubters out there, but they’re been proven wrong thoroughly). Never once did someone say “Wow, those Jews haven’t done anything since then to contribute to our society.” The same can’t be said for African-Americans in this country. And just as a matter of reference, there are two proposals for actual monument museums dedicated to slavery in the United States, but nothing concrete. Yet, even through African-American history museums, much like the Holocaust museums, we can only get a snippet of the harsh realities of

The one thought that rings true to both of these genocides was that we do need to learn more about them. We can’t pretend to have been there, even with some ill-conceived role-play. Knowing of the tragedy and really trying to understand the point of view of descendants of these tragedies really improves, not hinders, true unity. If these atrocities don’t come to light on an academic and personal level, then we’ll be doomed to another of those again. It’s no wonder why incidents like the Crown Heights Riot keep happening, and why Michael Richards had no problem saying what he said in such a public and caustic way.

Both incidents highlight another reason why it’s important to infuse our curriculum with deeper understanding of the continuing tragedies that occur daily, from the kids murdered in Philadelphia and South Central Los Angeles to the families separated in Baghdad and the Sudan. We’ll never see the end of this until we start to see human life (including our own) as indispensable. The idea of massive collections of bodies lying in a pit isn’t a foreign concept to people that come from these places. Once you turn a blind eye to it, that pit looks awfully bottomless …

jose, who wants you to help him sings, these songs of freedom, ’cause all he’s ever had … redemption songs …