On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi Storm Troopers and German citizens launched a massive attack on Jews throughout Germany and Austria. Mobs burned synagogues, destroyed businesses, ransacked Jewish homes, and brutalized Jewish people. We remember that night as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass. It set the stage for the Holocaust: the murder of six million Jews, leftists, homosexuals, intellectuals and anyone in one way or another perceived to be different. The rest of the world was slow to react, but when it did, the unanimous outcry was “this must never be allowed to happen again.”
We did let it happen again. In Cambodia, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge rounded up great numbers of intellectuals, artists, teachers, and anyone who wore glasses. Victims were uprooted, separated from their communities and forced to labor in the countryside. Eventually two and a half million—between a third and a half of the country’s population—were tortured to death. Today Cambodia is a nation in which every person suffers some degree of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that resulted from that genocide.
In the 1980s, the Dirty Wars of Latin America disappeared 40,000 in Guatemala, 30,000 in Argentina, and many in other countries. Again, the best minds were targeted. Imprisonment, torture, and exile defined decades. Several generations were lost forever.
Fast forward to the United States today. The racist, neo-fascist atmosphere taking hold in the wake of a Black man having been elected president, has spawned a reactionary element fed by Christian fundamentalism and white-first belligerence. War is glorified, the preemptive strike doctrine enshrined. Corporate crime breeds massive economic strife, and the sort of fear that has always favored scapegoating. Bullying and hate crimes are at an all-time high. We need our cultural memories to defend ourselves against these encroachments on our humanity.
A year ago, a conservative-led board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks, aimed at putting slavery in a more positive light. Just this past month, in Tennessee, Tea Party activists proposed to remove from that state’s textbooks every reference to slavery and to this country’s founders having been slave-owners. They want to replace “Trans-Atlantic slave trade” with “Atlantic triangular trade.” The Texas board approved more than 100 amendments affecting social studies, economics and history classes for the state’s 4.8 million students. The Tennessee board threatens a similar erasure of cultural memory.
And now we have our neighbor state, Arizona, where draconian anti-immigration laws have been joined by the elimination of ethnic studies, and a wide range of books have been banned from the schools. Latino and Native American literature, 500 Years of Chicano History, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Howard Zinn, even Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”—with its subplot about Caliban—are no longer deemed appropriate for Arizona students.
Throughout history, this is the memory erasure that paves the way for the physical erasure of peoples.
We are fighting back. Across this country writers, artists, teachers, librarians, the few responsible lawmakers we have left, and ordinary people from all walks of life are protesting Arizona’s flagrant abuses. Our state, your state, could be next. If one group of people is prevented from celebrating its history and culture, it affects us all. None of us is immune.
Margaret Randall is a feminist poet, writer, photographer and social activist. Born in New York City in 1936, she has lived for extended periods in Albuquerque, New York, Seville, Mexico City, Havana, and Managua. Shorter stays in Peru and North Vietnam were also formative. In the turbulent 1960s she co-founded and co-edited EL CORNO EMPLUMADO / THE PLUMED HORN, a bilingual literary journal which for eight years published some of the most dynamic and meaningful writing of an era. From 1984 through 1994 she taught at a number of U.S. universities.
Among Margaret’s more than 80 published books, some titles still in print are CUBAN WOMEN NOW, SANDINO’S DAUGHTERS, SANDINO’S DAUGHTER REVISITED, CHRISTIANS IN THE NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION, RISKING A SOMERSAULT IN THE AIR, THE SHAPE OF RED (with Ruth Hubbard), DANCING WITH THE DOE, THIS IS ABOUT INCEST, WALKING TO THE EDGE: ESSAYS OF RESISTANCE, HUNGER’S TABLE: WOMEN, POLITICS & FOOD, THE PRICE YOU PAY: THE HIDDEN COST OF WOMEN’S RELATIONSHIP TO MONEY, WHEN I LOOK INTO THE MIRROR AND SEE YOU: WOMEN, TERROR & RESISTANCE, NARRATIVE OF POWER: ESSAYS FOR AN ENDANGERED CENTURY, WHERE THEY LEFT YOU FOR DEAD / HALFWAY HOME, INTO ANOTHER TIME: GRAND CANYON REFLECTIONS, STONES WITNESS, TO CHANGE THE WORLD: MY YEARS IN CUBA, THEIR BACKS TO THE SEA and MY TOWN. AS IF THE EMPTY CHAIR / COMO SI LA SILLA VACIA (bilingual poetry, Wings Press) and FIRST LAUGH (essays, University of Nebraska Press) will be out in Spring 2011, RUINS (poems, University of New Mexico Press) and SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE CORNFIELDS (poems, Skylight Press) in Fall, 2011.
In 1984, Margaret came home to the United States, only to be ordered deported when the government invoked the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, judging opinions expressed in some of her books to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.” The Center for Constitutional Rights defended her and many writers and others joined in an almost five-year battle for reinstatement of citizenship. She won her case in 1989. In 1990 she was awarded the Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett grant for writers victimized by political repression; and in 2004 was the first recipient of PEN New Mexico’s Dorothy Doyle Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and Human Rights Activism. In 2009 two of her photographs were accepted into the Capitol Arts Foundation permanent collection of work by New Mexican artists on display at the State capitol.