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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-One

The Memorial Bench by Craig Shankles, a Huguenot St. resident and professional sculptor. He researched the history of enslavement in New Paltz and was horrified. "I wanted to do the right thing," he told me. The bench was his first memorial.   http://www.stoneandsteeldesigns.com/
Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2020

 

 

Chattel

 

One in five New Yorkers was a slave…They dug the roads, and their own graves at the Negro Burying Ground.

                 

                 -Jill Lepore, "These Truths; A History of the United States"

 

 

I had thought I would write about voting today, the turning up and turning out, the waiting on lines the first day of early voting, the patience, the conversations, the determination despite the persistent dangers of the pandemic, a celebration of hard-earned universal suffrage. But after returning home from a commemoration at the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, I felt sad rather than elated, or sad and elated. Elated by the texts I was receiving about casting a ballot, sad as I walked down Huguenot St. after the event. We had stood near—or  on—a field of bones and ash, no more than a burial pit, covered by a verdant lawn, a tarmac road, houses, cars driving by too fast, bikers, peak weekend. It was not a comfortable sensation standing in proximity to abandoned unmarked graves except for a sign and a concrete memorial bench with a thick, broken metal chain, that was placed there twenty-years ago when a racism study group commissioned the work. The stone memorial bench has stopped me cold many times; it is a powerful image. I thought of my grandfather's grave in Vienna, which all through World War II  had been a mound without a stone, or even a wooden marker. My grandfather, who died before the round-up, was spared the cattle car, the enslavement in the death camp before the killing, and then the killing itself, all family connection obliterated in that not so long ago genocide.

 

The survivors of once large, extended Jewish families—including my own—are  forever scattered in a diaspora, not unlike the African slaves brought as chattel to the New World. Reparations for the latter are overdue. Families riven, and then reconstituted, or newly assembled, families without inherited well-tended burial plots, or inherited wealth, their ancestors thrown asunder into the ground, bones and viscera commingling.

 

The burial ground on Huguenot street has never  been excavated. Should it be now? Would it matter? How would descendants of the slaves feel if they had a voice in these commemorative decisions in a town settled by Dutch, English, and French Huguenot slave-owners?  What would they say? How would they want their ancestors who labored and suffered here remembered? Is the commemoration for them, for the descendants of the slave owners, many of whom still live in New Paltz, or for everyone? 

 

Though New Paltz is a very white town--a story in itself-- thoughtful restorative justice initiatives continue, with more projects underway. The elliptical, mythic, false American narrative is shifting.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, and later knelt, during the anthem, before his team's 2016 preseason games. Since then "taking a knee" has become an emblem of resistance and protest for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and a controversial gesture of solidarity by police officers. This photo was taken by Roy Ramos, a reporter for WPLG in Coral Gables, FL.

 

 

A Police Officer Takes a Knee

 

 

Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.

 

― Homer, The Iliad

 

 

I was driving a back road in this season of falling leaves on the way to my dentist, the radio silenced, and no other cars in sight, when I remembered an undercover New York City Transit policeman, the boyfriend of an acquaintance, a caring individual. I wondered whether he'd retired, or was working the frontlines in the pandemic. I imagined him confronting protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and suddenly "taking a knee" in the gesture of solidarity many police officers have made in recent months. He would have been capable of that brave gesture.

 

Memory spurts are unpredictable and unwieldy. What triggered this? I haven't been in touch with this guy for many years, but the image of the bulge in the small of his back as we walked the streets to a restaurant in our neighborhood one warm, spring Sunday afternoon has stayed with me. I had never noticed it before. As we stopped at a light, I couldn't resist asking if he was packing.  "Yes," he said sotto voce. Neither his girlfriend, nor my husband, had heard the question, and no one except for me seemed interested in his answer once we were seated at a table and I started my interrogation. That simple "yes" wasn't enough for me:

 

"Why carry when you are off duty?"  I asked.

 

"Because there are predators everywhere," he said.

 

 I looked around the restaurant.

 

"I don't see any," I said.

 

"That doesn't mean they are not there."

 

"Have you ever fired your weapon?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Have you ever killed anyone?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Did you feel remorse?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Have you had nightmares after discharging your gun?"

 

"Yes."

 

 

So maybe the trip to the dentist was the trigger. He's an excellent dentist, an artisanal dentist, and I am grateful to have found him. But his banter as he's working on my mouth is often politically far right of my center and all of it feels dissonant and unexpected. Of course, mouth open wide, there is no way I can respond, and I always want to respond. Did he say that the socialists will be looking for trouble as the election looms? Has he ever met any socialists he considers troublemakers? Have I? And so on.

 

Often, we meet people who confound us, whose background and working life is so different from our own that we struggle to find a place to meet, metaphorically speaking. And, so it was, with the transit cop. And, by the way, he referred to himself as a cop, so I will use that shortcut here even though I know that we were, at times, speaking a different language. "You see predators?" I asked him more than once that day. "I see ordinary people enjoying their Sunday afternoon. I see the bulge under your sweater in the small of your back. I worry a stray bullet may kill me or a bystander."

 

He was uncomfortable with my questions, and looked as if he was going to cry. He was afflicted, troubled. What he felt—in his heart—and what he had been taught to see and do were not in concert much of the time.

 

My recollections went into double loops as I was driving. I remembered an Iraq vet I had interviewed. He was from a modest background, and he'd been looking forward to completing his education after his commitment ended. But PTSD had wrecked his plans. He, too, was a sweet-natured guy who had been taught to kill, and he was tormented. The nightmares wouldn't stop.

 

The police officers in our towns and cities who have been issued military-grade weaponry and riot gear train to target "the enemy." They are no longer protectors, they are enforcers, soldiers. Police reform must start there, with the men and women in police departments across the country who have aspirations, religious principles, families, neighbors, pot-luck dinners, kids who go to school during the pandemic, elders who are isolated. They live among us. They are us. When they dare to take a knee at a protest, they become part of the community again, they become whole.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Nine

The first issue of the Wonder Woman series released on January 1, 1942. 

WOMEN

 

 

Wonder Woman left Paradise Island to fight fascism with feminism.

 

― Jill Lepore, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman"

 

 

 

I have followed Jill Lepore's career since she began writing for The New Yorker in 2005. I read her book, New York Burning, about a 1741 slave uprising in New York as I researched enslavement in New York City for a novella I was writing. I am now reading These Truths: A History of the United States published in 2018, written before Trump's regime was in place, but before the pandemic. Yesterday, I listened to Professor Lepore talk about the pandemic—and much else— in a City Arts Lecture podcast. It was delightful and informative. Did you know, dear reader, that she wrote an essay about breast feeding? (I missed that one but will look it up.) A professor of history at Harvard, she is a non-academic academic. She doesn't hold history at arms-length, or pontificate, or instruct; she is not ideological. She follows her curiosity into a subject and never loses her personal voice or point of view, and she is unapologetic about her point of view. "The work of the historian," she says in These Truths, "is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth." Engage her in informed conversation, but please don't interrupt her, slow her down, or try to assassinate her. She will not be silenced.

 

I minored in American History when I was in college, and except for Hannah Arendt, who was a political scientist, not a historian, rarely encountered a female academic of note—not in the classroom and not in books. Sadly, there are still more men than women on my history bookshelf though there are plenty of women biographers. And then there is Jill Lepore. Her preeminence is fitting as we are about to elect the first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris –say her name. The thrill of this historic occasion is amplified by the Senator's ancestry. Not only a woman, but a woman of color. I may not agree with all her policy positions—fracking, for example—but I'll swallow that for now as we celebrate this accomplished woman's ascendance.

 

Any beginning in a particular historical narrative, says Lepore, also has an end. It's important to remember that, not to lose hope. The story of Trump's mis-election and removal from office will be documented and analyzed until it becomes the past, and we move on.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

A Remarkable Person

 

 

Valerie Pepe has just published her second book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life Continues," a sequel to her first book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life."  I report this to you with admiration, even a bit of pride, as I've been Valerie's mentor and editor for a long time. She is one of the most disciplined writers and devoted students of writing I have ever had.

 

Unlike most of us struggling with the restrictions of COVID, Valerie has been navigating obstacles since she was able to walk on her own. Born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), a rare congenital birth defect, she ambulates on crutches. The built world is not made for individuals with disabilities, Valerie always reminds me as she describes falling or tripping or waiting endlessly for paratransit to pick her up in the bitter cold. It's not easy to get around? Dear reader, that is an understatement. There have been infrastructure improvements since the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, but not enough.

 

I cannot remember the year I first met Valerie, even though that meeting was memorable. She was at the bottom of the staircase in a non-accessible satellite NYU location and she was incensed. She had signed up for my writing creative nonfiction class and, no, she did not want to take a class in another building that was accessible and they—the security—had better accommodate her and get her upstairs to Carol Bergman's class. I was already at the top of the stairs, heard the exchange—I think everyone in the building heard the exchange—and I rushed back down to amplify her request. It was unnecessary. Two security guards and a student were already on the case.

 

For all these years, until I moved out of the city, Valerie and I exchanged manuscript by email and then met at the Hollywood Diner on 16th Street & Sixth Avenue for our F2F editorial sessions. We always sat in the same booth on the South Side. I would usually order tea, maybe some soup, and she would usually order eggs and fries. She'd had a long workday at the New York City Housing Authority, and she was starved. Not to mention the calories she'd used up getting on and off the bus and walking two blocks from the stop to the diner.

 

"How many bags are you carrying today, Valerie?" I'd ask before even saying hello. We'd laugh  about our mutual bag affliction, and then I'd unpack myself and my bags, we'd order, and get to work.

 

There should be a plaque for Valerie outside this diner. The owner and the staff know her well. She started going there on 9/11 when her colleagues walked with her up Sixth Avenue from the NYCHA building and collapsed into the booths. She's been coming back here ever since, writing in her journal for hours, working on her drafts, and meeting me.

 

When Valerie lost her beloved father in October 2019, and her Aunt Theresa to COVID ,  I wrote to say, "The new book will wait." But instead of waiting, Valerie became even more determined, and more purposeful; she folded these primal losses into the last chapters of the book. She was writing for her father, her aunt, her wonderful mother, her best friend, Eunjoo, her boyfriend, Fernando, and everyone born with AMC, she said. Nothing, not COVID, not death in the family, would stop her.

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