icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Blog

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Three

The restored north wall of the Abraham Hasbrouck House on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. Note the two cellar windows venting the below-ground kitchen where the slaves worked and slept. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021.

 

Restoration

 

 

This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: "At the time, no one knew what was coming." 

 

        -Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

 

On Inauguration Day 2021 we learned that Seamus Heaney is one of President Biden's favorite poets and that he recited poetry in front of a mirror to tame his stammer. Every inauguration within my memory has featured a poet's perspective, a poet's sensibility, song and dance. In a time deadened by a pandemic, recovering ever so slowly from four years of toxic waste in Washington, pomp, ceremony, ritual and poetry was solace for our aching souls. But now it's over and the restoration of our lives continues in tandem with the restoration of our nation state's democratic first principles. To whit it is now incumbent upon us to look backward into the fault lines of our history—slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy and the genocide of the indigenous tribes—to  understand how we almost lost our democracy.

 

Many historians were not surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. We need only return to the candidacy of Sarah Palin, not very long ago, as described in President Obama's  book, to understand what happened: "Hers was  a biography tailor made for working class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicion that big-city elite—whether in business, politics, or the media—looked down on their way of life," he writes in "A Promised Land," the first volume of his presidential autobiography. It is a fascinating read, a reminder that President Obama thought of himself as a writer long before he went into politics. It's also a plea for continuing historical study, re-interpretation of that history, vigilance in the present, and activism.

 

***

 

At a webinar at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY this week, I heard the now standard disclaimer—which also appears on their website—about living on Munsee Lenape land: Historic Huguenot Street acknowledges that it is located on lands of indigenous peoples. These lands have been home to Esopus Munsee people for thousands of years, and are still culturally significant to Native Nations today. This disclaimer was amplified with a reference by Kara Augustine, the Director of Public Programming, to the enslaved laborers in the Huguenot settlement, four of whom lived in the 1760 Abraham Hasbrouck House, which is undergoing extensive restoration, a now twenty-year project paid for by the extant Hasbrouck family. Like other Huguenot descendants, they have a Family Association. Though their historical roots in France are modest, and they were persecuted and massacred as Protestants in a Catholic country, by 1760 the settlers were already wealthy and prominent. Their property ledgers included slaves. Centuries later they have what seems to be a fabricated coat of arms, an emblem of status we associate more with the Old World than the New.  

 

"Museums are fundamentally conservative," Kate Eagen Johnson, a history consultant, told us at the webinar. She specializes in material artifacts, all of which tell a story. She investigates, reconstructs, sometimes commissions replicas. All such restoration is a very long process requiring patience, she says. "The past is past and they [the museums that hire her] want it to stay that way." She went on to explain that the slaves, who lived in the cellar kitchens, were referred to as "the kitchen family," a historic euphemism, best abandoned in this era of racial justice reckoning.

 

Neil Larson, an architectural historian well known in Ulster County for the documentation and restoration of stone houses, revealed that the doors leading from the main house to the kitchen cellars were often kept locked. "Much that is said about how humanely white families treated their slaves, there still was a need for security…Kitchens were a space of isolation." Slave uprisings and slave runaways were feared by the enslavers for good reason; there were many precedents—in  Haiti, in Jamaica, in New York City in 1741. Indeed, enslavers trembled in the shadow of their self-inflicted turpitude.

 

We must ask: Is the Abraham Hasbrouck house being restored, renovated, stripped down to its essence, or re-examined and re-interpreted? Perhaps all of the above. How shall we consider the lives of those who lived and died there when it is reopened to the public? What words will the tour guides use to explain the lives of the Hasbrouck household in 1760? How will the signage change to reflect the re-interpretation?

 

Descendants of the enslaved population in New Paltz are hard to find and therefore cannot participate in this discussion. Before emancipation they were thrown into an unmarked pit, now known as the "African American Burial Ground," on the edge of town.  (See my blog post, "Chattel," of October 26, 2020).  After emancipation, a small settlement, including a church, formed south of New Paltz, some residents buried in the segregated cemetery nearby. At least the graves there were marked. But most former slaves fled New Paltz in search of work and more welcoming communities. Who could blame them?

Be the first to comment

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.

8 Comments
Post a comment

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Five

 
Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2020  

 

Restorative Justice in One Small Town

 

 

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable…The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chYapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. 

 

                      -Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Between the World and Me"

 

 

You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure, for a poet remembers.

                           

-Czeslaw Milosz

 

We had been in Vienna for several days—my mother, my daughter and I—when we finally found the Monument Against War and Fascism, unveiled by the Austrian government on November 24, 1988. Its German title is somewhat different: Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus. Mahnmal means warning or reminder. Its central image is of an old Jew crouching down on his hands and knees scrubbing stones, a memory my mother held in her sympathetic nervous system every day of her survivor's life. Her mother, my grandmother, Nanette, had been forced onto her hands and knees on her way home from work just days after the German invasion. She had survived that ordeal, only to be murdered in Auschwitz together with most of our family. That death camp is the only monument that means anything to me, but I was curious how the Austrians, who had come late to redress, conceptualized a monument against Faschismus and murder.


A sign, hidden behind some bushes too far away from the sculpture for most people to notice reads, in German: The first to fall victim to the Nazi regime were political opponents and Jews. After 12 March 1938, many Jews were forced out of their homes and into the streets to clean away political slogans. The figure of the kneeling Jew is to remind us of these acts of humiliation.

 

This "act of humiliation," a euphemism, was the first overt violent action by the Nazis in the reign of terror; it escalated quickly to genocide.


Signage is important, and I wondered why this one had not been updated to reflect changes in Austria's moral compass as a member of a socially conscious EU. Perhaps the insular Austrian bureaucrats still imagine that they were victims rather than willing perpetrators.


The front of the square is bordered by the "Gates of Violence," carved from the granite that thousands of prisoners carried over the "stairs of death" at the Mauthausen death camp. And there are other stones here, too, smaller stones visitors have placed on the old Jew's back, an iconic stereotype embedded in European history.


It was summer and there were travelers from all over the world gathering around the monument, but no Austrians. We were outliers, visitors from another dimension. I'd read somewhere that late at night punks and runaways sit on the old Jew's back. I didn't dare return to witness this desecration, but the next morning I called Dr. Bernhard Denscher, at the time Head of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Vienna. "In my opinion this work of art should be more than just a tourist sight," he told me in perfect English. "It should provide food for thought and incite the beholder to pause and linger." My thought exactly.


This story came back to me this morning as I took my walk along Huguenot St. in New Paltz, NY: the sign at the African American burial ground has been repainted. It is now brighter and more noticeable. It sits in front of a "monument" of stone, a bench with a thick iron chain at its base. The bench has been there a while, now the sign stands in high relief, the story of enslavement by the Huguenot, English and Dutch settlers in New Paltz crushed into a small space, there for all to read and ponder, and for the descendants of slaves to visit as a sacred space. My only quibble is that the word "founded" was not changed as the land we live on was inhabited by the Lenape Nation before the settlers arrived, and was stolen from them.


Still, it's an important renewal, one that reflects the national discourse about monuments, Black Lives Matter, and the cultural changes we are navigating amid the horrific pandemic. I wish all my fellow citizens—here in this small town, and throughout the United States—continuing fortitude and an open heart during the painful but essential reckoning with our past.

Be the first to comment

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty

 
Photo: © copyright John Dominis 1968

 

 Risk vs Reward

 

 

Pay attention to what other people are saying, not just with your ears,

but with your heart.

Maxine Hong Kingston, talking to Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, 6/8/2020

 

 

 

My daughter and son-in-law joined a protest in Kingston, NY the other day. Like any over-protective mom—even of full-grown, competent, deep-thinking adults, I might add—I tried to dissuade them. No luck. So off they went with their signs and their masks and their determination to participate in what is, most certainly, a watershed moment in American history. I started to pay attention to their decision, not just with my ears and heart, but with my years of experience as an activist. In truth, I was proud of them, and grateful that they could march and chant for all those who could not march. Risky during COVID, certainly, and not to be underestimated, which is why Governor Cuomo asked that all protesters get tested. (We'll know in a couple of weeks if there has been a spike.) Risky, too, when the military exuberance of the local police force is an unknown. Fortunately, it was a peaceful protest, no tear gas or rubber bullets, no violence.


Images of fists in the air, the black power salute—now adopted by Black Lives Matter—brings back memories. This gesture of resistance has a history that dates to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium to collect their medals. They raised their fists as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played—from beginning to end. "Black America will understand what we did tonight," Tommie Smith said to reporters. But what about the rest of America? Both men received death threats.


I was a student teacher in Oakland, CA assigned to an 11th grade American History class during that violent time in America. English was my major, American History my minor; I wanted to teach both. In this streamed school, I had the "C" stream, the bottom rung of the disaffected, brutalized children of the Oakland ghetto. Half the students in my class were Black Panthers, the other half Black Muslims, a third were on-and-off truants, if those numbers add up. I was a white Jewish girl from New York wearing a brown tailored suit to bolster my courage. My "supervising" teacher abandoned me after the first day because he was annoyed that UC Berkeley would send a person such as myself to teach at Oakland Technical High School. He could hardly look me in the eye when he spoke, and he wasn't eager to speak to me. Maybe he didn't like outspoken Jewish girls from New York, or maybe he didn't want to take responsibility for my demise.


Oddly, I wasn't afraid. The Panthers were revolutionaries, they carried guns and had shoot-outs with the police, but they also worked social welfare beats—food banks, free health clinics, and Black Pride schools. The kids in my class were their kids. I wasn't much more than a kid myself.


I had already faced down danger at Julia Richman High School on the day I was beaten up and learned about race in America. I had survived without rancor or a desire for pay-back. I'd started educating myself since then and joined many protests on the volatile Berkeley campus. I could take anything, I told myself. The civil rights struggle then, as now, was an imperative. We were all in motion, evolving. I wasn't a revolutionary, but I was dedicated to change, raising awareness, and shredding injustice.


And, so, I opened my heart to that class, waking at 4 a.m. to prep, and making decisions on my own about curriculum. I threw out the textbooks and asked the students to create their own timeline of American history based on their family's lived experience—in the south, in the north, in Oakland. What they didn't know, I assigned as research, aka homework. I taught them how to interview their elders, told them they were reporters, witnesses. They were perplexed at first, but eventually they understood. They came back with tough and heroic stories that challenged the mythology of the accepted American story at that time.


I moved the desks into a circle, seminar style. Students walking the halls peered in and stood in the doorway, a few entered and sat down and listened. They might have been truants, I didn't care. Looking back, I can't believe I did this, had the strength to do it, and that I never felt threatened. I finished up the term, gave out good grades to everyone who had stuck with it, finished up my classes on campus, and was rewarded with a California State Teaching License-Secondary "for Life," with the seal of the State of California at the bottom.


Risk and reward. It's like a dance, a push pull. If we don't take risks, our emotions contract and atrophy. The young men and women at Oakland Technical High School—I'll never forget them. My heart swells at the thought of them. We made progress together. We trusted each other.



1 Comments
Post a comment

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Nineteen

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

 

My Mother's Lambskin Coat

 

 

There's trouble on the mountain

The valley's full of smoke

There's crying on the mountain

And again the same heart broke

 

-Johnny Cash

 

 

Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives.

 

"Tears We Cannot Stop; A Sermon to White America"  

 

-Michael Eric Dyson

 

 

 

I passed a sheep farm on my walk this morning. Two lambs were outside the fence scratching to get back in, their mothers and siblings bleating and desperate, though that's a human word. There were no humans in sight. I walked further along and hollered to some kids riding their bikes on a driveway, then spoke to their dad who came bolting out of the house with his mask on. He said he'd call the owner right away, then ended up driving past me to the owner's house because he couldn't get him on the phone, then stopped on his way back and we said goodbye. All of which is to say: it felt good to rescue these lambs even though I'm aware they are possibly being raised for slaughter, not just for their wool, and it felt good to slip the mask down to my neck to talk to another human being, a neighbor, and to be able to thank him at a distance. If life isn't exactly normal, we are at least enjoying some micro-connections now, out of doors and at a distance.

 

But it's been a hard week and as I got closer to the sheep and their lambs I remembered my mother's lambskin coat. Why did she buy this coat? What did it signify if not a refugee's "arrival," newfound privilege, warmth and safety, status. And though I had my personal struggles as a child of divorce, and a child of the Holocaust, my childhood was mostly privileged, and it was white. I would not collapse on the church steps in the summer, homeless and hungry, this would not have been my fate.

 

It seems as though many friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances are making politically correct confessions these days, and I have resisted making mine, but the memories have come tumbling as the fires burn, so I decided to write a blog post about them after all. I remember that coat and I remember my friend Rochelle, whose mother took a risk and sent her to elementary school below the interface, the invisible line that separated Harlem from White New York. Somehow she'd gotten special out of zone permission for her beloved daughter. And my mother knew Rochelle's mother, maybe from the Planned Parenthood clinic where they both worked—my mother a doctor, Rochelle's mother a nurse, and somehow Rochelle became the only black child in my elementary school. What did that feel like? How did she navigate being just one?

 

I knew nothing of de facto segregation, or the struggles of Rochelle's middle-class, educated family in a de facto segregated city, or the despair of the underclass, or that most of the underclass at the time was black. But it does make a difference, a real difference, when children go to integrated schools and make all kinds of friends, and play with each other and love one another. We know this from many reputable studies. And it made a difference to me, and still does. I've remembered Rochelle all these years, and why it was best not to ask why she could visit me, but I could not visit her on the other side of the interface.

 

My family moved to the East Side to get away from the Puerto Rican migration which in itself is a story of privilege. My mother's had an office in our home and her white, privileged patients refused to walk the side streets to West End Avenue as they could not by-pass these immigrants who were boisterous, gregarious, chattering away in Spanish, sitting on their front stoops, the "strange" odors of their kitchens cascading onto the street in the warm weather. And on the East Side, I was placed in a segregated section of a public Junior High School called "special progress," SP for short. 7SP and 9SP; there was no 8th grade, we skipped the 8th grade. How did this happen and why? Where were the darker-skinned children?

 

We met them in the lunch room, we met them at recess, we watched as they boarded buses to be taken further uptown, and we went home to our well-appointed apartments in White New York. This was called "busing." Us and them.

 

High School was even worse. My parents didn't understand the "system," and they didn't have money to send me to private school, so I went to Julia Richman High School, was placed in a segregated "Country School," and was beaten badly by a group of black girls in the gym locker room. And though I was terrified, or perhaps because I was terrified, I refused to point them out to the powers that be and told my parents to let it all go, just to let it go. Within months, they got me a scholarship and moved me to a private school where I was out of place and disheartened in ways I could not, as yet, understand. It wasn't the suburbs, but it was white flight nonetheless. And it was there, in a Social Science seminar, that I learned that something significant had happened that would shape me and my life's work. I was imprinted with outrage, not at the girls who had deliberately targeted and hurt me, but at the legacy of one of America's two original sins: the genocide of the Indigenous People and the slower-moving genocide of enslavement, Jim Crow, lynchings, chain gangs, mass incarceration.

 

Years later, we chose a private school for our daughter—Manhattan Country School—that was founded by people who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. It had a sliding scale of tuition and a deliberate, carefully architected policy of ethnic/racial quotas. A documentary filmmaker dubbed it "The Little Utopia," which was sustainable within its walls, and at least for the time that our daughter was there. But by 8th grade, when she entered public school, it was all over. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, a terrific school in many ways, was disappointingly socially self-segregated. Still, I suppose we have to be grateful that talented kids from all over the city—rich and poor, black, white and brown--passed the audition and got to go there, and make their art together in the studios, and celebrated their achievements together, and then graduated together.

 

And I remember our daughter's African American boyfriend whose father worked for the court system. He arranged for him to carry a badge in his wallet as protection. But how would this protect him if he got stopped? Our daughter traveled with him everywhere and then lived with him in an apartment in our building. I was on the board at the time and received a phone call that a strange black man was in the laundry room. Sound familiar?

 

And there are more memories, but I will stop there, and conclude with this thought: the toxic weed of racism must be pulled out at its roots, and muscular models of restorative justice energized, if our democracy is to rebound and flourish.

 

 

 

Be the first to comment