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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Photo: Margaret Sanger


The Take-Down; Margaret Sanger, My Mother & Me

 

 

I plan to be a mother some day. 'Til then I'm using the Pill.

Planned Parenthood Poster

 

The removal of Margaret Sanger's name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.

                   -Karen Seltzer, CEO Planned Parenthood, New York City

 

 

My mother worked pro bono at least one day a week at the Margaret Sanger clinic in Manhattan in the 1950's and 1960's. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist responsible for exams, pap smears, birth control information, fitting diaphragms and, eventually, artificial inseminations for women unable to become pregnant. The clinic served all women—it was a clinic--and women of all colors, ethnicities, immigrant status, and economic status waited their turn to be seen by the medical staff. I went there as a college student, age 17, for my first diaphragm. I didn't need anyone's permission; I went on my own on a day my mother was not there. My memory is that the clinic had a sliding scale and that I paid $10. I sat in the waiting room feeling proud and free. Then I told my mother I'd been for my first gynecological check-up and she was proud of me.


Margaret Sanger—born in 1897—was already living in Tucson when my mother began to work at the flagship clinic, but occasionally came to visit, introduced herself to the staff, attended a meeting, and disappeared. She was a heroine to my emancipated, European doctor mother whose uncle Arnold, a socialist in the tradition of European Democratic Socialism, was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna. Sanger was also a socialist. She believed, as did my mother, that clinics serving women of all backgrounds are mandated to deliver medical care fairly and indiscriminately. The concept of "concierge" medicine would have horrified my mother, though a privileged upper-middle class lifestyle supported by a private practice, did not horrify her. No person is all one thing. Nor was Margaret Sanger. Layered through her courageous feminist activism are ideas about selective breeding; she was a eugenicist. We cannot revise or erase the words she wrote or spoke over many years. Nor is it enough to say that these ideas were common at the time they were expressed; or that they were heedless. Racist ideas are dangerous. They incite violence; they legitimate genocide. I do not know if my mother or the other workers in the clinic were aware of Sanger's eugenicist ideas or discussed them. As a refugee from genocide, and a trained physician, I doubt my mother would have entertained them in any way, or given them scientific credence.


The decision to change the name of the Manhattan clinic, and to remove a Margaret Sanger street name, arrives amid an unrelenting right-wing campaign against a woman's right to choose and the essential medical services offered by Planned Parenthood. I understand its' necessity at this profound moment of correction in American historical narratives, but removing monuments is always fraught, and this one feels personal to me.

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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.

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The Stallion & The Donkey

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
Once upon a time a black stallion and a donkey lived together in a shed on a horse farm in New Paltz, NY. They lived in perfect harmony with one another, the landscape and their owners. I visited them whenever I walked down Dubois Road, formerly the homestead—twelve generations ago—of Jennifer Dubois Bruntil’s French Huguenot family. I have written about Jennifer’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot,” in a post on May 7 and, since then, have walked the road on Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

The French Huguenots escaped from persecution in France and settled in this magnificent valley in the late 17th century. Despite their own struggles, they became slave owners. Historians at the Huguenot Historic Site (HHS) uncovered a slave register more than a decade ago. It documented what everyone knew: By 1790 there were 302 slaves in New Paltz belonging to 77 families, 13% of the population.

For more information about slavery in the Hudson Valley:

https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/missing-chapter

Currently, there is a controversy on the SUNY campus about removal of Huguenot family names from dormitories—another “monuments” discussion. Decisions are forthcoming in a report that was due in April but has been delayed. Meanwhile, many roads in this town are named after the Huguenot families, including Dubois Road. What will the town do about them, ultimately, I wonder? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a memorial to the slaves who labored here will also be erected. There are many possible solutions. The horse farm has changed hands many times over the centuries, but originally was on the Dubois tract or patent “purchased” from the Esopus tribal sachems. But that is another story.

Echoes of past lives are everywhere here, and so much history that still feels very present, very visible. Devoted New Paltz citizens, descendants of slave-owning families, have inherited some tough history. There is a reckoning now both locally and nationally. I hope it remains civil.

***

I grew up in the city and don’t know anything about horses or donkeys, but I was as captivated by these two gentle creatures living together without discord as I have been by the history of the area. They always came to my call: first the stallion, then the donkey. The stallion was taller than I am, a very large creature indeed. He would broadside his body to the fence, snort a bit, which I took as a greeting, and let me stroke him. I talked to him for a while, he went on his way, and then the donkey arrived. I had never seen a donkey up close before. Those ears and eyes and snout, so adorable. Biblical creatures, they have been used as beasts of burden for 5000 years.

I looked forward to these visits every week and to learning more about the farm, its particular history and its current owners. But this past Saturday, when I returned to the field where the horse and donkey grazed, it was empty, as was the shed. I picked up the newspaper at the end of the driveway and walked to the iron gate. There was algae bloom on the pond, the gate was closed with a bungee cord and the greenhouse was overgrown. This farm, like so many in America, is hurting. I soon learned from the grand-daughter of the owners that it is up for sale and that sadly, inexplicably, the beautiful black stallion has died. It wasn’t the heat; they’d been hosing the animals down all day. No, he had an attack of colic—horses cannot vomit to clear their digestive tract—and the vet could not save him. He was only sixteen, which is young for a horse these days.

The owners are bereft, as am I. Before leaving I walked into another field where the lone donkey was grazing peacefully. I don’t know if he feels the loss of his stallion friend—these are human emotions projected onto our beloved animals—but before I walked away I marveled at the dignity and simplicity of their lives.  Read More 
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