History of Me, Part 2: When Germans Met Romans

In this episode of History of Me, we take a peek at the earliest recorded accounts of “Germans” and their interactions with the Roman Empire. Intrigued? Let’s dive in

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Meet the Germani…

For this section I started off by reading the introduction and first chapter of Steve Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German Peoplefollowed by Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

Scene: It’s the first century BC. Caesar invades France (then known as Gaul) but mostly leaves the Germanic tribes to themselves, relying on intimidation to keep relative peace. Later after he dies Caesar Augustus (the next emperor) starts to look across the de facto border of the Rhine River toward the land occupied by “barbarians,” aka the yet unconquered Germanic tribes. A small conflict born out of misunderstanding gave Rome an excuse to invade; during the ensuing conflicts a Germanic force led by a Roman-trained Germanic commander called Arminius defeated an army of Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (also translated as the Teutoburg Pass).

I won’t talk much more about the battle in this post, but tuck Arminius’s name away for later. Both Fortress and Forest mentioned how the story of Arminius’s victory over Rome was rediscovered centuries later and became a focus point for German unification and nationalism. So I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.

As I read through the account of the battle and the history surrounding it, I loved learning more about the tribes that lived in present-day Germany/Europe before it was actually called Germany. Fun fact: just like we now call the tribes of this continent “Indians” or “Native Americans,” Romans (outside colonizers) were the first ones to call the tribes in this part of Europe “Germans” (Germani). (NOTE: There is much disagreement about where this name comes from, so the meaning is uncertain.)

A map of some of the tribes that made up “Germania” around the turn of the calendar (100 BC – 300 AD ish)

Steven Ozment notes that “at this time [ca. 100-0 BC] the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, ‘loose and shifting amalgams of peoples,’ who formed no coherent Germanic front” (p.17). I also found it interesting that of the tribes who had strong identities at this point, some like “the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths” (p.17). This actually shows the connection between the ancestral/mythical stories of the previous post and the Germanic tribes recorded here. Like many other peoples, Germanic tribes and leaders found ways to connect their stories to the lineage of the gods by making the gods their ancestors.

The Empire’s bargain…

Even more than the battle, though, the really compelling thing for me about these stories was reading about how the Roman Empire functioned.

Both Fortress and Forest went to great lengths to set the scene and describe what it was like to be a barbarian tribe (or just a barbarian) in the world of Rome. Here are some illustrative passages:

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays [across the Rhine] and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. … Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. (Ozment p.19, emphasis added)

The Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world… (Ozment p.20, emphasis added)

Rome promoted leading tribal leaders within Rome’s imperial aristocracy. By recognizing certain chiefs as allies, barbarians were flattered into becoming emissaries for the Roman way of life. It was a practice that first bound them to Rome, then made them dependent on her. (Forest p. 79, emphasis added)

Basically, the Romans came in with their giant empire and their power and their wealth and their military organization and offered tribes (or at least, tribal leaders) a bargain. If they pledged loyalty to Rome, and adopted Roman culture and Roman religion (aka emperor-worship – Romans connected themselves to their gods, too), they would receive power and wealth and move up in Roman society. (And of course, there’s the elephant in the room of “or else.”)

The problem, of course, was that even if they gave up everything that made them “Germanic”, there was only so far they could advance in Roman society. Even Germans or other barbarians who climbed high enough to achieve Roman citizenship still faced barriers:

Citizenship gave affiliated tribes the same legal protections and rights as native-born Italians. Yet, despite acculturation and success, Romanized barbarians, whether Africans, Germans, or Jews, could still find themselves treated as inferiors in the imperial city. That was especially true of the first generation to undergo assimilation. And while the Roman senate looked on tribal elites as occupying the same high position in native societies that senators held in Rome, there was no thought of parity between Roman and barbarian…. While social acceptance might come after full Latin fluency and the fading of native languages and customs, the transplanted barbarian was often, in the Roman perception, a “hyphenated” Roman…. (Ozment p.24)

So cooperating Germanic tribes/leaders gave up their culture, their community, their traditions, their languages, and sometimes their homes — all for a chance to play a game that they couldn’t win, because Romans would always be superior – but at least they got a piece of the pie, and could hope that their less-German, more-Roman children could climb higher than they.

Sound at all familiar? I thought it did, when I heard Pastor Ebony Adedayo, one of the pastors at my church, preaching last Sunday about how white supremacy was created in this country by dividing poor whites from poor/enslaved blacks:

Forsaking language, culture, and history, the newly created white race exchanged its identity for a baseless lie. And the only thing that remained was the lie, or rather the notion that whites were superior to everyone else. In order to preserve that lie, people, politicians, people in high places have gone to great lengths to dehumanize themselves to the extent that it is extremely daunting task to find our way out of it. Not impossible, but daunting.

(You can listen to the full sermon here. Highly recommended!)

Reading all this about the Romans coming to Germania was super eerie for me, because if I change the nouns it morphs into the history of this country — first what was imposed on indigenous tribes here, and then what was also enforced on later immigrants. Give up your tribal/cultural identity in exchange for power and/or survival. Be held back by your “hyphenated” status — until, for my ancestors, their light skin and distance from their “ethnic” past enabled their children to dissolve into whiteness. Or, as the author of Teutoburg Forest puts it: intimidate, conquer, assimilate.

A note about forests versus farms…

When faced with Roman threats (or enticements) of “assimilate or else”, some tribes resisted. Some were conquered. The significance of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest is that it, along with several other battles over the following years, sufficiently delayed the Romans so that their empire and army was too far-flung to fully conquer Germany. They ended up pretty much keeping to the west/south of the Rhine River, and while the tribes to the north/east did trade and integrate with Romans, they were never forcibly conquered. (And in fact later, Germanic tribes ended up overrunning and taking over much of the Roman Empire… but I’m guessing that’s for another post!)

Notice the dotted line — Rome never extended beyond the Rhine into Germania.

But one of the significant downstream effects of this Rhine border being held is that it reinforced the existing regional differences in Europe/Germany:

The battle also reinforced another effect, one less tangible, but one that has had a profound psychological and social impact on Europe and is still being felt today. It confirmed the fault-line between north and south. History could now be used to back up long-held prejudices. [As one historian wrote:] “The slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest divided Europe into the warm south, who forever saw forests as dreadful places to be avoided and cleared, homes to dragons and trolls, antitheses of the civilized city, and the north, who understood [forests] to be healing, protecting, mystical, spiritual places. How you feel about a silent birch forest at twilight says more about your blood and your kin than your passport. (Forest p.7)

We can see how this lays the groundwork for the process of Christianity later sweeping through the wealthier urban centers in the south and pushing Norse stories and traditions north, to the outskirts and the forests, where Snorri Sturleson finally wrote them down a thousand years later in the Edda. I’m interested to keep an eye out now for farm vs. forest and that north/south dynamic as we continue through this project.

Conclusion

I didn’t really expect things to get emotional this quickly, but it was actually really hard for me to read the parts about the tribes taking the Roman bargain, becoming co-opted into the empire, and giving up their ways in exchange for power, money, and influence. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “No, don’t do it! You don’t know what it’s like to be rootless, without traditions or stories!” But of course, that was 2000 years ago, and now I just have to deal with the choices they made.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they had much of a choice. (Though I’m sure some were more eager to sell out for influence than others.) Given the threat of Rome, I might have made the same decision in their place. Survival is primal, instinctual. But knowing they probably tried to make the best choice they could doesn’t take away my sadness that they took the first step toward losing something beautiful that I wish I could have back.

This, to me, is why Empire (which we talk about a lot at our church) is a perfect analogy for much that is wrong with the world and with how humans treat one another. Rome started this power-grabbing bargain on a large scale millennia ago — they figured out how to systematize power-mongering with their never-ending war-to-captive-to-citizen machine — and it’s kept going and going ever since, and we’re still doing it today. Personal advancement trumps the community. The power game has never stopped.

Anyway, this section has really felt to me like peering into a mirror or a pool and watching a past mistake. (“Noooo Isildor, throw the Ring into the fire!!!”) I know I have some grief and probably even some anger about it. But I’m still glad to have read it, because as Pastor Ebony says, it’s daunting to find a way out – but not impossible. Looking forward to continuing my search.

Tune in next time for a look at the coming of Christianity and The Barbarian Conversion (as well as Mists of Avalon for a fictionalized perspective). 

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Interlude: What Counts as “German”?

Hi folks!

After reading my last post about Norse mythology, my husband said “Norse? That’s like Scandinavian, right? But I thought you were German!” So I wanted to post a brief explanation about that question and talk about how I’ve chosen to approach the issue of what to include in my “German” reading project.

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Bad News: No “German” Myths

The reason I chose to read about Norse mythology for this project is that, well, there really isn’t much specifically “German” mythology left — that’s the bad news.

The main reason is that Christianity took root in some places (including most of what is now Germany) before the local stories and beliefs could be written down. H. R. Ellis Davidson fills us in:

By the time the great nations emerged, and men thought of Anglo-Saxon England or Merovingian France as established powers, most of the Germanic peoples had given up their heathen beliefs and adopted Christianity.

… In Scandinavia the new Church was much longer gaining a foothold. Not until the tenth and eleventh centuries were the people of Norway converted….

Thus we see why we can learn comparatively little about the heathen myths from England and Germany, where Christianity was established early. We have to turn for information to Scandinavia, where a vigorous heathen population flourished for centuries after Augustine sailed for Kent…. (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p.11-12)

So by about 1000 AD, most of Europe was converted to Christianity, other than a few scattered pockets. (I’ll read more about that process later.) Around 200 years after that, Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar who wanted to preserve the great poetic tradition of the scaldic (Norse) storytellers before it was wiped out, wrote The Prose Edda, which is the most complete compendium of these stories that we have today. So European indigenous beliefs’ most complete surviving iteration is Norse, because they were in Iceland when they were finally written down.

The Good News: It’s All Norse to Me

The good news in terms of my reading project is that Germanic mythology, based on what we know of it, was similar to and interwoven with Norse mythology. As I mentioned in my last post, Odin was called Wodan in the Germanic tradition. So when we read Norse myths, we’re really reading versions of German/Germanic myths.

Picture this as a comparison: imagine Greek and Roman mythology as we know it today — except that Greek folks never wrote their stories down, but Romans did. What would we still know today? Probably we would refer to all the gods by their Roman names, and while a few Greek names would be known, the most complete version of the pantheon would be Roman. BUT, a lot of the elements would still be the same. That’s basically the state of German mythology — gone before being recorded, but preserved in a “cousin” Norse form by an Icelandic historian.

So, What Does This Mean?

I hope this helps to cast a little more light on the challenge of “rediscovering” ancient German/Germanic culture and story. But honestly, though it may seem a little contrived to put all these seemingly disparate pieces together, I think it’s more authentic this way. Because ancient “Germans” didn’t live in a vacuum of only German folks — they interacted and intermarried with people around them. Norse mythology isn’t tied up in a neat little package — it’s messy. Different gods and goddesses evolve and mesh into each other. Stories change or contradict each other. Elements get borrowed from neighbors (such as a Norse myth featuring a huge cauldron, which is a common symbol in the mythology of the Celts across the sea in what is now Britain).

The point is, I’ve done my best to assemble things that help me imagine and connect with what we know about the stories of ancient Europeans. If I can’t find something about people who lived in my ancestors’ specific birthplaces, that’s okay — because the idea is to begin to understand the mindset, the spirit, and the connection to the land, not get every exact detail right. Even hearing creation stories from my Anishinaabe and Dakota relatives helps me begin to learn these things — and that’s not even the same continent! — so I can certainly learn important lessons from some Swedes and Celts. 🙂

Anyway, I hope this helps to lay out some more of my thought process as I look back in time and space. I’ll be reading some more Scandinavian books, as well as at least one book based in Celtic story, so we will have plenty of opportunities to practice putting the pieces together to better understand the stories of ancient Germanic peoples.

 

History of Me, Part 1: A Journey through the Nine Worlds of Norse Myth

In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Opening the Word-Hoard*

Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:

  • First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
  • Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
  • I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
  • I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.

Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!

I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.

I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.

Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).

The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).

Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.

Norse Cultural Values 101

For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family  (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.

Resilience / Fatalism

One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:

We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)

So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)

To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.

The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.

No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)

Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.

Humor and cleverness

One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.

For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.

(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)

Sadness / Emotional expression

I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.

My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.

Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.

Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)

Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:

So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.

I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.

I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)

There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths  — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.

A brief note about that fairy tale book…

Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.

Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.

When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)

Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.

Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)

*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂

The History of Me: My Next Project Begins

At the end of my last reading project, I said that I had an idea for another project and would be telling you about it soon. Well, that was almost exactly one year ago… and I’m finally ready to embark on my next project. But first — a little context.

Where am I?

When I first began doing this reading-blogging-project thing, it was kind of a fluke. I accidentally stacked two books together, realized they happened concurrently, and decided to take it as an opportunity to continue my education on the true history of the Native peoples of this land and how this country came to be. I learned a lot about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation and why it’s important that we admit and honor the truth, even if it’s painful.

Then, I got curious about the land itself — while European invaders and settlers killed and stole their way to pushing the Native peoples out of their homes, what was happening in the eco-realm? The answer I found was that imperialism and destruction happened on both a human level and an environmental level, as settlers tried to literally recreate Europe in both culture and ecology.

These two reading projects answered questions I had about the historical, cultural, and ecological context in which I find myself today, as a Euro-American resident where the Plains and the forests meet. What I learned helped me to know my location — in time, in space, in culture.

But all of these questions and answers just led me to another question.

How did I get here?

Now that I know roughly my sociopolitical and geographical location — now that I’ve surveyed the landscape — what I most want to know is, how did I get here?

I’m just like the plants I read about in Changes in the Land — a European flower, growing here in space cleared by violence and colonization, but also brought here on a specific journey. How did I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, a German/Slovak Lutheran-raised woman, get all the way over here to Dakota/Ojibwe country at the start of the 21st century? Where do I come from? Who are my people? What have they weathered, what have they lost or gained, and what do they pass down to me — both good and bad?

I’ve learned a lot more about the story of this land and its people — and now I want to learn more about the story of the land my people came from before they planted themselves — and me — here.

The Plan

Over the past year, I’ve begun to dive into family history research, based mostly on the incredibly in-depth work of several other genealogically-inclined relatives in several of my family tree branches. As such, I’ve identified five places that (I think) are where my great-grandparents (or their parents) lived before they immigrated to the US.

Great-Grandparents Map v2

  1. Pellworm, Nordfriesland, Germany: Small island home of my mother’s mother’s mother (nee Clausen) and her ancestors going back as far as anyone knows. This is the closest thing I have to a home land place.
  2. Hannover (or Hanover), Lower Saxony, Germany: A fishing town that has been at the center of several kingdoms and was the home of both my mother’s father’s father’s family (Hillmer) and mother’s mother’s father’s family (Heldt), which is pretty funny, since my grandparents met and married in northwest Iowa.
  3. Lachen, Switzerland: A rural, mostly German-speaking town near Zurich at the base of a long lake (hence the name) that was the home to my mother’s father’s mother’s family. (My great-grandmother was only half Swiss, which makes me — if my math is right — 1/16 Swiss. So I won’t spend much reading time on Switzerland specifically.)
  4. Treten, Kreis Rummelsberg, Prussia (now Dretyn, Poland): A small farming town that’s traded political hands quite a few times, and is home to my father’s father’s mother’s family (Schwichtenberg) as well as my father’s father’s father’s family (Schulz).  It was part of Prussia when they left there — now it’s well within the borders of Poland.
  5. Brezno, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia): Nestled in the Lower Tatra Mountains, Brezno and its neighboring towns were the home of both of my father’s mother’s parents, though they didn’t marry until they had both migrated to the US. My grandma was full Slovak — and I’m 1/4 — so I have sprinkled in a few specific resources about Slovakia and the Slavs throughout this project.

Since these places are scattered across mostly Western Europe — though focused in Germany — I’ll be reading a mix of books focused on both Germany and Europe at large throughout the centuries. Here’s my schedule:

HoM Reading Plan v2

Since I now have a full-time job (which I didn’t when I did my last two reading projects), I’ve spread the reading out to one group per month, rather than per week. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on track.

As a fun bonus… if I stay on schedule, I will finish this reading project right before my family and I go on a family history trip to Germany/Europe to visit the cities I’ve marked on the map above!!! I’ve been researching and preparing for this project for over a year now, so I’m SUPER excited to get going and prep for our trip, which I’m sure will be very emotional for me, especially since two of my grandparents (my mom’s parents) just passed away last summer. Family history has become a lot more personal for me now.

A Disclaimer, and a Hope

Before I really get into this project, I want to be clear: I’m not really a German person. Or a Slovak person. Or a European person. I don’t speak German, I have a single “ethnic” recipe from my Slovak grandma, and even the most recent of immigrants in my family died before I was even born. Digging back into the roots of my ethnos (people group) will not suddenly make me understand the land, or turn me into an indigenous person, or bring my grandparents back, or answer all the questions I have about who I am and where I come from. As a friend reminded me when I was wrestling with some of these questions, “Germany” is a set of lines on a map, not an actual place, and reading about it won’t restore the stories of my particular ancestors. Europe is a big place, political boundaries change, and for all I know I could be genetically part Italian or Asian or Russian. There is a strong temptation for me (and, I think, for many white folks) to use rediscovering my heritage as an escape. But I can’t turn back time and flee my complicity in American whiteness and become “German” again. (And, especially because what I’d be fleeing to is Germanness, I’m particularly aware that all identities come with their own complicities and responsibilities.)

The purpose of my reading quest is NOT to nail down all the answers, or to return to some idyllic vision of “the way it was.” I know even before I begin to read that my family’s past in Europe was not idyllic, and what has been lost to the sands of the time is comprised as much of pain as of joy.

My goal is simply what it has been the last two reading projects: to emotionally engage with and attempt to understand and walk alongside the stories of a place. In this case, the place where the known stories of my family begin.

I’ve learned from both the Bible (which is full of powerful and complex stories) and the example of Native leaders in my life the immense, immeasurable power of storytelling. So now, I will read stories of Europe and of the place sometimes called Germany — because stories, like rivers, lay down layers of sediment on a place. I hope that digging my toes into each fertile layer will help me understand more about where my family once was rooted, why they chose to leave, and how I can grow my own roots here in another land.


A Note about Whiteness: I want to be super clear about the context and goals of this reading project, because I recognize (and was recently reminded) that white folks investigating their heritage can sometimes go to a really dark, violent place. So this is me being very clear:

I am looking into German/Germanic/European history and culture as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. I denounce and repent of the ideology of white supremacy and all its works and all its ways.

Moving forward, I will be posting a shortened version of this note/disclaimer on each post in this project. If something I write seems to be teetering on the borderline, PLEASE leave a comment or message me in some way. I want to be accountable to do this in a way that deconstructs whiteness, not reinforces it.

For more context on how I’m hoping to approach this, check out this super excellent article on differentiating between whiteness and individual European cultures.


P.S. Here are links to the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to follow along.

Little House, Wounded Knee: Beginning the Journey Toward “Un-Settlement”

NOTE: This post was originally written for and published in the January 2017 edition of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Newsletter. It was also read aloud at a September2016 church service at Church of All Nations (the recording is archived here).


I learned to read books when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology.

little house prairieBy first grade, I was hooked on my first big chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

According to my mother, I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. A book-tent on my face.)

I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. I loved that she was a tomboy who hated bonnets and dresses — just like me. Even as I grew older, I loved to follow along with the Ingalls family’s migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times, too.

Time passed. I went to college, got busier, wrote papers, got jobs, didn’t have much time for pleasure reading anymore.

Then, a few years ago, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved when I was seven. It had been 10 or 15 years since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

bury-my-heart-at-wounded-knee-dee-brownBut as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books lay Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

Ding! A lightbulb went on as I realized these two books happened at the same time.

Although what I remembered about Laura’s story was kind and fun-loving Pa, sibling love and rivalry, and the courtship of Laura and Almanzo, all of those beloved pioneer-enshrined events on the prairie happened during a largely unmentioned backdrop of Indian dispossession and genocide, black enslavement and migration, and even the Civil War!

I decided that, while I would reread the Little House books, this time would be different.

And so I began a project that spanned almost a year from conception to completion, in which I read the Little House novels in their historical context. I plotted the chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which proceed chronologically from 1838 to 1890, each focusing on a different Indian nation) and the books of Little House (which take place from 1866-1890) on a single timeline and added relevant historical events of the time. Then, since the Little House books are written for children, I searched for other historical children’s novels to help fill in some of the gaps in the timeline. Here’s the reading schedule I came up with:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

Thus began my Little House / Wounded Knee project. Over the next months, I read my reading each week and blogged my thoughts and analysis before moving on to the next assignment. I began with my childhood nostalgia still partially intact, but as the weeks progressed I began to shift my perspective from my Eurocentric view of “westward expansion” to a view of history that “faced east,” as Dee Brown says in his book’s introduction.

Today, so much white nostalgia is focused on “the good old days” when times were “simpler” and things were “better”. But as I discovered, the only reason these nostalgic white daydreams persist is because much of white America is ignorant of what “the good old days” were actually like. We reminisce about stories of our hardworking immigrant forebears, proud of their grit and perseverance. And it’s not that they weren’t determined or hardworking. But we are blisteringly unaware of the fact that our stories — the stories of white America — are told in total isolation, completely divorced from the concurrent stories of indigenous peoples (let alone black and brown immigrants, enslaved people, and settlers).

wisconsin Native tribes wLauraEven from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s very first book — Little House in the Big Woods — the disconnect is apparent. This book takes place a couple-hour drive from my house. So I did a little research to see where Laura’s cabin in the woods was on a map.

You can see that the Big Woods were already quite full of (Native) inhabitants — and yet the following is how Wilder begins book one in her Little House series:

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. (Little House in the Big Woods, p.1-2, emphasis added)

It’s literally the FIRST PAGE of the book, and already Wilder has erased at least five Indian nations and thousands of people from existence.

Honestly, it kind of gave me whiplash; I could hardly believe the casual ease with which Wilder simply writes “there were no people”. I could feel the violence in that statement when I read it. Because here’s the truth behind that casual opening paragraph: the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, bounty hunted for their scalps, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died before the survivors were legally expelled from the state of Minnesota (a law that is still on the books today). So, there WERE people. But many were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.”

That all took place from about 1852 to 1863. Laura‘s older sister Mary was born in their Big Woods cabin in 1865, followed by Laura in 1867, which means the Ingalls were there no more than two years after the Dakota were forced out. That totally blew my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that the renowned Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting white invasion and persuasion further west. And yet, none of this is mentioned, or even alluded to, in Wilder’s Big Woods. There is an enormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

As I continued through my reading list, I began to see these two narratives — that of the settler and that of the indigenous community — side by side.

Where before I only saw the “westward ho” adventures of the intrepid Ingalls family, now I also saw the uprootedness and disconnection of the “pioneer spirit” embedded in the founding DNA of this country.

I saw the entire story oozing with Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, treating the land as an empty place upon which European settlers “improved” — as Almanzo’s father says in Farmer Boy, “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9).

I saw the parallels between the way settlers treated the indigenous peoples and the indigenous ecosystems, as alluded to when Almanzo explains to Laura about the tree claim on his homestead. “These government experts have got it all planned. … They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be…. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East” (These Happy Golden Years, p.170-1). (This quote spawned my next reading project, “Imperial Geography,” about the impact of white settlement on the land and ecosystems of Turtle Island.)

I also saw the violent disregard for indigenous humanity passed on in these “children’s” books — from less obvious little things, like constantly describing Indians as “savage,” “wild,” “yelping,” “yipping,” and “terrible,” to more apparent giveaways, such as including the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” no fewer than three times in a book whose protagonist is a four-year-old. (Side note: this phrase misquotes American Army General Sheridan, who originated the phrase when the Cheyenne survivors of two massacres cautiously approached his camp identifying themselves as “good Indians,” to which Sheridan famously replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, p. 170].)

As I delved deeper and deeper into the ugly, violent, and atrocity-filled history of American Indian “removal”, I began to be really angry at Laura Ingalls Wilder and the culture in this country that continues to think her books are good reading for children. These books are VIOLENT. They erase and dehumanize an entire CULTURE. They persistently portray Indians as subhuman and savage, and they portray a blackface minstrel show as a jolly evening of entertainment.

At first I thought, no one should ever read these books! But the more I sat on it, the more I thought the opposite: everyone — especially white Americans — should read these books, but with a critical eye. Because these stories of Ma and Pa and eking out a living on the “wide open prairie” are inextricably wound up in the mythology of this country.

We still believe this country is founded on lofty ideals, even though it’s actually founded on theft, murder, and slavery. We still believe that the mainstream white narrative is the truest and most important story. We still believe that we can make our country better by using and consuming the land, that we improve the land by our efforts. We still believe that the stories of black, brown, and Native communities are ancillary appendices that we can choose to leave out and not miss much.

These are blatant and harmful lies.

Mark Charles, a Navajo pastor, speaker, and blogger, often speaks of the need for a common memory before the people here in this land can attempt reconciliation. And if white America is ever going to move forward in the effort toward racial justice and healing, we need to take a long, hard look at the stories we tell ourselves about the way things used to be. We need to mend the rift in the stories we tell, stitch back together the narratives of the settlers and the indigenous peoples, and look with honest eyes on the tall tales of our pioneer heritage. We need to let go of our nostalgia for a time that never was and instead begin the process of undoing what we have done, of pulling up our stakes, of beginning to be “un-settlers” in a land not our own.

—–

Rebekah Schulz-Jackson lives in Minneapolis with her husband and housemates and works toward unsettled-ness with the beautiful community at Church of All Nations. You can read more about the Little House / Wounded Knee project at thesjs.com/littlehousewoundedknee.

If you’re interested in Rebekah’s reading list, here is a full list of all books/articles she read:

  • Little House on the Prairie boxed set of original 9-book series (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown)
  • The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung, A Chinese Miner (Laurence Yep)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)
  • Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past (Diane Wilson)
  • Emancipation Proclamation; Gettysburg Address (Abraham Lincoln; found online)
  • I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (Joyce Hansen)
  • The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West (Lillian Schlissel)
  • My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl (Ann Rinaldi)
    **Do not read this book without also reading Debbie Reese’s review of this book, found on her excellent blog, American Indian Children’s Literature.
  • As Long as the Rivers Flow (Larry Loyie)
  • The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee (all by Louise Erdrich)

A Letter to My Fellow White Christians about #BlackLivesMatter

blacklivesmatterDear Fellow White Christians,

Here’s the deal: I’m a little confused.

I hear some of you talk about why you don’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and I don’t get it! So I thought I’d talk about it in a blog post (especially since I already talked about it on Facebook, so consider this a more organized recapturing of a great conversation with some of you, friends). First off, the basics…

Don’t ALL lives matter?

Or, as presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently commented, “When I hear people scream, ‘black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. … I think he’d [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

To this I say, yes, he would be appalled — we just need to get on the same page about which “some lives” are being elevated more than others!

When I think about the question “What are black lives worth?” the first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in U.S. History class — the 3/5 clause written into the U.S. Constitution. According to our most sacred founding document, black lives are literally worth just over one half of white lives.

The second thing I think of — again from history class — is slavery. In 1860, an enslaved black person’s life was valued at around $800, or around $130,000 in today’s currency. (I thought that sounded like a large sum — then I thought about how I would feel if someone offered to pay me $130,000 in exchange for unlimited physical labor for my whole life and the right to separate me from my husband and family at their convenience. I no longer find it a large sum.)

To me, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is about reminding the rest of us that black people are created in the image of God, too. Consider this powerful paragraph from a New York Times article I posted earlier today:

The Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police, and is of a piece with this history [of the Civil Rights Movement]. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. (emphasis added)

Let me say that again: saying that Black Lives Matter DOES NOT MEAN that “other” lives don’t matter. It simply seeks to correct the false belief, prevalently visible throughout our country’s history, that black lives matter less by speaking the truth even louder: in other words, not just BLACK lives matter, but Black lives DO matter!

But what about BLM’s questionable methods?

Okay, you may say, fine — a noble goal. But this just isn’t the same as the Civil Rights movement. That was about respectable, peaceful protest, and these folks’ methods are rude and not okay.

Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. Even this black former Civil Rights activist has some questions about BLM’s methods and leadership. That said, here are two thoughts I would like you to consider as you continue to form and inform your opinion:

1. Practice listening to black people.

I’m not black — and neither are you, dear fellow white Christian. It’s not our movement. So when I am talking about BLM, I defer to and try hard to LISTEN to black people, especially before I open my big mouth and start to tell other people how to run their movement. Just like that Jesus guy. He was really good at listening to people’s pain and asking thoughtful questions before offering his opinion.

Additionally, I implore you to stay away from sensationalist exaggerations like that Dr. King would be “appalled” or “rolling in his grave.” First of all, this is just an emotion-yanking tactic to try to invoke a sense of violation of one of our most beloved and popular-to-invoke figures. Secondly, remember that the reason we don’t actually know what Dr. King would think is that he was shot by a white supremacist. As this thoughtful and hard-hitting reflection by a black activist puts it, “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.” So next time you think of invoking Dr. King’s ghost on a black activist, maybe consider another tactic instead. Remember, the authorities on being black in America are black people. So even when it feels hard, even when it feels uncomfortable, cultivate an attitude of listening, not scolding.

2. Remember that the black community is NOT monolithic.

Just like the white community, the Christian community, the Minnesota community, etc etc, black people often disagree with each other! (Shocking, I know.) Some black people will support BLM’s methods and some won’t, but they are entitled to their opinions! If someone thinks interrupting political candidates on stage is a good idea, go for it! If someone thinks that’s rude and won’t get the movement anywhere, more power to ’em! This debate and disagreement is part of making our way forward together, and I think it’s unreasonable for us white folks to hold the BLM movement to standards so high as to not allow for normal growing pains and disagreement as BLM finds their way.

So you’re anti-cop? Don’t Blue Lives Matter?

No! First of all, let me state very clearly: killing police officers is not okay.

Police perform a difficult and invaluable function in our society, and I think it’s appropriate that cop-killers receive harsh punishments in our society. THAT BEING SAID…

Using “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” or saying that “cops are now being killed indiscriminately” (as one of my friends stated) is a falsehood and gross misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, this site that tracks the deaths of law enforcement officers says that deaths of officers in the US due to gun violence in 2015 total 24 and are DOWN 20% since last year. Overall line-of-duty deaths total 83 and are down 2% from last year. Hardly an escalation to “indiscriminate” open season on police!

By contrast, The Guardian estimates that police in the US have killed upwards of 500 people this year so far. Additionally, in examining a claim that “police kill more whites than blacks”, Politifact found that while this claim is true, it’s true only because whites make up more than 50% of people in the US, and in fact, “When comparing death rates, blacks are about three times more likely than whites to die in a confrontation with police.” 

SO — again, I reiterate that I am saddened by the deaths of police doing their best to “serve and protect” — this should not happen. I do NOT support hatred towards police (nor does BLM) and I support efforts to bring officers home safely and alive from their rounds of duty. But bringing this up as a way to minimize or dismiss claims about the systemic bias against black people by our society and by our law enforcement practices is misleading and ignores the very real concerns of the BLM movement about consistently high rates of black deaths by police officer in comparison to other racial groups.

What about BLM telling black people to kill white people?

After a lot of Googling, I found one article from a sort of questionable-looking source I’ve never heard of claiming that the “leaders” of BLM had told their followers to “kill a white person, hang them from a tree, upload a pic to social media”. Apparently this occurred shortly before the tragic shooting of two young news professionals in Virginia — the implication being that BLM is implicitly (or explicitly) responsible for the death of these two young people.

Two things.

First, look at the names of the “main ring-leaders” this site lists: Carol “Sunshine” Sullivan, Nocturnus Libertus (Sierra McGrone), Palmentto Star, and Malcom Jamahl Whitehead. Now, look at the names of the founders of the BLM movement, according to Wikipedia, the BLM website, and an article by the Associated PressOpal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Notice anything? Hint: the names don’t match. It’s okay to be alarmed that somewhere, a couple of black people are making threatening statements about killing white people. BUT, it’s also important to recognize that most groups have radical extremists. As my friend on Facebook aptly pointed out, “It’s like pro-life people killing abortionists, it tarnishes the message.” Yes, friend — yes, it does. Which is why generally these extremists — both these couple black people talking about killing white people on the radio and the few pro-life people who advocate murdering abortion doctors — are generally viewed as extremists, and NOT as representatives of the movement at large. Ergo, if you are pro-life, you have just as much moral ground to support that cause as BLM advocates have to support theirs — you both have the preservation of undervalued life as your core goal, and you both have tiny splinter groups of extremists who think that taking life is an appropriate way to achieve that goal. (In fact, I find that the BLM movement should align perfectly well with conservative Christian views about the sanctity of life — one of the most challenging Christians I know is a deeply faithful and conservative black pastor who is a staunch pro-life advocate as well as a staunch #BlackLivesMatter supporter.)

Secondly, while receiving threats of being killed, hung from a tree, and photographed simply for being born with a certain color of skin can be pretty terrifying, I’m pretty sure black people have received that threat wayyyyyy more times than they’ve made it. Between 3,000 and 4,000 black people were actually lynched (aka killed and hung from a tree) in the U.S. between about 1850-1960. And those are only the ones that were actually carried out! As for the “post a pic” part — many of these lynchings of black people were not only attended by spectators as if they were sporting events, but profiteers actually made photo postcards of the lynchings that included the bodies of the black victims, and white people actually sent these to their friends!! (Sound like horrific early social media photo posting to anyone else?)

I’m not saying that this makes threatening white people’s lives okay — but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are NOT isolated incidents, but parts of a larger social and historical narrative of race relations in our country.

Okay, but what about black-on-black crime?

Okay. Here’s the thing.

Yes, statistics show that there tends to be more crime among black communities than among white communities. HOWEVER, as this article points out, “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said. “It is the most difficult and searing problem in this whole mess.” The article also said that when you control for poverty, (poor) whites have about the same rate of crime as (poor) blacks. SO, until we can fix poverty and/or erase the poverty gap that currently disproportionately affects the black community, we will continue to have more crime in the black community. And they will continue to have more encounters with the police. And they will continue to be killed at a disproportionate rate to whites. And that is not okay. Hence #BlackLivesMatter, because the rest of us need a reminder sometimes when it’s not right in our faces.

Additionally, notice how I said “black communities” and “white communities”? That’s because, as mentioned in this excellent article addressing the question of black-on-black crime,

African Americans are twice as likely to live in black neighborhoods, not because they necessarily want to but because, most of the time, they just have to. With limited social mobility in comparison with whites, most black families can’t just pack up, leave and move to Any Location USA. Instead, they find themselves in majority-black neighborhoods, many of which are ravaged by stubborn trends of low income, poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

Oh yeah, and crime. But not because those neighborhoods are black “hoods” or black people are culturally or genetically predisposed to homicidal crime. Areas challenged by poverty indicators, as this Census Bureau American Community Survey analysis shows, are places where “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.” Some of the 10 most dangerous states in the nation admittedly have large—20 percent-plus—black populations concentrated in urban centers, but they’re also places with the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The article also notes that

The three most dangerous states in America are Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—all states ranging from 70 to over 80 percent white. And not so surprisingly, 6 out of 10 dangerous states are places with open-carry gun laws, which Stanford University researchers suggest contribute to an overall spike in aggravated assaults. Yet we’re loathe to call any of that an upward trend in “white-on-white crime,” just as you wouldn’t hear Russian President Vladimir Putin lamenting the rise in “Russian-on-Russian” murder rates (among the highest in the world, and higher than those in the United States).

So basically, let’s stop focusing in on “black-on-black” crime as a thing.

BUT even if you really want to, I say to you this: even if black-on-black crime is a problem that needs addressing, why do you assume it’s not being addressed? A quick search for “what is the black community doing to prevent black on black crime” quickly reveals that there is already much being done to address this issue — including this conference specifically about addressing crime in black communities, which is celebrating its 30th year! I think it’s safe to say that the black community is well aware of this issue, and don’t need us to remind them.

In conclusion…

If you still have qualms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, gentle reader, that’s okay. My point isn’t to force you to agree with me. My point is to help us all think deeply and self-critically about the hidden assumptions we hold about black people, how our value of people stands up to God’s value of people, and the role of protest in our shared life together. I hope you’ll keep an open mind — I try to! — and I hope you’ll feel welcome to continue to ask questions, do research, and pray about how we as white Christians might best come alongside our black (and brown) sisters and brothers to communicate in ways that can’t be misunderstood, “Your life MATTERS, to God and to me!”

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 14, Maturity & Minstrels

In the fourteenth week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Omakayas and Laura are both growing up, and I discover a terrifying surprise… Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Game of Silence

game of silence - louise erdrichIn the sequel to The Birchbark House, we pick back up with Omakayas and her family of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people the following year. The book begins with a rather terrifying event: the arrival of an entire village of starving, frightened people who have left their village never to return. Their village has been destroyed by the Bwaaneg (a neighboring and apparently horrifying tribe). The silver lining of this is that we get to see the automatic and deep hospitality of Omakayas’s people, who immediately clothe, feed, and house an entire village of people, just like that. And for the long haul, too. Omakayas’s family basically adopts a baby boy, which Omakayas appreciates since she has a baby-shaped hole in her heart.

As the book progresses, this early foreshadowing of the threat of the Bwaaneg is coupled with the growing threat of the whites from the east, who are insisting that the Anishinaabe must move further west — right into Bwaaneg territory. This plotline is not really resolved by the end of the book, and I imagine it will be dealt with more thoroughly in The Porcupine Year (BBH #3).

I appreciated being able to see the Anishinaabes’ reaction to this demand from the whites in a fictionalized/narrative format, since I’ve already read it so many times in Wounded Knee. Omakayas’s people decide that if they are being asked to move, someone must have broken the treaty — so they literally send an expedition of men to travel around to all the different villages to ensure that they have kept their word before they decide how to respond to the whites. That is integrity, right there! Unfortunately when the men ascertain that they have, in fact, KEPT the treaty, they discover that it’s just that the whites broke it. Surprise surprise. (Not to me — but it is to them a bit. Remember, this book takes place earlier than most of the events of Wounded Knee.)

Other than the increased interaction with and mention of whites in this novel, the other thing I really noticed and appreciated was the level of insight into Anishinaabe society and child-rearing. Over and over again I got to see the care with which Omakayas’s family not only teaches her important survival skills (like gathering food or processing animal hides), but helps her to identify and grow her unique personality and calling as a member of her people group. Check out this amazing quote from an elder after Omakayas dreams a dream that helps her people:

You have done a great thing…. Gizhe Manidoo gave you a very great gift, but you must remember that this gift does not belong to you. This gift is for the good of your people. Use it to help them, never to gain power for yourself. For as soon as you misuse this gift, it will leave you. Mi’iw minik! (p.221, emphasis added)

WOW. This is such a powerful affirmation of Omakayas personally, but it also redirects that sense of value and purpose back to Omakayas’s role in her community. Her gifts are not simply for her to enjoy — they are given in order to serve and bless others. And if they are not used for their intended purpose, there will be consequences. What a powerful and meaningful moment in a young person’s life! This especially struck me in contrast to LHotP, where Laura is also taught responsibility, but in a way that subsumes her personality. Here we see that it is not only possible but WONDERFUL to teach children responsibility AND affirm their unique personalities.

Okay, enough parenting talk. =)  A quick note about the title — it refers to a game the elders use to teach the children to practice silence. It struck me as a slightly more fun version of “children should be seen and not heard” — and it also weirdly reminded me of a game I still played when I was in school — “INDIAN SILENCE, ONE TWO THREE GO!!!” Anyone else? Apparently our weird “Indian” game may actually be based in a grain of truth… much like many other stereotypes…

As I prepare to read The Porcupine Year, I’m really looking forward to seeing how Omakayas will continue to grow into her adult role in the community and [[SPOILER WARNING!!!!]] how the Anishinaabe will survive the Bwaaneg and still try to appease the whites.

Little Town on the Prairie

little town on the prairieIn this, the seventh book in the Little House series, the town of De Smet, South Dakota is beginning to grow into a “real town”, and as it does we get to see more of the accouterments of “civilization” in the 1880s. For example, the town gets a church, there are several parties, and a Literary Society forms and even hosts a town-wide spelling bee! (Hilarious.) We also — HOORAY!! — finally get to see Mary go to college!

This development of the town handily parallels the entering of Laura into relative adulthood. (Despite being not quite sixteen, Laura is in the most advanced class at school and she and her friends begin to be concerned with keeping up with trends in fashion and other social niceties. Laura even is forced to begin wearing a corset, which is a SAD DAY.) Laura fully participates in nearly all of these new events, and we see her take on even more of an adult role in helping Ma and Pa continue to care for her two younger sisters (Carrie and Grace). Laura even gets a job (nearly unheard of at the time for “respectable” girls) sewing piecework in town — and then studies for her teaching certificate — all in order to help pay for Mary’s college tuition.

By the end of the book, we also see more clearly the beginnings of Laura’s relationship with Almanzo Wilder. Throughout the book, Laura is aware of Almanzo — he’s the one with the beautiful horses who saved the town over the winter! — but one of the other girls is infatuated with him, so Laura doesn’t really pay attention. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, Almanzo all of a sudden starts talking to Laura and offering to escort her home from things. (Apparently he’s heard feisty tales about Laura from his sister, who was Laura’s school teacher, and was impressed!) Their courtship will comprise much of the next book, so it’s kind of funny to see how their acquaintance begins a bit randomly.

On a cultural note, there was one APPALLINGLY AWFUL thing in this book that I DID NOT REMEMBER from reading these books as a child: a minstrel show. For those of you who don’t know, a minstrel show is a comedic song-and-dance schtick popular in the mid- to late 1800s (though they still appeared as late as White Christmas in the 1950s!) where the performers put on blackface and act out stereotypical black characters, such as the “Mammy”. These shows are pretty much a giant pile of “let’s all laugh at stereotypical jokes about black people!!” I think my mouth dropped open at the first illustration and stayed that way through all nine repetitions of the word “darky”:

little house minstrel showThe whole crowd was carried away by the pounding music, the grinning, white-eyed faces, the wild dancing.

There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.

When the five darkies suddenly raced down the aisle and were gone, everyone was weak from excitement and laughing. (p.258-9)

Pa is even one of the performers — he’s the one playing the bones.

Once I got past my shock that this was in a children’s book that is so widely recommended in schools, I had a few thoughts:

  1. These events take place in 1881, at pretty much the height of minstrel shows.
  2. This book was first published in like 1940, only forty years after the height of minstrel shows, and a time when segregation was still legal.
  3. This event portrays an accurate picture of what sorts of things have happened in our past.
  4. Even though #1-3 are all true, I still feel pretty icky when I read this. Especially since there’s no CONTEXT for this! If a (white) kid just reads this book for fun, there is ZERO context or explanation to help them understand that this was a racist and degrading part of our racist and discriminatory history, and that they should not go call a black person a “darky”. Let alone how it makes black kids feel!

Not to mention the delightfully folksy impromptu speech by the town’s only elected official on the 4th of July:

Well, boys, I’m not much good at public speaking, but today’s the glorious Fourth. This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe. … They had to fight the British regulars and their hired Hessians and the murdering scalping red-skinned savages that those fine gold-laced aristocrats turned loose on our settlements and paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children. (p.72, emphasis added)

Holy terrifying and unopposed racism, Batman! That is NOT the Independence Day story I would want MY children to read! At this point, any brownie points Author-Laura gained from having Pa somewhat defend Indians have been wayyyyyyy outweighed by the repeated and un-contradicted negative and violent depictions of Native peoples.

Anyway. Let this be the decider — if you are planning on reading these books with your children, prepare to explain/discuss lots and lots of discriminatory remarks and events! They will quickly gain a pretty good historical understanding of systematic oppression in our country’s history. The fact that this sort of thing is treated so normally — minstrel shows are normal, Ma hating Indians is normal, a mayor denigrating Indigenous peoples at a public event is normal — tells us a lot about the inherentness and ubiquity of racism in our country’s history and structures. We have a lot of work to do.

Conclusion

What really is almost laughable is rereading the line from the 4th of July speech — “murdering scalping red-skinned savages, paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children” — and then scrolling back up to read about the Anishinaabe carefully investigating their keeping of the treaty and Omakayas being gently and thoughtfully raised to responsible adulthood by her elders. These two depictions of Native people are about as opposite as it’s possible to be. And that dissonance, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m glad that I’m doing this project, and why I’m glad that resources like American Indian Children’s Literature exist. Because while that gap is slowly shrinking, it certainly is still there. Just go to a football game in Washington. (Or don’t.)

Tune in next week for The  Porcupine Year (BBH #3) and These Happy Golden Years (LH #8).