Black tablecloths drape over oval tables scattered about the square room, with its square doorways, chairs, and ceiling accents. Oranges and tiny cinnamon rolls sit on a silver platter in the corner, and the last light of the sun filtered through the blackout curtains over the wall-length windows. The olive-green carpet patterns stood against the flurry of heels and brown dress shoes. However, near the front is a pair of blue converse sneakers with bright yellow socks. Next to him, red heels, red suit, red lipstick. Then, to the left a man with short blonde hair shifts his navy jacket over his pink dress shirt and brown tie—melded together with a silver clip.
Their clothing was reminiscent of vines. The kind of foliage that you imagine in a rose garden filled with the generational knowledge of the gardener—whom tenderly cares for us all from the bugs, diseases, and birds that seek to feed off it. Although even he cannot keep watch all the time.
With violet flowers on her dress, pink flowers on her scarf, and vines connecting the two, Riva Hirsch sat with her square jaw set into concentration. The points came to her cheek as she looked on to the crowd.
A deep olive-green pullover with stripes in the fabric sat on her shoulder, with embroidered vines creeping from her other. A turquoise bracelet dripped from her wrist, a greener string of stones from her neck, and her fingernails were as bright as the oranges on the tables. Josephine Bolling McCall sat with an earnest look on her face, as she smiled at her family among the audience.
Riva started the conversation, and retold her story about surviving the Holocaust in Ukraine.
“My mother said to ‘Kiss the mezuzah, because we won’t be able to come back here,’” said Riva, as her strong Ukranian voice rang in the room.
She told her story about how she and her family were captured in the forest—about how they separated them all apart from each other—about the trail of dead babies, young men, and old folks—as she was taken to the train filled with the dead.
Silent tears dripped on the tablecloths, while sniffles replaced the sound of the usual cell phone rings at public events such as these. “The future is in your hands!” she yelled to the audience, stopping to look into a few specific faces. “Never let it happen again!”
Josephine told the story about being 5 years old and seeing your father dead in a ditch. Her eyes looked into the past as she spoke.
“A car followed him and blinked three times—which back in the day meant to pull over—so he did, thinking they needed help,” she paused. “Then, they shot him multiple times with a pistol and once with a shotgun. I saw him dead in the ditch with his eyes wide open.”
The family went through the ordeal of losing everything. They lost a father, husband, breadwinner, and a respected community businessman. They had to move away to Montgomery to escape the corrupt sheriff—the same one that assisted in the murder.
Josephine spent years researching her father’s death and who was responsible for the lynching—which is defined by a unjust murder done by more than one person.
She survived the Jim Crow South, the other the Holocaust. Their scars surround them like vines, the ones that remind them they are alive, they survived, and continue to grow—to show others that they can grow without vines, without prejudice, without hatred.
“I had everything until the murderer came,” Riva Hirsch begins, clutching a microphone between two pale hands. “We weren’t rich, but we had a ball and a doll and a dog… There was no discrimination. We loved.”
Sitting in a sterile events space around circular tables, we watch as a map appears on the projector screen to helpfully show us exactly where seven-year-old Riva lived before that day: an area of Ukraine that used to be Russia. She isn’t sure where exactly she was taken. “A better place,” was all the Nazis told her as she boarded a train overflowing with corpses.
“Did you see any towns on the train ride?” the moderator of the talk asks.
“Piles and piles of dead bodies–that I saw. Children. Grown-ups. Babies. But not towns.”
A microphone fails, its battery dead. Some shuffling and chuckling, then Riva’s microphone is handed to the other guest speaker, Josephine Bolling McCall, from Lowndes County, Alabama. “Bloody Lowndes”, it used to be called because of all the murders.
“We thought someone was killing cows,” she tells us, describing the sound of her father’s lynching. His children found him lying in a ditch with his eyes open, shot several times. “The definition of lynching is not about the noose around your neck. It’s about the group of people. At the time, three people made a lynching”
The room releases a deep hum of a surprise.
Her father was rich for a black man, owning a storefront, some land, and several shipping trucks. The night of his murder, Josephine’s brother scrawled down the car tag number of the white men he saw driving away in the dirt outside their store. “The sheriff wasn’t interested. Lowndes County planned my father’s murder and planned to make it look like it wasn’t a lynching, because the county would be held responsible. Most of the blacks were afraid to talk. There was no mercy there.”
The two women trade their lone microphone back and forth, standing tall when it is their turn to speak with the kind of straight-backed poise that has been lost over the generations. Both look dressed for a nice evening out, their hair in big, loose curls around their shoulders, Riva’s white and Josephine’s dark brown, like their skin. Riva talks fast, with an Eastern European accent, her voice booming through the sedate hall. Josephine, by contrast, talks Southern slow and soft enough that we lean forward to catch her words. Riva speaks as if the horrors she witnessed happened only yesterday. Josephine speaks as if they happen to her every day.
“I was lying more dead than alive,” Riva says of her condition when the German man who smuggled her out of the camp to a convent. “Me as a little Jewish girl, I had never seen a nun. But I survived through them.”
“I decided it was time to get some recognition,” Josephine told us about publishing a book about her search to discover what really happened to her father. “They made my book required reading at Northeastern University.”
The moderator asks them what one lesson would they want us to take away.
“The intention was to terrorize,” Josephine says. “Terrorism is what they got… We must continue the discussion, but as it says in Hebrews 13:1, ‘Let brotherly love continue’.”
“Make sure to educate our students,” Riva answers, her voice reaching a fever pitch. “Because the future is in your hands to let the world never, ever let it happen again.”
The room is silent when her words stop ringing through the high ceiling, but in our ears, the shouts of Charlottesville echo. We clap to drown them out.
Mary Elizabeth Chambliss is a graduate English student specializing in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a CRM Administrator in UAB’s Enrollment Operations. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology in 2015.
I did not know what to expect when I walked in to the Alumni House to hear the talk with Riva Schuster Hirsch and Josephine Bolling McCall for class, but what I received from hearing the two was much more than I had hoped for. The rarity of still being able to hear a Holocaust survivor speak is unfortunate, so my class and I were very lucky to have the opportunity to hear Riva speak on the horrors of what she went through. It is also upsetting to know that there are people still living today who were greatly affected by such explicit racial injustices as Josephine Bolling had endured as a child. The only positive thing I can think about it is that today, we can listen to their stories and work on preventing future incidents like those from happening.
Things that stood out to me from what the women said were: There was still slavery in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1947, Riva and her family had to hide in fields and forests, Josephine and her family were “afraid to talk” or speak up about the injustice to her father, and that Riva had gotten so sick while in hiding that she could not walk or talk, only play dead.
Despite all the sufferings these women have gone through, it is thrilling to know that they both turned their unfortunate pasts into present successes. Josephine had a book published in honor of her father titled The Penalty of Success and it is now required reading for certain Law School classes, and although Riva never went to school, she was able to teach herself seven different languages. She also has famous YouTube videos and created a beautiful family for herself in Birmingham, Alabama.
The most important part of their talk was listening to them each give advice on how we can make a difference today.
Riva says: Go around and speak to youngsters—the future of our world—to educate them on the hatred that occurred in the past, to ensure it never EVER happens again.
Josephine says: It is important to continue the message, to acknowledge the Golden Rule, and to spread brotherly love to all.
These are things I will never forget.
Layla is currently a graduate student at UAB studying to obtain her Master’s degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. twice. The first time was just over a year after it opened. I was newly out and went with a new gay friend and a straight ally. We picked up random ID cards to “own” during the tour, but also asked for information about the gays who died in the Holocaust. Those pamphlets were kept behind the counter, like the dirty magazines at 7 Eleven.
It was a somber visit. Seeing the shoes was the hardest. The owners were dead. Only their shoes left to give witness. Hundreds—thousands?—of shoes. I whispered the refrain of the tour, “never again.”
My last visit to the museum was a few months ago. Donald Trump had been in the White House for several months. I still had not called him the P word. I can’t do it here. I didn’t remember the tour being so crowded. It felt right, though. Again, I clutched my identification papers. Last time I cheated and looked to see my assumed persona lived or died right away. This time I wanted to find out in real time. The crowd added to the experience, especially when I saw the train car.
Last time when I said Never Again it was defiant, a promise. Now it was a question. The tour starts at the upper floor with the lead up to the Holocaust. It didn’t happen overnight. Old newsreels and headlines show Hitler’s rise to power. Shave his mustache and tint his skin orange and it could have been the buildup to the 2016 elections. It scared me, the Othering part of the German people. Change Jew to Mexican or Muslim and it wasn’t dusty history at all. Never again?
Something else was wrong. The mood wasn’t as somber this time, not for everyone. A group of people in front of me laughed at some of the videos and exhibits. Not nervous titters. I do that sometimes. I smiled nervously when I told my mom that Mr. Lamar, my seventh-grade gym teacher died. I wasn’t happy. I was nervous. These people now, though, were enjoying themselves. This wasn’t a shameful part of humanity’s past but a primer.
I had to sit down, but there was no place to sit.
Last night when I heard Riva and Josephine speak, I thought the Holocaust museum, and the Civil Rights Institute, and the news coverage of the Valentine Shooting at Parkland, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Sandy Hook, were too sanitized. When I worked in the ICU and ER in the Navy I treated gunshot victims. I keep hearing people speaking abstractly about 2nd Amendment this Crisis actor that. It’s easy to be a talking head when all you see are helicopter shots of students walking single file across a school parking lot with their hands up. Or the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and worried parents behind barricades.
I don’t know what the dead and wounded looked like at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School or Sandy Hook, or the Pulse, or the field where Josephine’s father was lynched. But the shooting victims I saw had half their heads missing, their entrails hanging out, entrance wounds the size of a quarter and exit wounds the size of an orange. More blood than you’d think a human body could hold saturated their clothes. I don’t believe anyone could see that and NOT say never again!
And yet those laughing people at the Holocaust Museum took pictures with their smart phones of the photos and videos of the atrocities of Joseph Mengele to show off to their friends back home.
One of them had a red MAGA baseball cap on.
Riva and Josephine must keep telling their story, but that’s not enough. Everyone who heard it must also tell it. And they must insist, Never again. And when the assholes with the MAGA caps laugh we have to shout it, Never Again! Never!
And for the love of God, never here.
For Bob Byrd, it was a race to see which he would earn first: an undergrad degree or AARP card. He is a senior at UAB, majoring in Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. He just celebrated his 55th birthday–looks like AARP won, but it was close. He is an award winning storyteller and a frequent contributor to the NPR radio program Says You!. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale but has called Birmingham home for the last twenty years.
A creative writing class from the UAB English department attended the Nazi Germany and Jim Crow South symposium in February. Six students, including Taylor, submitted their reflections on the interview with Riva Hirsh, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, daughter of lynching victim, Elmore Bolling. Their honest and emotionally raw selections will post over the course of this week. — AR
Riva Hirsch scans the room with wide eyes and white hair. Her shoulders are draped in purple and gold, her veiny hands clutched around her microphone. When the interviewer asks her to tell the room about her childhood and family, she stands up and brings the microphone to her lips.
“I had everything I needed until the murderer came.”
Her voice comes out grainy and loud, her lips probably kissing the microphone. She shakes with emotion I’m sure she’s felt for a lifetime.
The interviewer turns to Josephine Bolling McCall, who sits in her chair with her ankles crossed, robed in shades of emerald. Her hair is as red as fall leaves before the separate from branches and litter sidewalks. Like Riva, she wears glasses. The interviewer asks her the same question and she stands. Her voice is softer, as steady as a librarian talking while leading you through the stacks and pulling the book you need from the shelf.
“I lived in Lowndes Country, Alabama. It was known as ‘Blood Lowndes’,” she reveals. I look around the room and watch a few audience members shift in their seats. One squints his eyes, as if trying to imagine just how bloody it had been. “I was only 5 when my father was killed.” Even I shift in my seat.
Riva begins the heartbreaking tale of bring separated from her family by the Nazis. She was seven when war came to her town. A family friend named Joshua warned her family to leave. The second time he came, Riva tells us “I could smell human flesh.” Riva and her family were forced to leave their home, taking only the packages her mother and grandmother made. Joshua hid them until he could hide them no more. One day Joshua came running.
“The SS are coming!” Riva and her family were forced into the forest, where they lived in sickness, became covered in lice. Eventually they were caught and separated by the SS. Riva tells the room of alert eyes and open mouths that her mother was beat in front of her when she refused to let go of her children. They were forced to wear the yellow star and told they would be taken to a better place. She tells us of the trains they were forced on and leaves us with an image that chills to the bone and boils blood all at once.
“There were piles of dead bodies on the train. We were all moving from life to death, death to life.”
Josephine tells us about her father, Elmo, before he was killed. “He had airhorns on his truck,” she reminisces. Her father would blow his horns as he passed the family in the shop or the house. But in December of 1947, gunshots could be heard some time after the airhorns. No one thought anything of it until they were told her father was dead. “He was laying there in the ditch and his eyes were still open,” she says, looking down into the microphone. I know we all imagined a 5-year-old mind replaying that image, understanding more of its horror as time passes.
When asked about the community’s reaction to her father’s murder, Josephine admits that everyone was afraid to talk. “Keep your mouth shut, stay inside, and don’t say anything,” she recites. This was the law of their land. Josephine’s brother saw the murder of their father and saw the car that appeared to be following their father before the murder. Her brother wrote the tag number in the dirt in front of a sheriff, trying to give him the information. The sheriff had no interest. “My father’s murder had been planned,” Josephine says. And the room understands that the sheriff already knew.
Riva is asked to talk about her savior, a man who spoke German. “A man put his hand on my mouth,” she says. “I was so sick with malaria and typhoid. He told me to play dead. He put me on his shoulder and started to run with me.” The German man hid Riva in a carriage to smuggle her out of the camp. The carriage was stopped, but Riva went undiscovered until she was brought to a convent. “He handed me off to a nun and then she started to run with me,” and I imagine a nun’s black clothing flailing in the still of night, a sick child limp in her arms. She was brought to a place where more children were hidden and told the nuns would bring them food as often as they could, but not too often as to draw attention. “They were my guardian angels,” Riva confesses.
After Josephine’s family fled Lowndes County to Montgomery, she found information that would launch her into an investigation about her father’s murder. In the Montgomery Advertiser had an article about her father’s murder. “He had been shot 6 times with a pistol, once in the back with a shot gun. What does that tell you? That there was more than one person there,” Josephine urges into the microphone. After retrieving the article from historical archives and interviewing others, Josephine discovers that many people had known her father’s murder was planned. She also discovered that by definition, her father’s murder had been a lynching. In a Chicago newspaper headline about her father’s murder, the word “lynch” appeared.
The interviewer asks, “Why was it important for your father’s murderers to not make it look like a lynching?”
“Counties were being held responsible and fined,” Josephine responds. “The Association of Southern Women to Protect Lynching (ASWPL) came to Lowndes County to stop the lynching from happening.” The murderers were trying to protect themselves.
Riva tells us about her life after the way. She never went to school, but taught herself 7 languages. She married another Holocaust survivor, who lost his whole family to the gas chambers. He was the only survivor. 28 years ago, Riva came to Birmingham. Her daughter and step-daughter and still with her. She lost her husband 4 years ago, her son 9 years ago. She still claims with excitement, “America is the best place in the world.”
Josephine started a foundation in memory of her father. She wrote a book, The Penalty of Success: My Father was Lynched in Lowndes County, Alabama, and had two book signings a day for a week in Boston. She continues to share her story.
Both women leave us with their own words of advice. Riva cautions, “Make sure you speak to educate our students because the future is in their hands.” She pins us all with a determined stare before finishing, “Never ever let it happen again.” Josephine follows Riva, urging that “we have to acknowledge what has gone on before we can reconcile and come together.” Finally, she points us to Bible, Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.”
Taylor Byas is a graduate student at UAB pursuing her Master’s Degree in English, Creative Writing. She aspires to teach Creative Writing at the collegiate level.
My research seeks to answer a complicated question: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? Historians have focused on these two national cultures and the wide variety of ways in which they excluded racialized others while elevating their own preferred racial makeups. Much of my graduate career has been spent studying the prejudice that emanated from Nazi Party leadership down to the German citizenry. However, when I took a graduate seminar on Southern History with a preeminent scholar, I was struck by the fact that, at the structural level, histories of the South resembled many of the German histories I had already consumed.
Both fields attempt to sort through complex pasts by debating continuity over time. In Germany’s case, scholars asked if there was something essentially German that caused the rise of the Third Reich by the early twentieth century? Was there a direct path from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, or was the development of German history more complex? Similarly, U.S. Southern academics often argued over whether the antebellum South had ever truly given way to a New South built on technology and industry. Both arguments created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that has consequentially damaged historical interpretation in both fields. By setting up a world where the U.S. South was always at its heart magnolias and bigotry and Germany was always a peculiar nation susceptible to authoritarianism, no one needs to take ownership of their horrendous racial legacies. Exceptionalist narratives paint a deterministic picture where the racial castes that evolved into brutality and violence were inevitable outgrowths of inherent flaws. Nobody could help themselves; it was simply meant to be.
Such determinism has long had its opponents and supporters amongst historians, but both fields tackled this problem in remarkably similar ways: memory history. Southern and German historians embraced a historical methodology that called scholars to probe historical actors’ memories. How did exceptionalist myths like the “Lost Causes” and “Special Paths” (Sonderweg) get formed? Scholars of both cultures claimed that historical actors chose to selectively remember and internalize false memories which were then purposely perpetuated to future generations. One of the most blatant of these efforts was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization defined by a desire amongst white Southern women to give permanence to the “Lost Cause” illusions of the Confederacy. Through textbooks, statues, speeches, public events, and other cultural activities the UDC ensured that a Neo-Confederate lifestyle would exist well beyond the South’s military defeat. Germany similarly internalized powerful false memories regarding militarism. Many young German men willingly went to war in the Spring of 1914 hopped up on tales of glory from Germany’s imperial wars; the fact that these conflicts were inherently one-sided and genocidal did not make it into travel accounts and youth magazines. These same myths would influence another generation; instead of seeing the First World War as brutal meat-grinder of humanity, many Germans sought glorification in the Nazi cause. False memories had indeed defined both regions and by extension their historical studies.
The more I read Southern history and reread German history I noticed more similarities. Neither regions’ academics seemed to address one another in any significant way. There were Cursory mentions here and there, footnotes in an epilogue, an occasional article. German historians and Southern historians seemed unaware of how significantly their methods of analysis overlapped. It was maddening! How could either of these places consider themselves exceptional when their histories were so painfully similar?! How had no one else really dug into this subject? The possibilities were staggering! I wrote a paper for my Southern History course on this overlap, and the whole exercise was produced more in the name of catharsis than course completion. However, the paper would not be enough, I did not find myself satisfied.
I read more and more and continued to find considerable overlap, but meaningful comparisons were few and far between. So, my new obsession slowly shifted into my dissertation proposal. I refined my original project, stripped it down to its bolts, and completely rewrote it. I added a research prospectus where I outlined my major argument, my answer to the question I asked above: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? People were subjugated, excluded, and made the easy victims of violence and deprivation. The answer would not be found in studying politicians, demagogues, and the elites that had often defined my research. No, the similarity between these two regions, the element that formed the foundation of a transnational system of racial intolerance and exclusion was everyday people. The racial castes of Jim Crow and National Socialism may have had the force of law, but everyday people were the ones who enforced and followed the boundaries of racial propriety. Those boundaries were often set and adjusted at very local levels in countless interactions far away from any state supervision.
Many historians have argued that events and circumstances dictated complicity- in other words a historical actor’s present world left them little choice. Other scholars assert that historical actor’s memories of the past informed their complicity. I depart from these arguments; I insist that the answer to everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South lies not in past or present but in the future. I study the various expected futures that these historical actors internalized, which I call “Expectation” for shorthand. Expectation is a fact of human existence; we all walk around with some form of expectation of the future, be it a political identity, a five-year plan, or even what to eat for dinner. Historical actors similarly had expectations. In my research I have unearthed those hopes and fears of countless possible futures that provided considerable motivation for a wide variety of actions that lent credence to Jim Crow and Nazism.
Identifying and explaining expectation has been a fascinating endeavor that has taken me across six Southern states and all across the Southern German state of Bavaria. This particular German state and its people have long considered their culture to be highly distinct from the rest of Germany, harking back to an aristocratic tradition that thrived long before Prussian led unification “reconstructed” their region into a united Germany. As such, it offers a very proximate point of comparison with a Southern culture that deals with its own hatred of reconstructions. I have assembled pamphlets, newspapers, sheet music, broadsides, tourism brochures, flyers, letters, diaries, and a wide variety of everyday kitsch to assemble a clear picture of white supremacist hopes for the future. These items help illustrate a wide variety of wants, needs, and fears that informed everyday expectations for the future and by extension the justifications people internalized to vindicate their position in racialized states.
My research has shown five key components of expectation, each one of vital importance to understanding everyday complicity. First, tradition: the idea that people expect some form a remembered past will carry over into the future. Second, continuity: the hope that the institution, customs, and society of the present will continue to exist. Third, potential: the desire to maximize the potential of humanity and society to thrive in the future. These three ideas embody expectation generally and can be found outside of Jim Crow South and the Third Reich. However, the next two components help bridge the gap between expectation and complicity. Fourth, urgency: the pressing fear generated by either stressful times, political demagogy, or the perception of changes to the status quo that motivate historical actors to become more ardent in realizing their expectations. Finally, entitlement: the idea that historical actors considered themselves entitled to their expectations of the future at the direct expense of other people.
To fully explain how tradition, continuity, potential, urgency, and entitlement form expectations for the future and motivate everyday people to participate in racial states I use a series of vignettes to tackle each topic and illustrate a component of expectation as it existed in both the U.S. South and Bavarian Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, to study the idea of tradition, I look at the Lost Cause and postwar Confederate worship to demonstrate that Southerners generally expected their futures to contain some vestiges of moonlight and magnolias. In Bavaria, an emphasis on agricultural roots and Bavaria’s separate monarchy demonstrate that Bavarians hoped to honor their separatism of yesteryear. In assembling this argument, I have called on debates over Women’s Suffrage, Bavarian Catholicism, white supporters of Marcus Garvey, sterilization and eugenics, the Scopes Trial, Bamberg tourism, Prohibition, and so much else to unearth everyday expectation in a clear and compelling fashion.
When we consider the factors that contributed to everyday complicity, we must not only look at the usual suspects hierarchy, heritage, racism but also reflect on the role of people’s entitlement to expected futures and the fear of losing those futures. The world of the 1920s and 1930s was truly tumultuous with the rise of communism, a global war and an epidemic that combined wiped out much of a generation, a global depression, and many other destabilizing events. People needed and craved stability; in the case of the Jim Crow South and the Third Reich, that stability was offered by politicians and demagogues in exchange for participation in a strict and violent racial system. This stability afforded everyday whites in both the U.S. South and Bavaria Germany the opportunity to achieve their desired futures and to avoid imagined apocalypses. The opportunity to realize their expectations convinced far too many people to enforce, support, or at least look the other way as African Americans and Jews were stripped of their human rights, their dignity, and sometimes their very lives.
Derrick J. Angermeier is presently a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of Georgia. His dissertation, titled Both Hitler and Jim Crow: Lost Causes and Imagined Futures in Nazi Bavaria and the New South, 1919-1939, explores the expectations, hopes, and fears for the future held by everyday people in the U.S. South and Bavaria, Germany during the 1920s and 1930s as vehicles to understanding complicity in racialized states. Derrick has been awarded multiple research grants and fellowships which have taken him across the U.S. South and to the southern German state of Bavaria. This May he will be a Graduate Fellow of the Berlin Seminar in Transnational European Studies. Derrick prides himself on sharing his expertise and research with the public. He has spoken at multiple events sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; most recently in February 2018 when he discussed the role “Expectation” played in everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South at a symposium co-sponsored by the UAB Institute for Human Rights.
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Paul Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).
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Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery, Jefferson Chase (Metropolitan Books, 2001).
Nina Silber, The Romans of Reunion: Northers and the South 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993)
Martina Steber and Bernhard Gotto, eds., Visions of Community in Nazi Germany: Social Engineering and Private (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: The Rise of Germanic Ideology. (University of California Press, 1974).
Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Andrew Zimmermann, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, (Princeton University Press, 2012).
How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.
The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.
The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.
Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.
Although one would not be remiss in thinking this scenario occurred in a modern-day United States in which nearly eighty million people visit Pornhub every day and the boundaries of cultural libertinism seem to be constantly extended, in actuality, it occurred in a new Netflix series – Babylon Berlin – accurately dramatizing the Weimar Republic of interwar Germany. Constructed atop the ruins of Imperial Germany in the aftermath of World War One, the Weimar Republic represented the first German experiment in mass democracy and classical liberalism, an ideology oriented around the idea that individuals inherently possess certain natural rights. With this newfound emphasis on the individual, many Germans – theoretically liberated from the emphasis on community and tradition promoted by the elites of Imperial Germany – began a decade-long process of transforming their country into a laboratory in which the social experiments of the twenty-first century originated (Moeller, 2009).
However, intertwined with more questionable experimentation – as detailed in Babylon Berlin – existed one of the first attempts to institutionalize human rights, even though such rights failed to achieve codification until the aftermath of World War II. The German League of Human Rights, although founded as early as 1914, advocated for freedom of speech for political dissidents, civil rights for sexual and ethnic minorities, and opposed the rising tide of anti-Semitism in interwar Germany (Wildenthal, 2008). Meanwhile, the controversial founder of the Institute for Sexual Research, Magnus Hirschfield, established the first gay-rights organization – the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – and pioneered arguments in favor of granting rights to individuals identifying as transgender (Lind, 2007). Even the Weimar Republic itself, almost completely dysfunctional due to political infighting and polarization, sought the establishment of group rights in order to protect German minorities separated from the Vaterland following partition after World War I (Mazower, 2004). Inspired by these events in the place of his birth, Henry Gerber emigrated to the United States where he sought to continue the struggle for human rights by founding one of its first human rights organizations, the Society for Human Rights.
Although the Weimar Republic initially achieved great progress in immunizing the national culture against human rights abuses, its other experiments – particularly those of a sexual nature – afflicted interwar German society in the manner of a deadly contagion. Even in a healthy body, a powerful contagion possesses the capacity to generate tremendous amounts of damage, however, interwar Germany did not constitute an ideal host – it suffered from two distinct deficiencies allowing the contagion to gain more strength than normally possible. From the beginning, the Weimar Republic, as the product of military defeat, failed to achieve widespread legitimacy in Germany (Peukert, 1993). This lack of legitimacy combined with the deleterious aftereffects of World War I:
Culturally, it discredited optimistic and progressive views of the future, and cast doubt upon liberal assumptions about natural human harmony. Socially, it spawned armies of restless veterans (and their younger brothers) looking for ways to express their anger and disillusion without heed for old-fashioned law or morality. Politically, it generated economic and social strains that exceeded the capacity of existing institutions – whether liberal or conservative – to resolve. (Paxton, 2005, p. 28)
Ultimately, these deficiencies proved the Weimar Republic, and its advances in human rights, ephemeral. However, the ideas of the Conservative Revolution demonstrated far greater resiliency – they continue to influence the global political scene through the rhetoric and ideology of both the European far right and political Islam.
A Conservative Yet Revolutionary Critique of Human Rights
Coming of age in this time of systemic failure, a group of German intellectuals and philosophers – later referred to as the German Conservative Revolution (Mohler, 1989) – developed much of the modern rhetoric against human rights and liberalism. At first glance, the term German Conservative Revolution appears incoherent; however, unlike traditional conservatives, these intellectuals did not seek to preserve the established order, nor did they simply seek to turn back the clocklike mere reactionaries. Instead, they sought to combine select elements of the past with acceptable aspects of the present in order to construct an alternate and, in their opinion, much improved modernity. As Göran Dahl notes, the movement appeared:
Conservative in that they wanted to save the nation and protect German culture, and revolutionary because they thought one had to be active and decisive in order to create a new order beyond liberalism, socialism, capitalism, individualism, and parliamentary democracy. The key difference between the leftist and rightest conceptions of revolution was that while the former called for a change in ‘structure’ – political, economic, and social conditions – the latter emphasized a need for a different consciousness, a spiritual reawakening of both heart and mind. (Dahl, 1996, p.26)
In this new order, human rights receive no role – indeed, they effectively cease to exist. Profoundly influenced by the political trends of their era – namely, Social Darwinism and Nationalism – the German Conservative Revolution awarded very little credence to the idea of a common humanity. Martin Heidegger, a leading member of the German Conservative Revolution and one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century (Barrett, 1990), contended that the term people “cannot mean humanity, but an organic collective sharing identical ‘cultural’ values” (Dahl, 1996). Likewise, Carl Schmitt posited a Manichean universe populated by a variety of different groups, each of which relates to the others by labeling them either as friends or enemies (Schmitt, 2007).
This idea of a fractured humanity became especially influential among those who served in the trenches along the Western Front during World War I. These individuals, such as Ernst Jünger and Helmut Franke, scoffed at “all the pacifist and international theories of humanity” (Woods, 1990). How could anyone, they ask, believe in a common humanity after witnessing a “jagged piece of iron [as it] bursts out of the dust and noise senselessly in front of staring gazes and knocks them down, tears them to pieces, obliterates them” (Woods, 1990)?
Despite their loss of faith in humanity, they did not perceive humans primarily as individuals either. In their experience, the individual soldier – alone and atomized – suffered from anomie, depression, and anxiety, dwelling on his own mortality in the shadow of artillery explosions and machine-gun fire. The individual rights championed by the Weimar Republic possessed little appeal for them. On the other hand, the soldier as a member of a unit received support, protection, and distraction from his war-weariness while in the company of his fellow infantrymen. Their service in the trenches crystallized within them the importance of their national community, their fellow ethnic Germans – as evidenced by their mantra that “suffering and dying is meaningless; suffering and dying for a grand idea is honorable; suffering and dying for the fatherland is sacred” (Woods, 1990). Upon their return to Germany, the returning soldiers hoped to create “a state based on the experience of the soldiers in the front line,” an organic collective rooted in tradition and sustained “by the values of comradeship, fraternity, and community which were learnt in the face of mortal danger” (Woods, 1990).
At a more abstract level, Heidegger argued that the individual only achieves “true being” – true existence – as part of “a mutual and collective project”united by a “mutual context of understanding” (Dahl, 1996). The ethnically homogenous nation represented the highest and most sacred of these projects, and a combination of shared ethnicity, language, religion, and other factors created mutual understanding between members of the nation. However, this shared understanding presumed hierarchy rather than equality – the ethnic German took precedence over the foreigner, those able to further the nation through reproduction took precedence over those who could not. To Heidegger, “there is no freedom outside of organic communities, no rational individuals beyond their boundaries, and if there is opposition, it must be crushed in the name of the true and great existence” (Dahl, 1996). The rights of the collective receive precedence over the rights of the individual, while the prescription for those who refuse to conform entails removal or elimination.
While conflict between collectives does not represent an inevitable outcome, the German Conservative Revolutionaries routinely single out one country for criticism: the United States. In their eyes, the United States represents:
The ultimate example of civilization without culture; rich and comfortable, materially advanced but soulless and artificial; assembled or at best constructed, not grown; mechanical not organic; technologically complex but without the spirituality and vitality of the rooted, human, national cultures of the Germans and other “authentic peoples.” (Lewis, 2004, p. 69)
Responsible for abstract human rights, consumerism, individualism, materialism, sexual libertinism and other undesirable aspects of modernity, the United States – in the eyes of its German critics – becomes the modern equivalent of the sinful and decadent city of Babylon.
The Modern Offspring of the Conservative Revolution
Eventually, the German Conservative Revolution succumbed to an even more radical movement, the NSDAP of Adolf Hitler, which appropriated and repackaged many of its ideas (Mohler, 1989) to appeal to the segments of Weimar Germany distraught by the cultural changes dramatized in Babylon Berlin. However, as Robert Paxton notes, the intellectuals of the German Conservative Revolution, “though sometimes considered the creators of fascism[,] actually account better for the space made available for fascism than they do for fascism itself” (Paxton, 2005).
At this point, some may ask themselves, “What does an early twentieth century political movement and its critique of human rights matter to a citizen of the twenty-first century?”
Mere decades after World War II, the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution began circulating throughout Western Europe once again. The Nouvelle Droite of France, in conjunction with its various sister movements in neighboring countries, exposed the European population to this German ideology through influential media organs, such as Le Figaro and Junge Freiheit (Bar-On, 2012). According to Tamir Bar-On, “the entire European extreme right-wing political spectrum from the Italian Lega Nord (Northern League – LN) to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Belgium have been influenced by” the Nouvelle Droite (Bar-On, 2012) and, thus, by extension the German Conservative Revolution. The spread of these ideas through the previously mentioned parties and media organs “helped engender the Pan-European cultural shift” (Bar-On, 2012) that made the current far-right populist wave a reality.
However, the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution did not halt at the frontiers of the European continent. The main ideologues of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – Ali Shariati, Ahmad Fardid, and Jalal Al-e Ahmad – employed these ideas increating the intellectual superstructure of the Islamic Republic (Mirsepassi, 2011). During the same time period, major Islamist politicians and philosophers in both Turkey (Aydin, 2006) and the Arab world (Tamimi, 2001) similarly adopted this rhetoric.
In the twenty-first century, the main opponents of classical liberalism and human rights constitute the European far right and Political Islamists, both of which employ the arguments of these German intellectuals. Therefore, understanding the appeal of the ideas of the German Conservative Revolution to these movements and their voters represents a matter of increasing importance for those dedicated to defending both liberalism and human rights.
To those cocooned for their entire existence within an era dominated by a liberalism seemingly possessing no viable opponents, the idea that many people around the globe view liberalism as artificial, oppressive, and even dehumanizing seems irrational – after all, Americans regularly hear the virtues of individualism, consumerism, secularism, and other aspects of liberalism. Yet, for others, the anti-liberal, anti-human rights ideas that originated with the German Conservative Revolution possess a concrete and thoroughly rational basis for belief. Young Germans, emerging from the brutal trench warfare of World War I, developed these ideas as a response to the tremendous social and cultural dislocation they experienced upon returning home to a Germany they barely recognized. In the twenty-first century, these ideas appear in response to similar contexts: a Middle East undergoing a rapid series of modernization, industrialization, foreign humiliation, secularization, and cultural experimentation (Mirsepassi, 2011; Lewis, 2004; Aydin, 2006); and a Europe suffering from post-industrialization, large numbers of migrants, and a crisis of identity (Murray, 2017).
As in the 1920s and 1930s, cultivating empathy for the “Other,” understanding these ideas and the conditions that spur their popularity, remains the fundamental challenge facing supporters of liberalism and human rights. Although the path often seems perilous and difficult, the active cultivation of this empathy represents the only meaningful path towards bridging the divides currently surfacing throughout the world.
Aydin, C. (2006). Between Occidentalism and the Global Left: Islamist Critiques of the West in Turkey. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, 26(3), 446-461.
Bar-On, T. (2012). Intellectual Right-Wing Extremism – Alain de Benoist’s Mazeway Resynthesis since 2000. In U. Backes & P. Moreau (Eds.), The Extreme Right in Europe: Current Trends and Perspectives (pp. 333-358). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Barrett, W. (1990). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Dahl, G. (1996). Will ‘The Other God’ Fail Again? On the Possible Return of the Conservative Revolution. Theory, Culture, & Society, 13(1), 25-50.
Lewis, B. (2004). The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York, NY: Random House.
Lind, A., & Brzuzy, S. (Eds.). (2007). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality (Vol. 2). Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Mazower, M. (2004, June). The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950. The Historical Journal, 47(2), 379-398.
Mirsepassi, A. (2011). Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment: Philosophies of Hope and Despair. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Moeller, R. G. (2009). The Nazi State and Germany Society. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Mohler, A. (1989). Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918-1932: Ein Handbuch. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
Murray, D. (2017). The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Paxton, R. (2005). The Anatomy of Fascism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Peukert, D. (1993). The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. (R. Deveson, Trans.). New York, NY: Hill & Wang
Schmitt, C. (2007). The Concept of the Political (Expanded ed.). (G. Schwab, Trans.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Tamimi, A. S. (2001). Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wildenthal, L. (2008, September). Human Rights Activism in Occupied and Early West Germany: The Case of the German League for Human Rights. The Journal of Modern History, 80(3), 515-556.
Woods, R. (1990, January). The Conservative Revolution and the First World War: Literature as Evidence in Historical Explanation. The Modern Language Review, 85(1), 77-91.
**This blog is a repost as we invite you to join us for a series of events with Violins of Hope Birmingham, April 11-14, 2018. The centerpiece of the project will be the Violins of Hope Concert at the Alys Stephens Center on April 14, 2018, featuring the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Music Director, Carlos Izcaray.
If identity were a sound, what would it sound like? For Jews, it sounds like the notes that rise from the striking of the bow across the tension of the strings on a violin. Elie Wiesel, in Night, writes of a brief encounter with Juliek, a dying violinist. This encounter, without full understanding of the context and the role of the violin in Jewish culture, may remain overlooked and misunderstood. It did for me until I began researching for this blog.
Violins, often heard in a piece of classical music, a genre that as Wang describes as “a special form of culture widely defined within an ideological and social sphere in people’s everyday life”, speak to the universal accessibility of music and the cultural complexity of creative expression within the social identity of Jewish people. “Always when people asked Isaac Stern why so many Jewish people are playing the violin, his answer was very simple: ‘It is the easiest instrument to pick it up and to run away!'” The embedding of music in Jewish tradition resulted from their persecution. Music provided a refuge and an outlet for emotional expression, whether pain or joy because music has the power to transcend.
A violinist is an essential figure within the sociocultural dynamic of Jewish high society. Gilman, highlighting the life of Albert Einstein, explains how the violin is “an emblem of the integration of the Jews into Western high culture… [and] links both personal and historical meanings.” Spotts insists that to the Nazis, “Theater, music, art, and literature were inherently ennobling, unless… practiced by the Jews.” Music for Einstein and other Jews allowed for the continuous expression and validation of individuality, in conjunction with and apart from religion. Conductor Franz Welser-Most maintains, “An instrument becomes part of the person which plays it. It’s the voice of that person comes through the instrument.” Violinists and their violins reinforced the humanity of all Jewish people, thereby undermining Nazi anti-Semitic ideology.
Albrecht considers art, including music, an institution. He identifies three characteristics of art: structure, function, and universality. The institution of art exists within the social structures of a society due to the ability of music to fulfill the human psychological need for creativity. While conceding that art is not a primary institution, one needed for the survival of society, he does suggest that it should no longer remain a secondary (or throwaway) institution either. Art should remain as important as religion, philosophy, and science. In other words, societies needs to recover the value of art by understanding its characteristics.
First, the structure of art is expressive and social, exposing what Parsons defines as “the paradigm of social interaction”. The paradigm of social interaction is the triad reciprocal relationship among the author, the critic, and the public based upon a supply and demand existence, or needs-based approach. For Parsons, human behavior consists of patterns of belief systems, which incorporate and appropriate objects, like violins, into the fabric of an individual or group experience based upon meaning. The repetition of the pattern creates a culture that, over time, produces a heritage. For Bortolotto, “Heritage is created …with authenticity understood as an important quality in the perpetuation of a sense of historical continuity and cultural ancestry.” Therefore, the social structure of art features this triadic interaction over a period and this historical interaction creates solidarity. Art is an essential link in the network of social and cultural relations.
Second, art satisfies curiosity, creates balance, and reduces stress. Spencer concludes that art permits “prolonged rest of the nerve-centers, which build up energy in excess of demands for immediate instrumental activities”, creating a satisfaction that comes from being a part of art through its creation or experience rather than simply participating in it. Weber equates art with ‘salvation’; not salvation as in eternal life but salvation that comes as a means of transcending one’s immediate situation or circumstance. Art allows for momentary escape; this quality contributes to the enrichment and augmentation of an individual and society.
Lastly, art is universal. Hoebel asserts, “Man could survive without art; yet man and art are inseparable.” Human beings are creative beings, yet the limitations of art classification detach the social and cultural significance of artwork or performance, whether it be resistance or propaganda. Take rap as an example. Martinez argues rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s utilizes lyrics and sounds as a form of expressing resistance to some cultural norms about music, and as propaganda when considering the urban decay of black communities, in direct contrast to white communities. In other words, regardless of classification, art, including music, possesses the power to influence, to give voice to the minority, and to symbolize resistance.
Amnon Weinstein is a violinmaker. More than 50 years ago, a customer brought him an old violin in need of restoration. Unplayed violins lose their sound and their spirit over time; therefore, a well-played instrument sounds richer and more open. Weinstein, over the course of the conversation, learned that the owner, a Holocaust survivor, “had played on the violin on the way to the gas chamber, but he survived because the Germans needed him for their death camp orchestra.” When the Nazis outlawed prayer, Jewish violinists played as a means of communion and defiance. “And just knowing that some of these people who have owned these instruments did not survive, but their personality is still within these instruments, I find that very moving”, acknowledges Welser-Most. The restoration of more than 30 Holocaust violins has become Weinstein’s method of harnessing the power of music to influence, returning voice to the minority, and to continually cultivating a resistance against the cruelty of the Holocaust and the silence that descended when the war concluded, by listening to the stories told by the violins.
This Sunday, September 17, 2pm at Temple Emanu-El, musicologist and author James A. Grymes will discuss his book, Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, and the work of Amnon Weinstein. Event organizer Sallie Downs, when asked what inspired her to bring the Violins of Hope story to Birmingham, replied:
I am free to bring them; and they are free to come. All musicians, regardless of who they are and what they believe, are free to play the instruments when they want and where they want, and they are free to play whatever music they wish to play. Jewish musicians didn’t have that opportunity. They did nothing wrong. They were persecuted and too many people didn’t believe it could happen and they stood by until it was out of control. With all the hate and evil we are witnessing in this country, and the ignorance and resignation with which it is viewed, I can’t stand by quietly and do nothing. G-d help me, if I ever find myself on the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence, like those who were tortured and murdered during the Holocaust for no good reason, I will never regret that I did nothing when I had the opportunity to do something. The power of music on the Violins of Hope is a call to action. The Violins are giving voice to the voiceless and providing us an opportunity to help them say “Never again will good people stand idly by and watch innocent life be desecrated. Never again will we allow the voices of the weak to be silenced.” Not here. Never again.
Violins of Hope is a bearer of intangible cultural heritage. By “establishing a relationship with the past by turning it into an authentic historical object”, Weinstein who restores the violins, and the musicians who play them, are “encouraging social practices that allow cultural objects and expressions to be produced and performed by community members”; thereby creating a living exhibition maintaining a focus on perpetuity.
Adopting a child from a country foreign different from your own is a complicated and controversial practice. If done correctly, you have saved a parentless child from a life of probable poverty and despair. If done incorrectly, you have either aided organizations who coerce parents into giving their children up or even facilitated child abuse, if the individual institution is unethically managed. Even if the adoption is conducted using appropriate channels and oversight, the adopting families are not always well intentioned.
International adoption peaked in 2004 and has been declining ever since, in part because of increasing restrictions fueled by incidents of violence. The problems that surround international adoption are complex and deeply intertwined with a variety of factors. Race, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, and global inequality together form the sticky, problematic web of international adoption.
At the peak of international adoption in the United States nearly fifteen years ago, much of the hype was driven by religious organizations. Adoption became a primary social welfare issue in the early 2000s after American Evangelicals began to champion the issue. This is not to be taken as an explicitly negative phenomenon; some religious organizations are instrumental in protecting human rights violations for international orphans. Many individuals who adopted in the name of their religion have vibrant, happily integrated families. However, religiosity does provides a cover of moral legitimacy that often discourages scrutiny of organizations or individuals.
Adoption agencies are not legally required to be accredited, and many faith-based agencies are not. Only 303 organizations are accredited per international standards of the roughly 3,000 agencies that perform adoption services in the United States. Central to this issue is the white-savior industrial complex, a term coined by notable author and activist Teju Cole. Cole explains that white people (often Americans) tend to view less developed regions but most specifically Africa as “a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism.” Families sometimes adopt international children with perverse motivations of piety and applause. Children are stripped of their culture and forced to adapt to Western norms overnight, and face dire consequences when they cannot conform. Individuals have relayed being severely disciplined for hesitating to eat unfamiliar foods, not adapting to American norms for eye contact quickly enough, and for speaking their own languages. This is a direct violation of the human right to culture. Internationally adopted children have the right to fully experience their birth culture for the sake of human dignity and the preservation of that child’s identity.
Adoption Facts and Flaws
The majority of international adoptees (71%) in the United States from the last twenty years have come from one of five countries: China, Russia, Guatemala, South Korea, or Ethiopia. All five of these countries have increased restrictions on foreign adoption, accounting for 88% of the decline since 2004 (Source: Pew Research Center). The restrictions come on the heels of majorly publicized cases of abuse and/or deaths of international adoptees.
Abuse and deaths in intercountry adoptive families are common. Numerous appalling incidents involving the misfortune of adopted children have circulated in the media in the past few years. International adoption is a tricky subject. Exploitation can occur on a number of levels, as the adoption process includes a variety of actors. The adopting families, the adoption agency, and the source institution can all be separately complicit in unethical behavior. To amplify corruption, there is little to no legislation to identify or prosecute exploitation on any level. “Sending countries” or the countries which children are most frequently adopted from, have had to become increasingly strict on foreign adoption policies. This is one of the most critical issues – the sending countries, who are most often relatively disadvantaged compared to receiving countries, carry the burden to make major policy reform in order to protect their children from exploitation. International policy on intercountry adoption is scarce, vague, and often unenforced.
While the international adoption system contains many flaws, the most identifiable fundamental issue is lack of oversight and policy. Adoptions are most often conducted through private, individual agencies who each have different standards of what the adoption process should look like. These private agencies operate without much restriction placed on their activity. It seems unacceptable to permit adoption to occur through non-accredited agencies, yet that is the current norm. Lack of accreditation creates a wider pathway for unethical behavior. The market for adopting children is huge and incredibly lucrative, as it is full of wealthy potential adoptive families. The desperation for many families to find and adopt a child can often generate more demand than the current supply of available children can sustain; this eventually leads to gaps in supply being filled by non-orphaned children who were either stolen, coerced through misinformation, or otherwise manipulated into leaving their families.
Internationally-Adopted Victims of Child Abuse
One of the most recent and infamous cases was that of Sherin Mathews, a three year old girl from India who had developmental disabilities. Sherin died in October of last year from allegedly choking on milk that she was being forced to drink, though her adoptive father has made various claims about the circumstances of her death. The three year old was missing for a period of time but was found in a culvert. The international community was in an uproar after this crime came to light, and India quickly adopted legislation to reduce foreign adoption.
Ethiopia made similar measures last month following similar stories of abuse, though this act still surprised many, as the country has been well known for their high frequency of international adoption. Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died at age thirteen from exposure after being forced to stay outside for hours as punishment. Hana was adopted by Carri and Larry Williams in 2008, but was quickly subjected to torturous conditions after Carri became dissatisfied with Hana’s maturity. Carri reportedly said, “I expected to adopt a little girl, not a half-grown woman,” as Hana began to menstruate shortly after arriving in the United States. The Williamses forced Hana to stay in a closet for upwards of ten hours at a time and required Hana to use an outdoor portable toilet, while the Williamses’ biological children were never subject to such misery. The night that Hana died, the entire Williams family spectavted and allegedly laughed as she staggered around naked for several hours in the cold, rainy backyard.
Two victims who survived their abuse are Guatemalan adoptee Carolina and Russian-born Leonid, who together endured years of physical and psychological torture from Kathleen and Martin O’Brian. The O’Brians were originally charged in 2012 of abusing their adopted children, including allegations of “locking them in a room with no bathroom, forcing them to kneel naked on sharp rocks and stand in a feces covered dog pen, and withholding food from them.” Both Carolina and Leonid have been happily adopted by different families after both Kathleen and Martin were found guilty, but will likely always retain the emotional and physical scars from the hellish O’Brian family. Russia banned foreign adoption the same year that the O’Brians were charged, as nineteen Russian children have died at the hands of foreign adoptive parents in the past twenty years. Stories of child abuse inflicted upon international adoptees are depressingly frequent. It is imperative to identify which flaws in the system are to blame for these horrible crimes, and how change can be enacted to prevent future suffering.
Despite the seemingly endless desperation to adopt, it is surprisingly easy to exchange children online with no legal intervention or monetary exchange. Re-homing communities exist in niches of the Internet, where families with adopted children post advertisements to give their “troublesome” children away. Reuters gave a detailed investigation of this practice in 2013, recounting several personal narratives of individuals who have either taken part in rehoming children, been re-homed themselves, or otherwise interacted with the re-homing community. Laws vary by state and have become more common since Reuter’s report incited brief public interest, but many states still only require the signature of a legal guardian to transfer custody to another adult. The exchange can occur privately without notifying any government officials, which creates a dangerous avenue for predators to easily obtain vulnerable children from desperate parents. Within Reuter’s report, multiple detailed accounts were given of children who were re-homed with individuals with documented pasts of abusing children physically, sexually, and emotionally. This occurred because the original adoptive parents did not thoroughly vet the family who was taking their child, a common experience among re-homing communities. One mother stated of her twelve year old adopted daughter, “I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate.”
Re-homing perseveres despite ethical quandaries due to the imminent need for post-adoption support for adoptive parents. Most agencies provide little to no support after the adoption process has been finalized, despite the difficulties that many families have in acclimating to the change. Reuters found that 70% of the children being re-homed were of international origin, and many of those children had behavioral problems indicative of some form of trauma or disability.
The Path Ahead: Hope and Reform
The dark side of international adoption is one shrouded in mystery and corruption. Vulnerable children all over the world are being victimized on all levels within the process of adoption. Abuse can occur at the hands of adoptive parents, in re-homing families, by private non-accredited agencies, and within local orphanages. Considering that these children are already incredibly vulnerable (as many are already impacted by compound discrimination of race, disability, and class), this systematic abuse is particularly heinous. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child fully secures and protects all human rights of children, and specifically requires that “the system of adoption shall ensure that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.” Shockingly, the United States is the only UN member nation who has not yet ratified the CRC. This is a blatant failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our population. America cannot remain complicit in such an exploitative system; it is truly reprehensible that our country is so heavily engaged in the adoption of vulnerable foreign children yet refuses to protect them. This is a failure for the global community as well — international community has accepted a flawed adoption system for far too long. Both domestic and international policy reform are essential to preserving and promoting the human rights and dignity of children.
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