On Ethnic Remembrances of Tragedy

Two currently close at hand examples of ethnic groups holding on to memories of past tragedy include the American Black who hold fast the memory of their in bondage in the American South a century and a half past and the European (or Global) Jewish people who will “never forget” the Holocaust in WWII Germany. The thesis I’m am going to explore in this essay is that the methods used normally and the thoughts and memories that ethnic groups hold on to from these events lead to errors in thinking and judgement. That we need to be careful as to how such things are remembered if it that memory is to be a postive force on our lives. Historically speaking, I wonder if holding on to resentiment and anger from past wrongs has ever helped a people, or that if, only after anger fades and reconcilliation begins can these memories help a people.

The first error which seems universal regarding such memories is that they are very selective. In our two examples, the American Black ascribes fault to the American/European whites for their bondage. And yes, the white men at the time where the slave holders, transporters, and local enablers. However, in the current drug trafficking trade, we hold the seller accountable at least if not moreso than they buyer. In the African slave triangle, it was African indigenous Black tribes preying on others that sold the Black man to the white. However, in my casual aquaintance with the American Black memories of their time in slavery, blame is never assigned to the African Blacks remaining in Africa. If this event is to be remembered, why is not that complicity of the African Black remembered? Or the sacrifice of the Union (mostly white) soldiers rememberd just as well? As for the Holocaust remembrance, selective memory is in play there as well. Some 6 million Jews were killed in the death camps by German Nazis. However, all told some 10 million where killled in those camps. Jews accounted for 3 fifths of those killed, not the 98% that might be implied by a casual inspection of retellings, e.g., Schindler’s List. Film and other memories and the Jewish accounts of the horrors of those camps show that the camps were almost 100% Jewish in nature, which obviously if 40% of the victims were not Jewish that doesn’t gibe. How did these preserved memories distort the past? That is the danger here. The question here is, if “never forget” is to be taken as a call that never again should “ethnic” cleansing and genocide be performed? Why then are those 4 million who died alongside the Jews in Nazi Germany forgotten? There is an implicit selfishness in the “never forget” if those other 4 millions have been set aside, marginalized, and … well … forgotten. More importantly the selective memory of ethnic retelling of history it seems very often (over) simplifies historical fact.

The second error which also seems universal is how those memories are often applied. American Blacks it seems apply this in the form of resentment toward the American caucasion. How this in turn might be “fair” game for the majority (?) of American’s of European descent who arrived in America in the post Civil War period is less clear or more significantly those who arrived at any time in the 19th century and settled in the northern/non-slave states. So then this resentiment is applied in this case in a broader fashion than might be considered just or right. This particular error is less likely to be a problem with the Jewish people as the Nazi regime has been eliminated, and thereby the “guilty” party in this affair no longer exists.

The final error to point out is that this event, be it a time of bondage, death, or occupation gives a people a feeling of uniqueness. Ethnic experience and heritage is, in my opinion, can very often be a postive thing in the human experience. This is reinforced by the impression a people have together survived trials. But thinking that a people is unique by virtue of having such wrongs done them is in error. For it seems to me, that from a historical perspective, every ethnicity virtually without exception has times of hard trials. Pick a people. They too have been grievously wronged in their past. The memory of trial it seems, is universal. The error in this to ascribe to the Black or Jewish ethnic experience is to hold that their trial makes them somehow exceptional.

So what then is recommended? What do these lessons teach us that is positive? One obvious positive thing about the ethnic memory and recollection of past trials is that it cements the ethnic bond. It can bring a people together, creating solidarity among members of an ethnic group. At the same time, each ethnic group should be aware that their experience, while unique, is not so far different from others. There is a commonality implicit in our differences.

Another historical example is how the Jewish people, in the far past, dealt with their particular instance of bondage and hold that up against the Black experience. How different is the rememberance of Passover to be compared with how the American Black views their deliverance from bondage. From an outsiders perspective (in both cases), it seems that the Passover rite and remembrance concentrates not on recriminations aimed toward the Egyptian people and rulers but on their deliverance and God’s providence and power. Can not this sort of memory be the focus too for the Jewish and American Black as they reflect on their time of trial? Frequent commenter David Schraub indicates that the July 4th celebrations in America for the American Black is not celebrated without reservations because it was not such an unalloyed declaration of Freedom for them. While I’m not particularly sympathetic to that point of view, because I think it in error, perhaps April 9th might be made a private celebratory time for them? An ethnic time of remembrance of deliverance? The point here is that the Passover remembrance takes away a far different message than either the memory of slavery for the American Black or the Modern Jew recalling the Holocaust. Might there be a way to re-interpret that memory in a positive way like the Passover rite does for the more ancient time of slavery and deliverance?

A second positive way to use the remembrance of trials is to focus on that particular error on the world stage and work actively to insure it does not happen to others. For the American Black, that might be to actively fight against chattel slavery on the world stage, which is so often assumed to have been extinguished from the world stage in the 19th century but has not faded but is probably even worse (numerically) than in the past and as well perhaps is crueler than in the past times. One might ask if American (or international) Jewish people are at the forefront warning against, highlighting, and combatting genocide? Was Israel trumpeting and declaiming Pol Pot? Serbia? and so on? Might that not be a role dicated by their recent past and how to best honor that memory?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. When Tragedies Still Matter…

    Mark Olsen thinks certain groups–namely Jews and Blacks–remember their historical tragedies the wrong way. Specifically, he thinks that they falsely claim uniqueness, and that they take an overly hostile stance rather than using past tragedies for …..

  2. […] Mr Schraub thinks my previous essay (here) is “It’s an interesting post, marred only by the fact that it’s wildly wrong on nearly every account.” This might be credible, if he didn’t choose to misinterpret me on virtually every account. Now that may be more my fault of poor exposition than his at willful disagreement or a worldview mostly orthogonal to mine. But allow me to examine his reply in more detail and attempt to see where the cards lie. After all, I will admit that I’ve spent less time in study on these matters than he, so perhaps my initial reading is hasty. The main thesis for my previous post was that when remembering tragedy that occurs to an ethnic minority, we should recall that horrific tragedies are more often than not, to be found in every (or at the very least most) ethnic group(s) and that we should use such tragedy to both unite the internal ethnic bonds, but not to hold them as a reason to continue and add to the hatred and violence in the world. That is, they should be a thing that unites a people as well, as a uniting principle with those outside their circle and that when they are used in an oppositional manner this is counterproductive and .. well … wrong. […]

  3. […] David Schraub and I have been discussing race. It started with a post of mine, on postive and not-so-positive ways ethnic groups recollect tragedies which have befallen them in the past, to be provocative, I chose two example, the American Black and the Jewish remembrance of the Holocaust. Mr Schraub, then demurred claiming that those two groups have a right, if not a responsibility, to remember their particular tragedies in a negative/divisive fashion. I responded, thinking I was most likely misunderstood, given my poor facility with the written word. Back to his court, Mr Schraub then held that we need to back up and examine principles. In this latest rejoinder, Mr Schraub claims a moral principle he finds to be primary when considering ethnic relations: Human beings have a moral obligation to try and remedy unjust systems of which they are the beneficiary […]

  4. […] Olson at Pseudo-Polymath presents On Ethnic Remembrances of Tragedy. {mosimage}{mosimage}Allura. Kind, caring and always willing to go the extra mile for her […]