History and privilege

Dear President Trump,

Yesterday morning I read poet Lisel Mueller’s WP obituary first because it was at the top of the stack (Katherine Johnson had just died and so hers hadn’t yet made it to the main page) and about midway through there was an interesting quote in reference to her poem “Happy and Unhappy Families II”:

“The message is obvious,” Ms. Mueller once told the Chicago Tribune. “My family went through terrible times. In Europe no one has had a private life not affected by history. I’m constantly aware of how privileged we (Americans) are.”

I felt a twinge of sadness and some frustration reading the last two lines and wished that she had somehow qualified her statement about both history and privilege in America.

For lots of reasons, those of us who have substantively benefited from one or more streams of American history often insist that it’s our own grit and rugged individualism that got us where we are today when in reality our lives are profoundly shaped (and supported) by history. And of course those of us whose lives have been hemmed in by history, who are treated like second class citizens, expend untold time and energy pushing back against the expectation that we should just wait patiently for our turn, that we should bite our tongues while Master eats his fill, has his full say, and has his way with us.

And yes, thankfully, some of this is starting to change.

It’s now part of history that Harvey Weinstein was convicted on two counts of sexual violence that together carry a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. Plus, California hasn’t tried him yet so there could be more such history coming. Bill Cosby was similarly convicted of sexual offenses and Jeffery Epstein almost certainly would have been had he not died. Goodness willing, someday you too will be held to account for your sexual violence towards women and more corrective history will be made. The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka the National Lynching Memorial) in Alabama is also now part of history; it’s challenging the old whitewashed stories, pulling back the veil on America’s legacy of systemic racial violence and its present-day manifestations.

Mueller’s Chicago Tribune quote was from a 1993 article about her and was set in a time when these big national conversations about gender and race weren’t happening on the scale they are now. So as much as I might wish her take was different back then, it’s not fair to expect that she should of or could have stepped back from her own history, which was grounded in Europe, and have been able to take on the weight of America’s history too. I guess.

There was also a fair bit in both the Chicago Tribune articles I found about her and in her obituary recounting what a struggle it was to find her way here in the US as a German-speaking immigrant. Maybe if the push to assimilate hadn’t been so strong she might have been able to identify more closely with other people whose histories don’t line up neatly with America’s self-satisfied narrative. She might have been able to more clearly see that here too, history was and is experienced very differently and that privilege was and is meted out very differently depending on one’s race, gender, and family circumstances, to name but a few of the vectors that heavily influence our lives.

May we be safe to be real about our collective and individual histories.
May we be willing to see and own our histories so we can change course.
May we recognize that not dealing with history is killing many of us.
May we not make peace with superficial takes on either history or privilege.

Tracy Simpson

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