Silence Against the Day

… I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” 30 April 1967

I have thought a great deal, of late, about the Moors and the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and about their expulsion from their own countries, the lands where they were born and where they had lived for, in many cases, generations. I’ve often wondered what I’d do, in a similar position. After all, the ancestors I can trace—most of them, given my brother S’s diligence—came to this continent in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all arriving prior to the Revolution (in which, of course, they fought). As far as I know, there are no cousins left abroad, no family members with whom to seek temporary shelter.

As is likely evident to anyone who has read this blog, I look to the past to understand the present, and the future. The past, from the Reconquista to the Holocaust, from Manifest Destiny to America’s Backyard, isn’t offering any comfort at all, at the moment. I re-read old notes, and old books; I seek out my marginalia, the notes and annotations I’ve added to better understand what I read. I think back to that great Medieval epic, el Cantar de Mio Cid, where that most Spanish and most manly of heroes had a Moorish best friend, one Abengalbon. They would embrace and cry all over each other most manfully every time the Cid would show up from a raid, or head out again on a new one. Abengalbon even looked out for the Cid’s ladyfolk (when they weren’t being abused at court) and took care of all the tax revenue the guy was always carting home. (It made me think, a lot, about how much of what we consider “normal” masculinity is a construction—nobody would ever accuse the Cid of not being the very manliest of men, and here he was, hugging and crying with his best bro.) When that long-ago bard first spoke the verses of Cantar de Mio Cid, at least some Moors—like Abengalbon—were good, and were friends, neighbors, companions. But that changed all too soon.

Packed away, because I am sharing a small house with a large number of people, is the notebook where I took copious notes, my first semester in grad school, during Imagining Moorish Spain. (It was excellent, and depressing, and fed my long-time fascination with the Moors and the Moriscos and the Jews who were driven from their home.) The Spanish and Portuguese were the greatest sailors and the first of the great European explorers (at least since the Celts bobbed around now and again) for a reason: they learned from the Moors, who did not fear the demons of darkness and who navigated by the stars.1 In one of those odd historical turns, Cristóbal Colón would never have sailed that ocean blue without the knowledge the Moors passed on to their fellow Iberians.

Some exiles thought they’d be back, soon. They left keys to their homes with neighbors and friends, assuming that they’d be right back when this nonsense blew over—they’d lived there all their lives, after all. Some buried their belongings. Some whole towns—including Christian Iberians—were deported, because they looked Moorish, or Morisco, or Jewish. (According to those notes I can’t find, this actually meant they looked poor—yet not all Moors or Moriscos or Jews were poor.) Some lords and nobles fought like bloody hell for their people, trying to keep them safe. Some lied and claimed that every last person on their land was a good Christian, so help me God, and had always been, and you’d better move on to the next town. Some of them got away with it, and protected their people. Some didn’t. Some didn’t try at all. Jewish and Muslim Iberians began to cook a hell of a lot of sausages, because damn if you can tell whether or not that meat’s pork when it’s so heavily seasoned. (Protip: it wasn’t.)

Why do I bring up the expulsion of the Moors, as my country’s constitution is desecrated? Because I have long identified with them, right or wrong—and because, in the name of some frightening world of which I do not wish to be a part, my own countrypeople are being denied entry to the United States. They thought they’d be home soon, many of them. It isn’t, I think, all that hard to imagine, for anyone who follows the news. As of this writing, I have no idea if some of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues will be able to come back to their homes after conferences abroad. I work with young people who have been told, by this election, by the rhetoric and now the (unconstitutional) policies coming from it, that they are not welcome in their own country.

As someone who looks to the past to understand the present (and the future, in its way), I have tended to tell people that the past sucked, the present isn’t so great, and all we can do is work together to make sure that the future is incrementally improved. (I am not much one for revolution, perhaps because I am one of those who isn’t likely to make it, having poor health, or because I saw what happened to old families—even long-faded non-gentility—in France during the Terror, or because I know that violence tends to beget violence.) Now, of course, the present echoes the past. I have been ill a lot this year, and so, rather than hitting the streets as I have in the past (this is what one does, when one’s mother was an activist during the ’60s and ’70s), I have been doing the equivalent, for someone as low-paid as I, of throwing money at the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center—we can but try, and if I can’t march, I can continue to support organizations and media sources which will not give up.

On January 20 of this year, I chose to watch Selma, rather than a certain televised event. I am the daughter of a civil rights activist; I have seen the scars on her body from repeated police beatings. So, then, watching Selma was not as much a shock for me as for some (I saw comments from folks who couldn’t believe the beatings; I couldn’t believe that they weren’t aware), but it was an intense experience. As a (generally perceived to be) white woman from the South Side of Chicago, with family from the Deep South and an ugly family history of overseers and plantation owners, I have grown up intimately aware of discrimination. I have seen it in the streets in Chicago; I’ve seen it happen to people I know and love. I see it in the books published and in movies brought to theatre with barely a single actor of color in the entire production. I don’t know where these producers and directors live, but I gather it looks nothing like Chicago, or they’d be as bothered by their white casts as am I.

Selma is also a visceral reminder of what our country’s moral compasses—people like John Lewis and Dolores Huerta and the late Fred Korematsu—have suffered, to make us as a country better, stronger, somewhat closer to those lofty ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence and in the desecrated Constitution and Bill of Rights. It’s a reminder that people suffered, and died, to get those rights promised to us as unalienable by our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights, our Constitution.

There is, in short, a reason why I opened this post with a quote from Martin Luther King, one reminding us that “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” Elie Wiesel once wrote, “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” I wonder how many are indifferent, even now—how many otherwise decent people have become those silent, apathetic “good men” of either Mill or Burke, who sit and do nothing as darkness gathers. I don’t want to do nothing. I also don’t want to be like my mother, who got pneumonia on the road to Selma—and so, because I have been so sick now for so long, I have been donating to the ACLU, to Southern Poverty Law Center, to Planned Parenthood. I am guessing mine will have to be a monetary activism for some time, and since I make less now than I did as a teaching assistant, it will be rather tough.

But I can also suggest diverse books, representative books, books which show the beautiful, diverse world in which we live. As someone with a learning disability I know painfully well how marvelous it is to find myself represented in fiction—I really did cry, when I read Six of Crows and then Crooked Kingdom. (To be sure, Crooked Kingdom tears one’s heart out—but it is also a marvelous depiction of a dyslexic who compensates and covers up and is amazing despite—or because of?—his “disability.”) I want the kids with whom I work to see themselves in the books they read, because I know how amazing it feels, to finally find oneself represented. I am not often a reviewer, but I can try to use this space, now and again, to note books I have particularly enjoyed, from heavy non-fiction (I read too much at once: I have The History of White People on one side, The Incorporation of America on another, and piles more history books around me, waiting for an upcoming entry on Chicago’s own despised robber baron, George Pullman) to romance and chick lit and sci-fi. (Have you read Octavia Butler? If not—she’s amazing! 🙂 I do suggest her work.)

In 1492, when Isabella gave the fanatical Christopher Columbus the green light to go west to India, as one does when one has an even worse sense of direction than do (which is really saying something!), she and Ferdinand were celebrating the fall of the last caliphate in the Iberian Peninsula, the Moorish kingdom at Granada. I have no doubt that a whole lot of people in the area were busily making sausages as Boabdil rode away. Hell, I would have been making sausages, too, and trying to figure out where the hell I could go, and if I’d ever be safe again. Appearance was, of course, one of the ways those rounding up Moors and Jews were using; at least some of the time, my professor reminded us, they were casting out a dragnet, rounding up poor people of all religions and ethnicities and backgrounds to ship somewhere, anywhere, else. How things don’t change, I guess: societies still terrorize the poor.

So I am a child of the city, and of, to be more precise, the South Side of Chicago. I grew up backstage, and onstage, and in an endocrinology lab, as one does. As a wee little person I bounced around great American historic sites, retracing ancestral feet. (I was too young, at Gettysburg, to realize that my forebears had done their level best to kill each other, and obviously failed.) I have a favorite book of postcolonial theory and suggest We Need Diverse Books all the time. I knit, so I will not claw my face in terror, and I check up on friends, and I look to the past, because, in the words of a great American author, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past, as Fitzgerald once wrote. The past is rising, or maybe it’s the dark that’s rising, once again, billowing up from under its rocks, released again into the world. But I’ll be damned if I will go quietly into that rising darkness.2 Some day there will come a rapids, and a switch in the river, but we’ll not see if it we don’t try to keep those boats on course.

1 Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Latin America, notes, 27 January 2010. Fabrício Prado, professor.
2 Paraphrasing, of course, the late, great Dylan Thomas and his great villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Looking for more information? While much of this is drawn from notes from undergraduate and graduate courses, here are some suggestions: