Beyond the Narrow Straits of Memory
The past few years of headlines have presented us with a haunting funeral procession of young victims. We have seen the shooting massacre at Newtown: six and seven-year olds dead in their classrooms. In Pakistan in 2012, we saw Malala Yousafzai, shot and grievously wounded for pursuing an education. Most recently, young men and women near the University of California, Santa Barbara, were gunned down by another youth, one driven by misogynistic hatred. At each of these junctures, we are also reminded of the countless young victims of wars, gun violence, starvation, and abuse whose pictures do not appear on network news or go viral on Twitter.
These young faces throw the broken nature of our world into sharp relief. How can we speak of tikkun olam, of repairing even the slightest rend in the universe, when such things happen ad infinitum? Yet that is what we attempt to do as we narrate and retell these horrors. In my book Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature, I argue that we must face stories of suffering children, as well as the stories of suffering that we tell to children, in order to understand the religious tropes at work in American culture.
Sometimes, religious stories very clearly announce their presence in juvenile literature. The Diary of Anne Frank has been assigned in countless junior high schools since the 1950s, when it first appeared in English translation. While the implications of her diary are infinite, many of them hinge on Jewishness in its varied forms. Children’s books about the lynching of Emmett Till—yes, there are middle grade books about Emmett Till—emphasize his resemblance to other child martyrs and even to the death of Jesus. Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. are figured as Moses, as they have been for generations; other religious figures, including Miriam and Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, make their way across these painful pages, from picture books to chapter books to young adult novels.
Religious stories can be subtle, whispering of salvation or sacrifice, reminding us that chaos lies within the bindings of a book. Stories are messy. In Brundibar, Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner retell an opera written and performed by the inmates of Terezin during the Holocaust. It is part cautionary tale about the bullying and eternal return of tyrants, and part Hansel and Gretel story, a brother and sister who search for milk that might heal their sick Mommy. They travel into the urban wilderness and emerge triumphant, their red pail full and Mommy restored to full health.
Sendak’s book, which he called a nearly “perfect child,” also contains one of the most haunting images of his entire work: a two-page spread of enormous blackbirds carrying children off into the night sky, the outlines of Prague’s old buildings behind them, as their mothers mourn and reach skyward towards the birds. Brundibar resists repair. In Jewish tradition, there is a phrase, tachat kanfei ha-Shechinah, that translates as “beneath the wings of the Shechinah,” which is the immanent, feminine presence of the divine. It implies shelter and love, being enfolded in a nurturing, feathered embrace. The blackbirds of Brundibar reverse the image. In this world, it is mommies who need comforting, and the notion of sheltering wings is transposed into a vicious flight of destruction. Stories are painful, and they do not always end well. How do we restore that sheltering presence, even as we know that some children will never return to their beds?
Culturally, we tend to compare narratives of suffering. Which disaster had the largest body count? Did our national mourning of Newtown privilege white upper middle class victims over poorer African American children who die on the streets of Chicago every week? This is fraught ethical territory. One of my arguments in Suffer the Little Children is that we can move toward more complex overlaps of memory as we tell and study our stories. Drawing upon literary critic Michael Rothberg’s work on “multidirectional memory,” I read through the gaps, stitching together Anne Frank and Emmett Till, Crispus Attucks and Jewish soldiers, stories of the Middle Passage and the Holocaust.
My goal here is not to reduce these rich and painful histories to simple analogies, to identical expressions on each side of an equals sign. Rather, by facing our wounds across boundaries, we can struggle toward the blueprints of rebuilding our memoryscape.
Interfaith, interethnic memory is a form of dialogue that can be vitally productive but that also risks a politeness that occludes righteous, prophetic anger. “Tolerance” has its own complex history. Memory is not panacea or a utopian monument. If anything, I have found that as religious and ethnic minorities tell of their traumas, they tend to conform to recognizable, dominant modes of American memory that removes trauma from its social and historical context. Thus Emmett Till and Anne Frank are presented as martyrs serving the individual liberation of children who follow them. Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King are valorized for leading the way to the promised land just beyond the horizon, while their fiery criticisms of systemic racism, violence, and injustice are cut away from their mythic status, discarded in the ragged scrap bin of memory.
Multidirectional memory helps us to recover these twisted threads, to dwell together in painful canyons of meaning, and to use our tales to move from the narrow straits of bondage to a commemoration that recalls acutely the suffering. “I’m tired of remembering,” announces Hannah, the young protagonist of The Devil’s Arithmetic, a novel in which she will become irreparably bound to the Holocaust. Perhaps we are tired of remembering. We don’t want to look at the front page anymore, or at the commemorations that follow tragedies for years and decades and centuries. Yes, we must remember—but taking care not to file away the jagged edges of our stories in our oh-so-human longing for resolution.