Zoo

Some white visitors to the Bronx Zoo at the turn of the century expressed disquiet when they encountered Ota Benga, a young Congolese immigrant being exhibited in the monkey house.

The outrage of black ministers in New York was matched by that of white colleagues who helped lobby for the racist display to be stopped and for a new home to be found for Benga.

I wrote an article for Equal Times magazine about a memorial to Benga in Virginia that was erected at about the same time violence was erupting over the debate about what to do with different monuments – those honoring Confederate figures.

I often hear from defenders of Confederate monuments that Americans once felt differently about racism. That strikes me as simplistic, an argument that ignores the perspectives of the ministers who championed Benga and of the African-American intellectuals who welcomed him into their community in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1910, a few years after he was rescued from the Bronx Zoo. The argument also ignores the perspectives of people like Benga. Of course, we have to imagine Benga’s voice, as little of what he thought and felt has been preserved by historians. 

The conversation about what we memorialize from our past is not about judging our forebears by today’s moral standards. It’s about understanding history’s complexities and how they shape our times.  It’s about understanding ourselves, a task that demands the kind of imagination and compassion that led to the Benga memorial.

Author and journalist Pamela Newkirk, who wrote a 2015 book on Benga, traveled from New York to Virginia for the unveiling of his memorial. The ceremony included song, prayer and remarks by the mayor of the town of 80,000, by an academic from the African-American seminary Benga briefly attended and by the Congolese ambassador who had traveled from Washington.

 “You had this multiracial array of citizens who got this done because they thought it was important to remember that chapter in not only their history but America’s history,” Newkirk, who is black, told me.

A white artist, civil rights activist and longtime Lynchburg resident, Ann van de Graaf, campaigned for state officials to erect the Benga memorial.

In September, days after the ceremony for Benga, a crowd gathered near Philadelphia’s City Hall for the unveiling of a statue of Octavius Valentine Catto, a black teacher and voting rights activist who was shot and killed in 1871 by whites. The following month, parents in Mississippi voted to strip the name of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the predominately black public school their children attend and re-christen it to honor President Barack Obama. In Virginia, state lawmakers and historians determined Nat Turner, leader of a deadly 19th century slave uprising, would be among those honored on a planned anti-slavery monument.

“There seems to be a healing taking place now,” van de Graaf told me.
 

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Guilt

You’ve probably heard that once a book is written, it no longer belongs to the writer. It belongs to the readers.

I’ve found that to be true with both “It’s a Black White Thing” and now “Home of the Brave”, which a few people have read in advance of the Jan. 26 publication. Readers have helped me understand what I was getting at and opened up whole new perspectives that make me want to keep writing.

You can hear what two readers told me about :Home of the Brave here:

https://soundcloud.com/user-101150823

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Generations

The political spat over a civilian president’s conversation with a grieving military family produced a lot of smoke. It also shed some light on the gulf between civilian and military Americans.

It’s a divide I know something about after spending four years reporting my book “Home of the Brave,” which is about civilians working with those who served to heal war’s wounds.

I know the gap is real.  America’s military draft ended in 1973. As Pew researchers wrote after conducting a survey marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the conflicts waged since the Twin Towers fell “have been fought exclusively by a professional military and enlisted volunteers. During this decade of sustained warfare, only about 0.5 percent of the American public has been on active duty at any given time.” The figure at the height of World War II was nearly 9 percent.

Some 4 million Americans served in the active-duty military during the first decade after 9/11, the Pew researchers said, offering some stark comparisons: 8.7 million Americans were in the armed forces during the 1963-1973 Vietnam conflict. During the four years of U.S. involvement in World War II, 16.1 million Americans served.

Pew found that 84 percent of the veterans of the war on terror believe the general public ``has little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face.’’  Some 70 percent of the non-vets agreed. The survey also showed that while more than eight in 10 Americans said members of the military and their families have had to make “a lot of sacrifices,” just 43 percent said the same about the rest of us. Most of those who said the military’s sacrifices have been greater saw that as “just part of being in the military.”

While I know the gulf is real, I also know, because veterans have told me, that it can be crossed.

A mental health worker once told me that she doesn’t follow the news from the Middle East and that she was surprised that many Iraq and Afghanistan vets do, and do so with intense concentration. After that conversation, I approached a young veteran Marine I know to ask him how it felt to talk to clueless civilians. He told me he does not expect civilians to understand war in the way he does, and that that does not stop them from relating to him as a fellow human being.

David George, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan whom I interviewed for a Daily Beast story, has a 20-year-old Army reservist son who could be deployed in the war on terror at any time. George worries about what it will be like for his son to come home from battle to a nation that seems oblivious to the sacrifices fighters are making. He hopes civilians can muster a welcome that will make reintegration easier, especially for those suffering from anxiety, depression or PTSD.

“I guess the best thing anybody can do is just stay informed, know what the guys and gals are going through and what it’s like to come home,” he told me. “The best thing to do to help is listening.”

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Lost

Amber Blais, the impresario behind Raconteur Denver, persuades people she believes have stories to tell into getting her bi-monthly evenings rolling with a 10-15 minute story each centered around a given theme. After the opening session, Amber hopes members of the audience will be inspired to share three-minute stories.

I’m not much on public speaking. Amber got me to participate with a combination of charm and flattery. I was one of the openers on Nov. 7 around the theme “lost – and/or found.”

Amber asked me to take part more than a year ago. When I saw the theme on her schedule for November, I thought of losing my mother. I think of her so often. I calculated that a year would give me time to think of a story about her I could tell without tearing up.

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Enfranchisement

I wear “I voted” stickers in celebration. I also wear them in memory of those who struggled and died so that I can cast a ballot.

And I wear them as a plea to others to willingly suspend the cynicism that is at the heart of so much of our disengagement from politics.

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Currency

We’re often asked to marvel that slaves and their descendants held onto their humanity despite the violence they have endured in America. But what of slave-owners and their descendants? How did they hold onto their humanity while committing atrocities? Or turning a blind eye to brutality? Or growing up casually accepting the lie that fellow citizens were less than – even if they were raised to be polite to their “inferiors”? Those, too, are questions we should consider.

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Bubble

Flyover country. The world beyond the bubble. A red corner of a purple state. Those are the kinds of labels that offer simple answers.

I found people, not stereotypes, in Montrose, an isolated small town that I first visited in 2012. I was on a Stars & Stripes assignment to write about this western Colorado community's grassroots effort to help war vets reintegrate into civilian life. Montrose later became the setting for my book, "Home of the Brave."

Montrose gave me glimpses of what collaboration can accomplish even in times of bruising rancor and division. I went there with questions and returned with evidence of the human capacity for generosity, resilience and healing.

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