'To Europe—Yes, but Together With Our Dead'

What happens to a nation that's suffered a great crime? What happens when the wrong can't be made right?

At The Mecca. Photo: Sandhya Rajan

I think Anne Applebaum offers some helpful statistics for thinking about the blue period into which this blog has so recently plunged:

When the numbers are added up, the result is stark. In Britain, the war took the lives of 360,000 people, and in France, 590,000. These are horrific casualties, but they still come to less than 1.5 percent of those countries’ populations. By contrast, the Polish Institute of National Memory estimates that there were some 5.5 million wartime deaths in the country, of which about 3 million were Jews. In total, some 20 percent of the Polish population, one in five people, did not survive. Even in countries where the fighting was less bloody, the proportion of deaths was still higher than in the west. Yugoslavia lost 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population. Some 6.2 percent of Hungarians and 3.7 percent of the prewar Czech population died too. In Germany itself, casualties came to between 6 million and 9 million people—depending upon whom one considers to be “German,” given all of the border changes—or up to 10 percent of the population. It would have been difficult, in Eastern Europe in 1945, to find a single family that had not suffered a serious loss.

When you talk about trying to understand the meaning of society in a country where 20 percent of the people have been killed, where decimation is a literal term, facts and figures begin to fail you and the individual experiences become much more revealing. A 20-percent casualty rate is why art exists and why personal, individual voices become so important. I can't really grok the sheer amount of death in The Bloodlands. But when Anna Akhmatova says mournfully of the many millions gone, "I would like to call you all by name," I feel something in particular.

The great edifice of slavery fixes us with a similar problem. When you start talking about 250 years of slavery, you are talking about entire ancestries of people earmarked for perpetual plunder. The majority of African-American history is the history of enslavement. Entire generations could, at one point, reach back to great-great-great-grandparents and find only the enslaved. The vastness of the thing can't really be calculated simply by piling up the numbers. We go to Lucille Clifton to understand the effects:

Love rejected
hurts so much more
than Love rejecting;
they act like they don't love their country


what it is
is they found out
their country don't love them.

I must have read that poem in my first year at Howard University. Lucille Clifton went to Howard and (like me) dropped out. I would have likely been sitting downstairs in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. I spent more time in those two places than I did in class. The questions which interested me at 17, when I arrived at Howard, have not changed: What happens when a great crime is perpetrated upon a nation? More, what happens when it isn't—or can't be—made right? How, specifically, do you make right the massacre of 20 percent of a population? What can atone for the perpetual destruction of families for profit and all its attendant effects? Do we even want to make things right?

This weekend, I went to a party for one of my oldest friends—another buddy from Howard—out in Fort Greene. The old crowd was there—men and women who too, 20 years earlier, had been drawn to the Mecca by the big questions of history. We commiserated. Danced to Beyonce. They played "Murder She Wrote," and I lost my mind a little. I came back to the bar. Talked some friends into drinking a couple Thug Passions. (It was whack. They only had the red Alize.) There was a Soul Train line. We took some Henny shots so as to be more cliché. I looked around at the old crew, and thought about those old days back in Moreland. I didn't know anything about Poland, then. I could not have pointed out Ukraine on a map. Everything was ancient Egypt and my God was the great historian of Africa, Basil Davidson.

Back then, I still viewed history, primarily, as an exercise in competing hagiographies. If they had great walls, we must have them too. I really was looking for the Tolstoy of the Zulus. But Howard taught me that accepting the nationalism of my younger years reduced history to jingoism and thus accepted the premises of white supremacy, leaving its roots unscathed. The irony is that this awareness of the limits of nationalism came to me in a place where I knew virtually no white people, in a world delineated by segregation. Because there were no white people, our conversations could be frank and our critiques could be direct. In those conversations I came to see African-Americans as a people among peoples, and that feeling, the glow of that particular tribe, shook the club on Saturday night.

I came up at a time when it seemed to me that people who claimed humanism just didn't want to be black. It never occurred to me that blackness could lead one not to nationalism, but to humanism, to the sense that your shade is one in the rainbow. We are not all the same. The Poles and Ukrainians existed before the atrocities of Stalin and Hitler. But we who are dark begin in tragedy. Black people are the orphans conceived in an act of Trans-Atlantic rape. And that perspective gives you a unique view on the West. You can want badly to see Krakow, as I do, but not feel it, or any other European city, to be the font of all nice things. And then at the same time you can understand that a 20-percent casualty rate inflicted on a society, in a relatively brief period, mostly concentrated on a minority, is a particular violence different from your own. What does it mean to be Polish after you see something like that? And how does that then inform your notion of being European?

Again Timothy Snyder gives us some help:

Germans killed millions of Polish citizens. More Poles were killed during the Warsaw Uprising alone than Japanese died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933. Nearly as many non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the war as European Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. For that matter, more non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz than did Jews of any European country, with only two exceptions: Hungary and Poland itself. The Polish literary critic Maria Janion said of Poland’s accession to the European Union: “to Europe, yes, but with our dead.”

But with our dead.

And even here there is a moment of recognition, because this is exactly how I feel about America and the great project of the West. It's a beautiful thing. But not without our ancestors. Not without our enslaved. Not without our history. Not without my people. Not without our dead.