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Thanks to Amy Fried for her BDN column on the Holocaust and other “unpleasant” facts of history. In many central and east European countries, Jews were a major minority. Despite pervasive antisemitism, much of what gave these pre-World War II cultures — high and low — their characteristic wit, sophistication and elan were contributions from the Jews. As one writer put it, the Holocaust left “a hole in the heart of Europe.”
The parallel is true of the U.S. So much of what we think of as American culture — slang, humor, pop music, the way we move our bodies — is the product of long, intimate, and mostly covert interactions along the boundaries of race. Over the centuries, in quiet acts of resistance, people both Black and white ignored official “Keep Out” signs to encounter one another, their language, art, and music. Distinctively American art forms, like spirituals or bluegrass, have both Black and white roots. Much of what we think of as typically American — our slyly indirect directness, wisecracking resilience, creativity in the face of adversity — was wrung as much from the sufferings of slavery as from frontier hardship.
Past attempts to erect impregnable walls between Christian and Jew or Black and white failed disastrously. Attempts to wall ourselves off from the past will prove equally futile. The real American response to the pain of this moment of racial reckoning is not to turn our backs on our past. Only there we will find the resources for a creative and resilient way — an American way — to move forward together.