Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.
The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.
It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked, “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”
Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.
One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.
The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”
He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”
The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.