Sunday, February 14, 2016

Week Two: Living History

by Amanda Siskind

The thing about history is that there’s not much action needed. All the choices and plans have already been made, the important people highlighted, and the outcomes (for the most part) determined. The hard part of history comes from choosing to study it, and to study it properly. To completely immerse yourself into the stories that people tell, both the good and the bad. To hold that history in your memory as a reminder to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Chatting with Molefi as he takes us for a walk around Freedom
Park, a monument to memorialize those who have struggled for
liberation. His stories combine his personal history with facts
and information about larger movements.
This is something I have been thinking about, as we near the end of our time in Johannesburg and Soweto. Since we've been in South Africa, most of what we have been doing has been listening to people’s stories. I've quickly learned that stories are simultaneously an incredible and terrible way to study history. It’s incredible because only though such personalized accounts can we do our best to understand exactly what happened, how people felt, and how they reacted. We are incredibly lucky to be able to speak with Molefi, Moeketsi, our host families, and others and to be able to ask them questions and to have a dialogue. But it’s at the same time terrible because the other side of that luck is the knowledge that this history is recent and the scars are still fresh. These stories of pain and injustice aren't numbed by the pages of a textbook or the film of a documentary. But any discomfort that we feel has the much larger purpose of making sure that we remember these moments, and that we remember our feelings of shock and sympathy when we come across injustice in our lives.

After hearing all of these stories from the past week, it’s at first a little startling when we finally go to the Apartheid Museum at the end of our time in Johannesburg. Before I go in, I wonder if it’s not a bit backwards – shouldn't we have learned all of this before hearing personal stories? But as I wander through the Museum, I begin to feel that this is the right order to do things after all. The amount of history encapsulated in the museum is staggering, and had I been told at the beginning of this trip to take three hours to weave my way through the exhibits, I don’t think I would have been able to give the museum the attention and focus it deserves.

But now, with my head filled by a chorus of narratives, I find myself much more invested in reading every placard and watching every video. Every time my attention starts to wane, I notice a familiar detail and remember the sound of someone’s voice saying I remember when… or We used to… or This is what we did. It’s those memories that keep me interested and encourage me to keep learning. In particular, This is what we did inspires me the most to learn about the actions that people took to turn against the injustices around them.

Because the thing about history is that there’s not much action needed and while the hardest part of history is choosing to study it, the hardest part of being history is choosing how to live through it. It is easy for us to look back on the past and on its people and think How brave they were, to make those sacrifices. It is much harder to recognize that our actions at this moment are creating the history that someday future generations will hear passed down in stories or view in crafted museum exhibits. It is even harder to choose similar bravery and sacrifices for ourselves.

But just because it’s harder doesn't mean it isn't impossible. We have learned the history of the student uprisings of 1976 in Soweto, and we too are students who are interested in turning against the injustice of our world. We have already started to work towards this goal, both as individuals working on projects back at our respective colleges, and as a group having discussions at the dinner table and in our vans about the kinds of oppression we've seen and how to combat it.

This kind of work is being duplicated by students everywhere. We've seen in the United States a number of student activists working with Black Lives Matter, joining the People’s Climate March, and working to promote LGBT and women’s rights. In South Africa, we've learned about the #FeesMustFall campaign, where students are fighting to remove financial barriers to education.

After we leave Johannesburg, we drive to Bloemfontein and we spend a day visiting the University of the Free State and meeting the students and staff of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice. The Institute was founded as a means to cultivate humanity to counter violence and disrespect, and the students are actively researching the kinds of changes that could be implemented and their impacts while also establishing institutional transformations to create the society they envision.

There are a lot of different ways to interact with history. Visitors
have written comments around a photography exhibit in the Regina
Mundi Church about the liberation struggle, encouraging people to
continue to fight against injustice today.
We spend the afternoon seated in a circle as Americans and as South Africans, unified as students invested in choosing the best way to live for our history. We talk about racism and how even though it may look slightly different where we come from, the impact, the frustration and the pain are still the same. We talk about the stereotypes that we hold of each other, and of the damage that those ideas create in inhibiting us from connecting with each other. We talk about the world that we want to see, and what we think needs to be done to get there.

It’s not an easy discussion by any means. It is now our turn to tell our stories, and our scars are just as fresh. We don’t have the comfort of knowing what choices and plans had been made or what the outcomes were, like we do when we study history. This is the present. All we know is there is action needed, but we don’t necessarily know which actions are the right ones or what the consequences or sacrifices will be.

The important thing is that we are not alone. We have our knowledge of history to keep us wise. We have our memories of the smiles of the people who have told us their stories, the reminder that in spite of hardship they survived and made a difference in the world. And most importantly, we have each other. We have shoulders to lean on when things get tough, and hands to pull us up when we think that our dreams are impossible. We have ears to listen and learn from each other, and mouths to spread the word and to grow our community ever bigger. We will make history this way, not as the ink of textbook pages, but as the words of stories spoken between people sharing a common goal of creating a better future. 

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