Reading a history written in history and seeing how all history is understood through the lens of each generation.
I read German and the Jews: The Right, The Left, and the a Search for a Third Force in Pre-Nazi Germany first published in 1987, by an German emigre historian. In school, I learned about the Holocaust, but recently, I’ve been interested in how it got to that. What were the events leading up to it? What did it German society feel and look like – from the dinner table conversations to the classrooms to the streets?
“German and the Jews” focuses on the different factions of political thought and alliances in pre-Nazi Germany. It answers part of my question. It shows how, when neither communism nor capitalism could provide answers to the chaos following WWI and the Great Depression, a third option emerged: nativism, or going back to the way things were. It showed how “going back” could be revolutionary.
“Make America Great Again” is a homage to conservative revolutions: as to say, “let’s move towards something behind us!” It mirrors the Volkish revolution in early 20th century Germany, a revolution to return to German roots, nativism, and “blood and soil.” It’s the convergence of striving towards something and believing that that something only existed in a past society. In this way, history repeats itself: when people feel threatened in some way, what do we often do that remains the same across nations and time? Resort to tribalism and other-ism, resulting in dehumanizing the “outsiders.” Yet, will simply having this knowledge stop it in it’s tracks or will the tape continue rolling? There has to be something in order other than watching the script play out, mumbling each line before it’s said.
At every point in Ms. Pat’s autobiography, “Rabbit”, I’m thinking, “damn, this still ends well – even after this?” Patricia Williams, a comedian, grew up in the height of the crack epidemic as a black girl in 1980s Atlanta. Daughter to an alcoholic mother, with 2 kids of her own before 15, ‘Rabbit’ (Ms. Pat’s nickname as a child) turns to selling crack as a teenager before eventually turning her life around.
This book is a pure telling of events – Ms. Pat doesn’t cater to my or any outsider’s narrative of what it means to grow up poor and black in Atlanta. Want to validate a conservative talking point like people using welfare to buy drugs and booze? Sure, you can find that here. Want to lift the book as evidence of systematic racial inequality? You can, but then you’d be reading through a lens of knowledge you already have – Ms. Pat doesn’t steer her story towards any sociological conclusion outside of her experiences (which are are mostly tragic, yet somehow hilariously retold).
In fact, Ms. Pat doesn’t seem to steer the reader towards any definite conclusion – even about herself. Instead of persuading the reader how to feel, the book focuses more on the events themselves: at one point, she’s making considerable profits from selling crack cocaine to addicts, but then another turn and she’s taking in four kids that are not her’s while she is still a teenager herself (and more later on). I came away from this thinking, Ms. Pat did a lot of bad things and Ms. Pat did a lot of good things, with the context and understanding for both.
Ms. Pat tells the truth and crafts a hard life story into an engaging narrative. She writes, “Moving up in this world is not easy… I went from living in an illegal liquor house to running from the cops to living in the suburbs with a flock of ducks outside my window. The only way I can explain how it happened is to tell you exactly what went down.” And that she does.