Tag Archives: Civil War

“Say Nothing” and “What You Have Heard is True”

New Orleans     Maybe we have gotten lucky and dodged widening the war in the Middle East after what seems like an impulse killing of one of Iran’s top generals and a key spymaster.  The full story is still unknown.  What were the threats that were so heinous that they moved the United States to embark on such a risky tactical strike?  Who was smart and stable enough in both the US and Iran to use the Swiss to send encrypted messages on back channels back and forth insisting that we both sides needed to deescalate?  What kind of weird global political communications system allows Trump to claim to his base, seemingly without any evidence, that he stood up, delivered a blow, and still wants to take America out of wars around the globe, and allowing Iran to throw twenty missiles at us with sufficient warning that no one was killed, even while claiming at home that they took out eighty Americans with these strikes?  This is a dangerous world!

I read two books over around the calendar turn that were extremely powerful expositions and indictments of the violence that we are capable of as people, when it is a matter of boundaries broken and hate and ideology unleashed.  Both of these books concerned civil wars.

One was Say Nothing:  A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Raddan Keefe.  He focused on the period of the “Troubles,” as the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, supporters of England versus those who wanted independence.  The other, What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by poet and professor Carolyn Forche’ looks at her time in El Salvador as a young woman during the civil war that wracked that country for so many years as well.

One of the horrors that emerges in reading these well written and researched books is the recognition that there seem to be no accepted rules in civil wars.  Civilians are not only fair game, but often the primary targets.  Torture and mutilation are as common as unmarked graves.  These were civil wars decades before the dominance of the internet, so often the hate and killing were provoked by generational prejudices, class and land divides and inequities, and simple and unconfirmed rumor, all of which deepens the fear I felt over the dry kindling that continues so easily to be set fire by social media extremists.

Say Nothing is the better history, because the book is based on the coincidence of forthright oral histories held at Boston College that became public on the death of various participants in both the project and the Troubles.  It is hard not to conclude that Gerry Adams, former political leader of the Sinn Fein, is a liar and in any other context a war criminal.  What You Have Heard is True can be annoying in some parts as Forche’ oversells her naivete, but, not surprisingly, beautifully written, as you would expect from a poet.  It is hard not be see the behind the scenes lawyer, mediator, and revolutionary, Leonel Gomez, as an unheralded hero in both the war and the peace in contrast to Adams.

These conflicts turn out to be evergreen even as they fade as a twentieth century memories, but civil wars are bloody reminders that we have to fight for peace to prevent the worst parts of our humanity from constantly resurfacing.

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Teaching History Through Art: “The Uninvited”

New Orleans       In a post-Christmas present, our crew was invited to an opening night play.  Top that, bam!

The staging was at the Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses in the heart of the French Quarter on Royal Street.  It was produced by the local theater and arts company, Goat in the Road, which specializes in plays involving science and history.  The setup was unique to me, because the play was moving between rooms of the house simultaneously.  The audience members could move from room to room to follow scenes or were given cards identifying specific charters they might traipse behind if they chose.  You could watch your parts of the play for forty minutes and then after a bell noted the end of the play, you could do it all over again to catch scenes you might have missed in different rooms or floors of the house.

In my book all of that rated more of an “E” for Effort grade.  It was an interesting experiment, utilized the house well, and, theoretically, illuminated different perspectives simultaneously.  I get it, but as a member of the audience it was less satisfactory in reality than theory. More often I found myself in hallways listening to the actors because we couldn’t block the doors and areas like the kitchen where I was most interested in what was taking place among the domestic servants and African-Americans, giving me the feeling too often that I was listening to a play on the radio.

As a history lesson set in 1874 in the post-Civil War Reconstruction conflict the play was an A-plus all the way.  The upper class, Gallier family of a noted pre-War city architect, was only two doors away from an integrated school that the thugs and shining lights of the White League were trying to forcibly segregate reported in Harper’s and the Picayune, by then reporter, and later well-known regional author, George Washington Cable.  The attack on a black teacher, a character in the play, was also real, although perhaps at another time.

All of this is hardly ancient history.  A stone obelisk commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 when the White League fought and lost a battle to remove the black-led Reconstruction government and reinstall white supremacy was only finally mothballed in 2017, and had been contentious for decades.  True to the contemporary battles to remove monuments erected in the reactionary success of supremacists, the obelisk dates to the 1890s, once they regained control of government and social norms of calcified segregation.

“The Uninvited” is an artistic creation, not a page from a history book, but the play is sprinkled through with references to facts easily forgotten about the times.  Hearing the staff and family speaking French would have been common 150 years ago.  The reporter from The Tribune, a black paper important in the history of the time, when such papers were central to civil rights advocacy, was a good reminder of their role, and of course there is a Tribune now in New Orleans that has taken their name.  Mentions of the Comstock Act that barred the sale of contraceptives was a good reminder that the battle for a woman’s right to choose is not modern, but as old as time.  Mentions of Donaldsonville, then a black-run community, and seances were pieces of gold, taking one back to the leaflets the producers had left on the tables for those interested in the facts behind the play.

Hats off to the writing team for sharing such vital reminders of our community’s tortured history that reverberates tragically to this day.  I wouldn’t go back, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

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