“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
When I learned that I would be part of the 2018 Humanity in Action Fellowship cohort, I strove to deepen my understanding of the topics and issues at the heart of the program. I voraciously read articles on race, gentrification, and social justice, and I consumed literature and films on the experiences of people of color in the contemporary United States. Soon I will hold a master’s degree in English language and literature; issues in the history and sociology of the United States were not new to me. Yet, despite this extensive background, the insight and perspective that I would gain in my four weeks in Atlanta had been unthinkable when I stepped into the U.S. for the first time.
A man starts talking to you, kindly and attentively. Then suddenly people start to shout. They harass you. They threaten to beat you. They scream in your ears.
The first day of the Humanity in Action program included a visit to the exhibition at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. In addition to portraying historical facts and stories, one part of the museum serves as a replica of a typical American diner. You sit on the stool, put headphones on, and close your eyes. A man starts talking to you, kindly and attentively. Then suddenly people start to shout. They harass you. They threaten to beat you. They scream in your ears. A screen in front of you shows the time that has passed as you continue to endure. The first time I took a seat at this diner, I got up 40 seconds later. The second time, the sense of guilt that I couldn’t bear more than 40 seconds of this historicized abuse pushed me to stay longer. What had it been like for people who actually experienced this kind of oppression first-hand?
How can we responsibly share these important stories to educate children without traumatizing and re-traumatizing them?
At the end of my visit, my thoughts turned to the children of the civil rights movement and to those of today. Are children fairly represented in American history? Were they just passive victims of horrendous oppression and hatred, or were they active agents in the movement for freedom? While seminal court cases, like Brown v. Board of Education, were well documented, I was curious to learn about the other contributions children made as civic agents. Moreover, I wondered what a visit to this museum would be like for a child today. How can we responsibly share these important stories to educate children without traumatizing and re-traumatizing them? It is very important to teach children history, especially history of their predecessors, but one should also be responsible for protecting them from traumatic experiences. This question remains unanswered, and I continue return- ing to it in my work at home in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well.
During these four weeks, I was constantly drawing parallels between issues presented in lectures and issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). When we talked about the LGBTQ+ community and the discrimination they face on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but think about the LGBTQ+ community in my own country and what it means to identify as transgender in BiH. While I know many individuals who identify as queer, I don’t know anyone who is openly transgender. Toni-Michelle Williams, one of the speakers who identifies as a transgender female, recounted: “The other day my grandma asked me why I told her several years ago that I was gay, and now I am telling her I am a woman. I told her: But ‘ma, I was 18! We didn’t have that word at the time! We only had the option to identify as a gay person,” which made me think about all the people in BiH who are still being attacked and discriminated against for being gay, who can’t organize pride events because it is not safe to do so. Were they to openly identify as trans, they would be likely be condemned to even greater discrimination than that which they face identifying as gay.
Were they to openly identify as trans, they would be likely be condemned to even greater discrimination than that which they face identifying as gay.
I was deeply saddened by the realization that despite the huge obstacles trans individuals face in the U.S., they have still accomplished so much more than people in my country, which makes me feel frustrated and paralyzed. We don’t even have that narrative, let alone an action plan to improve their status in BiH.
Another thing that left a great impact on me was the Canary Effect documentary. I was excited to notice that I actually knew about almost all historical facts presented in the movie. However, I did not know that indigenous peoples in the U.S. never had their own Brown v. Board of Education, or that the Trust Doctrine remains most often used tool in Federal Indian advocacy, or that indigenous peoples are 200% more likely to develop Diabetes and 90% more likely to die from it. And what stunned me the most were the suicide rates among indigenous youth and the fact that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime, while the majority of offenders are actually non-Native. Unfortunately, I don’t think people in the U.S. talk about these issues as much as they talk about other groups that are discriminated against, which is something that should be more addressed in the future. It is important to have honest and open dialogue about these issues, more so because the indigenous people often feel invisible and rejected by a society that tries so hard to fight injustice and oppression. In reality, inclusion should include all people, regardless of race, color, and religion.
What stunned me the most were the suicide rates among indigenous youth and the fact that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime, while the majority of offenders are actually non-Native.
We also visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. From top to bottom, the space is filled with testimonies, facts, and photographs from the period of slavery to today. You can’t escape it. At first you feel sad and heartbroken then you become mad and angry. You read numerous advertisements for African-Americans which slave owners used to write when they wanted to sell their slaves: Boy, 11 years old, in a good shape, intelligent, obedient; Girl, 15 years old, hardworking, strong, smart, pleasant. I think of my four-year-old niece who is spoiled by everyone in the family; adored, loved, and cared about. I think how her mum makes her pizza in the shape of a bear, or how she wakes up in the middle of the night just to say that she loves me. And then I think about all the children that were (and still are) separated from their parents, sold to slave owners, sent to work and obey other people. I think about the unimaginable horror and desperation these families must have felt. I read testimonies of mothers who never saw their children again. And then I became numb, desperate, and hopeless. How can I believe in humanity when humanity allowed and still allows such atrocities?
How can I believe in humanity when humanity allowed and still allows such atrocities?
I go into another room and I learn about the issue of incarceration. As a young woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I didn’t know much about the issue. I might have read something about it, but I never had an opportunity to learn the facts that were presented to us in lectures and at the museum. I read letters from people who were incarcerated, who begged for justice and another chance. I learned that the 60% of Georgia’s prisons are black and that the budget for incarceration in 2016 was 1.5 billion dollars. I also learned that prisons in the United States are actually home for people who cannot afford good lawyers and that prisons are regarded as “the new Jim Crow.” How can you not feel desperate after all these statistics and facts? Did we not learn anything from history? Someone said that history should be cathartic, but I don’t see how we can perceive it as such when the legacy of injustice persists today.
The last weeks of the program, I came to realize that I came here to understand, for understanding leads to learning and empathy. Once you learn and empathize with others, you are able to act and to bring change. I learned that nothing can be changed without proper action and resistance to oppression, radicalism, and conservatism – issues that bother me the most when it comes to my own country.
During these few weeks I heard someone say that stories are “the universal currency of history,” and as someone who works at the museum of stories, I fully understand and appreciate the power that personal stories possess. We should all listen to each other’s stories, struggles, and fears, for that enables us to connect with each other and fight together for justice.