My historical guilt
Robert Alvarez | Tuesday, November 5, 2013
My great-grandpa fled Spain in the early 1900s to escape a military draft for Spanish imperial ambitions in North Africa. He retreated to Mexico and married there before being recruited to work in coal mines in West Virginia. Shortly after World War I, he moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. With my great-grandma, he had five children, one of which was my grandpa. My grandpa was a very intelligent student, but my great-grandpa never encouraged him in his studies (I’m not really sure why not). However, my grandpa enlisted for World War II right out of high school, affording him the opportunity to take advantage of the GI Bill when he returned home. With the degree in civil engineering with which this bill provided him, he got a good job at the California Department of Transportation, surveying the construction of freeways in the Los Angeles area. This job enabled him to give his children a quality education and a standard of living from which I now benefit.
To all of you who got this far in the article, I would like to thank you. That first paragraph may have been a bit dull. I told this brief history of my family to make a point, though: I owe my existence to colonialism and the Holocaust. If it weren’t for these two cases of imperialism and genocide, I would not exist. The history of my family is intimately tied up with the history of these two events, and I am indebted to these events.
I imagine that if many of us retraced our roots, we too would find direct correlations between our personal histories and global histories. In a sense, by existing in the present, we are the culmination of history. All of cosmic history has occurred with the end result of producing us: the present. This creates a problem, however. While I am a product of many good things – like my grandpa’s loving hard work – I am also the product of many bad things, like the Holocaust. I’ve been fortunate to come out on the “winning” side of history, but the same history that has named me the victor has named others the loser. This does not deny free will but affirms there is historical inequality that is sometimes impossible to overcome by any individual will.
This analysis extends far beyond me, however. As a nation, we carry the guilt of centuries of the continual theft and genocide of a native population coupled with the enslavement of another. We are products — both beneficiaries and victims — of that history. It is no coincidence that two of the most consistently marginalized groups in American history are Native Americans and African Americans. Their enslavement and murder echo through our history, through slavery, through Jim Crow, through Civil Rights and through our judicial system. It is even apparent in the very geography of our cities and countryside. Thanks to this history, there has developed a culture of prejudice based on skin color. Fortunately, I’ve been able to benefit from this because I have lighter skin. My uncle, however, wasn’t so lucky. He was born with darker skin and was therefore treated differently by my great-grandpa. How can I justify these benefits I have received that have been borne on the backs of injustice?
It might be said that I have no need to justify this because I am not responsible for history. After all, how can I be responsible for what came before me? But this logic would deny my existence as a creature in history. History continues with me in it. Every second that I live with the unearned privileges afforded me by history is another second that compounds my complicit guilt in the inequality of history. The only conclusion that I can arrive at, considering the weight of history’s injustice, is that I am responsible to all for all. That is why I try to remember. I don’t mean to remember the big dates, the big names or the big places of history. Frankly, these things only have tangential interest to me. The history that interests me involves the stories of the losers. I want to know what my victories have brought about and what I can do about them.
You might justifiably ask now, somewhat incredulously, “Are you claiming that every one of us has irrevocable guilt for every injustice that has been committed in the world up to this point in time, and because of this guilt we have an irrevocable duty to dedicate our lives to the amelioration of these injustices?”
Yes. Yes I am.
Robert Alvarez is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. He is living in Zahm House. He welcomes all dialogue on the viewpoints he expresses. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.