This is the first time I am going to post anything on a blog -- a major achievement for the technophobe that I am. What follows is copied from a personal statement I wrote when I applied to attend the seminar.
In Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat,” one of his characters, facing death on a rough sea, recalls a poem about a dying soldier in Algiers which he had long forgotten. “Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent," the narrator says. "He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil's point. Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality--stern, mournful, and fine.”
I have read “The Open Boat” many times and have taught it for many years, but it was not until after the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda that the correspondent’s remembering of the verse about a dying soldier in Algiers spoke to me in a personal way. Before the 1994 Tutsi genocide, I too had pushed into the recesses of my memory Sophie’s Choice, a heartrending movie I had watched in 1983. If anything, the movie had introduced me to Meryl Streep, one of the finest actresses whose subsequent movies I made a point to watch. I had marveled at her craft in the same way that some literary critics privilege form over content. Like Crane’s character, it did not occur to me that Sophie Zawistowski, played by Meryl Streep, was “a human, living thing . . . an actuality – stern, mournful.” If her story was not fiction, it was certainly taking place in a far-off land; it was not my reality.
Then the Tutsi genocide happened. Then, and then only, did I feel a kinship with Sophie Zawistowski. When Clementine Wamariya, a young Tutsi genocide survivor, won Oprah's essay contest with her piece entitled "Why Elie Weisel's Night Is Still Important,” it did not surprise me; she too felt a kinship with the Holocaust victims and survivors.
Indeed, the Tutsi genocide revealed to me how self-centered we humans are. It took the brutal killing of several relatives of mine and my wife's and nearly one million people with whom I share an ethnic identity for me to empathize with other victims of genocide – Jews, Armenians, and much more recently, the non-Arab inhabitants of Darfur in the Sudan.
After the Tutsi genocide, perhaps as a coping mechanism, I avoided thinking and talking about it. I became numb, so to speak. Then, around 1998, I discovered and joined an online group whose members were going through the same emotions. Slowly, I came to realize that my avoiding to think and to talk about the genocide was being appallingly selfish. Why wasn’t I in Rwanda when the genocide took place? Did we – those of us who were alive – have the responsibility to see to it that the genocide would not happen again? Not only did I have to change my demeanor, I had to be an agent of change. . . .
The Memorial Library Summer Seminar on Holocaust Education in July this year, I feel, is the next effort not only in my own education but also, eventually, in the education of my students here at Alabama A&M University. Admittedly, since the Tutsi genocide, I have read Night and have watched the movie Schindler’s List, which have shown striking similarities between the genocide of the Jews and that of the Tutsi – both of them were preceded by an ideological campaign of their dehumanization. Though I have read the book and have watched the movie, I have not had a conversation on the Holocaust with anybody, and do not feel confident and qualified to talk about it in my classes. The seminar will not only expose me to other resources on the subject, it will also give me the confidence I need to teach it and to be an agent of change.
It is very likely that most of my students have seen Hotel Rwanda, a recent movie on the Tutsi genocide. (Most of them are too young to have seen Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List.) Yet, not a single one has written a research paper on the subject. Could it be because they were enthralled by Don Cheadle’s craft, as I had been by Meryl Streep’s, forgetting that the movie is about real human beings? I hope the seminar will provide me with the tools to enable me to engage my students in reflecting and writing on these questions.