“Are you German?” he asked as three friends stood beside him; two stood to his left, one to his right.
“No. Of course I’m not,” I answered, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that being a white American to me meant I was only American; I was not German or English or Jewish or Irish or Scottish or Russian or French or Norwegian.
“No. I’m not,” I answered, realizing how blond-haired and blue-eyed I was when the question was asked, and realizing that I felt guilty because the color of my skin and the hue of my eyes and hair about five seconds after the question was thrown into the hallway as we sat waiting on others, now at the end of the Holocaust museum in Israel.
A profe soon rushed him and his buddies out of the museum hallway and through the exit doors moments afterward, I say now with a more red and more sweaty countenance waiting on the roughly eight dudes behind me in my group who were making their way through the horrifyingly real and terrifyingly factual Holocaust museum in Jerusalem over ten years ago. I rub my hands through my blonde, nappy hair.
We left the space soon after.
We ate dinner in New Jerusalem.
I sent a girl two tables over dessert for her birthday through our server who afterward informed me she was engaged “but appreciated the knafeh.”
I’ve gotten so old.
Elie Wiesel died today.
If I was reasonably intelligent and generally wise and not from West Tennessee, it would not have required the “Oprah Book Club” stamp several years ago on his book Night for me to have ever heard his name walking through Target looking for Coke Zero and classy toilet-bowl cleaner.
But I’m not reasonably intelligent and generally wise, and I am from West Tennessee, so here I was.
And here I am.
A white American male who has been told both it’s all my fault and also I must protect what I’ve “earned” at all costs. I’m left confused.
I walked through the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis a few years ago with friends and coworkers from one of my employers and an organization that values my deepest insecurities and deepest hopes.
We debriefed later that evening, and I could only wonder, “Would I have been that one random white dude standing in a sea of black men and women demanding justice, respect, and equality.” I told our folks at dinner, black and brown and white and pale, “I hope I would be one who stood up against those plowed by horses, intimidated by canes, and hung by ropes in the days of my parents (not my grandparents).
I later learned, driving through Alabama to visit friends, these hangings were in my own day. They were not carefully removed to parents or grandparents; It was the right now.
But I could only hope that I would have been one of those few white folks in the crowd demanding justice, respect, and equality for the “other” in those days.
Those days which are these days.
Elie Wiesel died today.
And I am hoping in my less trustworthy but more important parts that I will lean into Wiesel’s character and spirit and honor.
It may take me down, but I must stand up for those who are pushed under. I do have blonde hair and blue eyes. I benefitted from both slavery. But I need to answer “no” to the teenagers in the final hallway at the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. And I need to answer “no” to my coworker. And I need to answer “no” to the person who checks me in to vote a few months from now where I’m held at ethical gunpoint and asked if I stand for nothing or if I’ll fall for anything.
Rest in peace, after such incredible chaos, brother Wiesel.
I cannot be neutral.
Pine Tree Dr.