Anne Frank, detained immigrants, and a long history of suffering
Discarded shoes lie in the dirt near the U.S.-Mexico border fence on December 10, 2021, close to Yuma, Arizona. (John Moore | Getty Images)
During the pandemic, our rallies to support imprisoned immigrants took place outside the Strafford County detention center in Dover. Inmates banged on windows to show appreciation for vehicles adorned with the picture of Anne Frank, the face of the Holocaust, who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The message was that innocent detainees were suffering equally from inhumane treatment in prison. In short, their experiences were comparable.
At first, I found this messaging doubtful and problematic. Death versus detention, surely different realms of suffering. As COVID-19 increased our isolation and separateness, it seemed we had diminished capacity to recognize our common history. Yet, its collective trauma remains in the treacherous, often fatal journey of migrants crossing the Channel or the Mediterranean Sea and in earlier transatlantic crossings of millions of enslaved Africans, forcibly uprooted and transplanted, carrying children on their backs and seeds braided in their hair – their precious inheritance and hope for the future.
Forced removal from ancestral homelands is a shared experience of African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, and immigrants alike. Jews were also deported, driven east, frozen and ill clad, on “death marches.” Native Americans were driven west in winter to remote, inhospitable reservations on death marches remembered as the “Trail of Tears.” To further reduce chances of survival, people were starved. Jews in ghettos died from hunger. Indigenous Peoples became refugees as federal troops cut down their corn and burned homes.
After Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau promised “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed slaves, land that ended up in sharecropping and continued oppression for Black farmers who were ineligible for bank loans, legally prevented from passing land to their descendants, and subject to the violence and retribution of Jim Crow vigilantism.
Tribes were similarly driven off their lands as a result of warfare and broken treaties. The General Allotment Act authorized authorities to subdivide communal land holdings into parcels. Since Native culture had no concept of private ownership, tribes were cheated into selling land back to white ownership.
These overlapping experiences of land grabs and mass extermination are the essence of evil no matter when and where they take place.
History recounts Columbus and his men enslaving Native Americans. Doctors in the Ravensbrück concentration camp conducted medical experiments on women known as “rabbits” by injecting them with typhus. In the infamous Tuskegee experiment to track syphilis, Black men went deliberately untreated, ultimately leading to their death.
Today, permanent impoverishment persists in restrictive policies: the redlining of African Americans in ghettos, the limitations of Native American life on reservations, and the red tape retaining immigrants for years in refugee camps.
Today, poor communities remain subject to environmental policies that pose dire health risks. Black people in southern Louisiana are exposed to chemicals so toxic that the local petrochemical industry is aptly named “cancer alley.” The Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in Indian country is called the “black snake,” with pipe leaks poisoning the water. In California’s agricultural region, Latino and Latina farmers are exposed to toxic crop sprays.
It is ironic that though nature is often reflected in the tree of life, its story is of unspeakable suffering. It represents the 2018 murder of Jews during Sabbath services in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It represents the lynching of thousands of African Americans who were hanged from its branches. It represents the remains of Native American bodies cradled in its limbs on a final journey home to their ancestors.
I’ve returned to our rally for immigrant rights more accepting of Anne Frank’s image as universal. We will continue to protest in word and in spirit on behalf of children separated from parents who seek asylum at the border, children separated from their families in Native American boarding schools that “kill the Indian, save the man,” and children torn from parental arms when sold at auction into slavery.
Remembering the history that includes and unites us all gives us a chance to restore our humanity.
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