Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thoughts on Evan Kaufmann, Terrence Cody and Memory

This past Sunday, the New York Times' Sports section featured a story about Evan Kaufmann, an American-born hockey player who plays for the German national team.  This is a gripping story and a must-read.  For me, it connects to an issue that I've been thinking about for quite some time about the uneasy relationship between Black high school athletes and major college sports.  The question is one of historical memory: How do we choose to remember, and why do we sometimes choose to forget?  More importantly, do we have a  responsibility as individuals to honor these memories, whatever they may be, and to live our lives accordingly?

For here's the thing: Evan Kaufmann is an American Jew, playing in Germany and for the German national team because, according to the Times, this is "his best pro opportunity to play hockey."  Should Kaufmann have the right to do that?

This is not the easiest of questions.
Begin with Kaufmann's own memory, of the time when he first wore Germany's hockey jersey:
He would recall feeling a tingle of excitement. He felt something else, too, emotions that crisscrossed like the laces of his skates. He was proud to wear the jersey but also solemn about what history had done to the name on the back. His great-grandfather starved to death by the Nazis. His great-grandmother herded to extermination on a train to Auschwitz. His grandfather shuttled between ghettos and concentration camps, surviving somehow, finding a displaced sister after the war, pushing her from a hospital in a wheelbarrow after her lower left leg was amputated because of frostbite.
This is heady stuff.  This is not an abstract question for Kaufmann but a very personal one.  To be sure, forgiveness is a very individual decision, one without right or wrong answers.  This is Kaufmann's view: “Obviously, you never want to forget” . . . . But everybody deserves a second chance and a right to rectify their mistakes. Most people today had nothing to do with it. I’m not going to hold it against a whole country for what happened long ago. You’re never going to move forward if you keep doing that.” 

There are many who agree with him, yet also many who do not.  Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a New York lawyer who is also the vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, has "mixed emotions.” He continues: “I think everyone has to make his own decisions in this respect. It is clear for Kaufmann that hockey is the most important priority. Just like there are Israelis or other Jews who have settled in Germany out of economic or career convenience, he is doing the same. I do not presume to judge him.”  And yet, he also feels “a bitter aftertaste and a certain degree of sadness” for Kaufmann. This is because “[h]e has effectively turned his back on the United States and has willingly taken on citizenship to identify henceforth as a German. . . . That, in terms of his family history, is at best a somber reality. There is a question in my mind whether a Jew should voluntarily go to Germany and take on that role.”

* * * 
As I read the piece, I recalled a post I wrote two years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. day, about the hiring by the University of Tennessee of Coach Derek Dooley. I still recall this passage vividly:
This is probably why the picture of a black player, Terrence Cody, blocking a field goal at the end of the game to preserve an Alabama victory over Tennessee, stayed with me for as long as it did. This is the same state that gave us George Wallace, he of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" fame. The University of Alabama is also the institution where Wallace made his defiant stand against federal troops and racial integration. To see a black player lead Wallace's old university to victory is, to put it bluntly, jarring. 
I think of this quote every Fall, as I watch Black athletes lead their Southern white universities to great riches on the football field, or every March, when the NCAA tournament rolls around.  I also think about it every February, when high school athletes sign letters of intent to play for their colleges of choice.  These are choices very similar to the choice made by Evan Kaufmann.  But the struggles in reaching these decisions are not.

This makes me wonder: how did we get here?

* * * 
A few years back, I was talking about some of these issues with a German friend.  He explained that growing up in Germany, the memory of the Holocaust is never far from one's minds.  He went as far as to use the word "shame" in describing the German psyche today.  This made sense to me.  Though nobody today had a hand in any of the horrible and unspeakable acts back in 1930's Germany, the fact remains that the Nazi regime murdered six million Jews for committing the crime of being Jewish.  How could a nation allow this to happen?  How could a people? A world?

These issues always take me back to the United States and its handling of the slave question.  Just this past Monday, fittingly enough, the Supreme Court granted review in the Texas case in order to examine the University of Texas' use of race during its admissions process.  Many observers think that this might be the beginning of the end for affirmative action programs.  It is all on the shoulders of one man, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

As I think about this case, I wonder where our collective shame went over the enslavement of four million Black Americans.  In fact, I wonder whether we ever felt any shame about slavery at all, or whether we felt the need to offer these slaves any reparations for their enslavement.  I don't wonder for too long.  Instead, I recall the words of Justice Bradley and his opinion in the Civil Rights Cases, decided in 1883:
"When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected."
Do the math: The Civil War ended in April 1865 and the Thirteenth Amendment passed in December of that same year.  The Republican Congress enacted a civil rights bill in 1866 and another one in 1875, and a number of enforcement acts during the early 1870's.  Incidentally, the Supreme Court interpreted these laws, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, quite narrowly every chance it had.  And yet, by 1883 the Court was willing to move on?  That's all it would take to erase centuries of slavery and its effects?

To be clear, the point is not to compare inhumanities and degrees of suffering.  Rather, the point is that, as we think about Evan Kaufmann's story, we should also think about Terrence Cody's.   And while we are at it, we should also think about the way we handled the slave question prior to the war and the freedom question during Reconstruction and beyond.  

The question for me is, why are our historical memories over these two pivotal moments in world history so different?

Where did our shame go?

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