Repercussions & Reflections

A Journal of the Intersection of ideas and actions on Global Conflict and Local Initiatives published by the William Joiner Center

February 26, 2011
by Nexus
3 Comments

Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace,

-by Sara Terry.  NY: Channel Photographics, 2005.

In a foreword, photographer Sara Terry tells how she first went to Bosnia five years after the 1992-95 war, with the conviction that what happens after a war can be just as newsworthy as war itself.  This book is made up of reports from the aftermath, in photographs whose color and compositional elegance sometimes seem almost ironic, given the human and material devastation that is often their subject.  Aftermath brings us intimately close to the lives of people learning to be human again amid the lacerations of war.  And, as Terry says, the book is a way of testifying “that war is not the final word on who we are as human beings, nor the final image of our spirit.”

Terry spent four years of repeated visits shooting pictures for the project, giving herself enough time to allow not only her eye but also her heart to sink into what she was looking at, especially where such sinking was hardest to do.  Nearly seven years after the war ended, corpses and bit of clothing and personal objects were being exhumed from mass graves.  While Terry’s pictures are striking throughout, the section that dwells on the exhumation is the book’s energy center.

On her first visit in 2001, Terry befriended two Polish forensic anthropologists, Piotr and Ewa, who were in Bosnia to help sort what was exhumed, for possible visual identification by relatives or for subsequent DNA testing.  In one of several photos in this group shows Ewa holding up in her own white-gloved hand the “decaying hand of a long-dead boy.”  The viewer’s first response is shock.  At one level, the image is macabre.  But Terry’s note helps us see that in this photo there is also a living hand, Ewa’s, which, as it draws parts of the dead from the anonymous pit, draws them back into identity and life. In Ewa’s words, “These people have been stripped of their identity. . . .We are trying to return their identities to them.”  The acts of these anthropologists witness “an unyielding faith in the human spirit.”  So do Terry’s photos.  They are the opposite of “snapshots.”  They linger, as if the camera too lingered, presenting in the end not a picture of a surface but of something deeply meditated.  They present themselves to us in this same way, surfaces opening to contextual depth.

An instance is the opening photo, Terry’s only black and white shot.  It presents what, as the viewer first enters the book, is a kind of puzzle.  In it, a middle-aged woman is peering down at what might be a collapsed tent of damask, in whose folds we see dark scraps of something.  The lighting is exquisite.  The woman’s white babushka is sharply lit, as are the parts of the damask we can see, before, at about the same height as the bent woman’s head, they vanish into darkness.  The woman is clumsy as she bends, and she is obviously intent.  The light is somber, except for the two highlighted areas.

But our purely aesthetic response is short-lived.  We are looking at the book’s first depiction of a scene that shatters the decorum of conventional funerary scenes.  The simple dress of the grieving peasant woman, her face invisible, has a Tolstoyan quality.  We can only imagine what her face says:  does she think she recognizes something?

Then, whatever was our first aesthetic response, is wiped away in the flash when we see that the fabric is body bags, unzipped so that part of their contents is visible.  When we look closely, we can make out a hand, a thighbone – remains of the ethnic cleansing of 1992, exhumed much later.  Ultimately, the picture expresses love, the woman’s love for her dead husband, brother or son, but also the photographer’s love for the woman and for the emotions she is feeling, whether or not she finds what she’s looking for.

In another photo, Terry depicts the anthropologists at work, in what looks like a ruined auditorium.  In the foreground, Ewa, walking with umbrella and briefcase, appears to be through for the day.  The others, one seated and another crouched on the floor, are examining and perhaps making some kind of record of what they are looking at.  The floor is nearly covered with objects laid out on separate sheets or towels.  There’s a piece of paper pinned to each towel, presumably to describe the circumstances of the death and exhumation. Sometimes a scrap of cloth was the only way for loved ones to identify the dead.  In witnessing this work, Terry pays her homage.

*  *  *

In a very different picture a golfer is putting on a small green in a scene nearly pastoral, where peace reigns and this man, dressed in natty golfing garb, can return to a pleasure lost to him during the fighting.  Until Terry’s note tells us that the putting green has only recently been cleared of mines.  In the background, there is higher grass, equally green, that has not yet been cleared.  The tranquil image we began with becomes something more precarious.

The photo of the golfer illustrates an interesting feature of Terry’s book.  At least until we’ve accustomized ourselves to it, we can’t always be sure what we are looking at until she tells us in a note.  The trick is to take in the photo as it first presents itself, then read the note and return to the photo.  There’s a debate among photographers over whether an image dependent on a caption has full authenticity.  Thqat debate seems irrelevant here.

The photo en face with the golfer might also seem nearly Edenic.  Boys are running and tubing in a river.  On the far bank a farmer is watering his ox.  But two of the boys, in the foreground, stand against a guardrail facing the viewer.  One of these boys is quite close.  He’s wearing a kind of Mao-blue shirt, and he is looking at you in a certain way, as if maybe you’re the one come to save him, though there’s also skepticism in his look.  Sticking out from a bag behind him, we see the feet and one hand of a doll.  His companion holds a smaller doll.  The boys, we learn from the note, are among those returned to their villages years after they were forced to flee.  Even though they couldn’t be over nine, they have seen what they have seen.  And we know that it won’t go away soon, perhaps never. Yet they play in the Garden of Eden.

A still more complex Eden emerges from Terry’s photos of the Mostar Bridge over the Neretva River.  There had been a bridge here almost always.  The old Ottoman bridge was destroyed during the war, and the new one was completed in the summer of 2004.  In the first of this series, we see a boy’s bare legs from behind.  He is standing outside the bridge railing, probably looking down at the river, one of whose banks is rock, the other, what looks like industrial reconstruction.  In an instant the boy will jump into the blue river, so framed.  Boys had always jumped from the Ottoman bridge over the Neretva river.

The one about to jump is practicing for the annual jumping and diving contest for which the bridge is famous.  In a few days the custom will resume with the 448th of these contests.  In another photo in this series, a boy is poised in air, having leapt.  Of course he is motionless, as is the crowd strung across the bridge to watch.  In his figure, life is brilliantly renewed.

I know that I’ll keep on thinking about and revisiting the images that Terry gives us – images in which disaster and hope are only precariously in balance.  You can see this in the last photo in the book, an especially lovely one.  It’s echoes the picture of the golfer in that the frame is perfect morning light, with floating cumulus above the green-ridge opposite shore.  In the foreground on the near bank, a woman looks down at the river.  She faces away from us, her head and shoulders wrapped in a big scarf, black with white oak leaf patterns making the design.  The scarf, along with the bunch of carnations in her right hand, lends her a kind of tranquility appropriate to the scene.  Then you learn from Terry that the woman has come to the place where 2,000 Muslim men and boys were executed.  She’s about to throw her carnations down into the river, making a ceremony for her own dead.

If a coffee table book is something you leaf through, this is the furthest thing from that.  Aftermath is a book that wants to be taken in slowly.  The reward is that you find yourself very close to scarred lives and a scarred land that are  making their hard recoveries with resilience equal to the forces that crushed them.

A version of that theme also appears in Terry’s photo of a man on crutches, dressed in black and wearing a warm cap.  He’ s walking just to the right of a white dividing line down the middle of a street that looks as if it has been rained on, just next to the white line.  His head’s turned to the right, so he seems to be gazing at bright red nylon café chairs tipped against tables.  Fifteen yards ahead of him walk a man and a woman.  Their backs are turned toward us, but from behind they look comfortably dressed and free.  They give intensity by crisis to the drooped and twisted figure of the injured man. On the back of his coat, two blonds, in red, sit back to back, over the caption, “Pretty.”  The nudes provide, though their red is less intense.

The left lane is empty – just wet, cracked asphalt, with a row of granite blocks marking the edge, some of them covered with graffiti.  But in the foreground, in the direction opposite from where the man’s looking, and balanced against the café chairs leaning against tables, there’s a vivid splash of blood red on the asphalt, with big red drops appearing to fly from it.  Terry tells us that the splotch is a “rose” of Sarajevo, marking one of the many mortar blasts and the people who died in them.  The mortar blast leaves a pattern that looks like a flower, and these flowers were filled in with red as commemoration to the war dead.  There are white café chairs in the returning sun at the end of the street.  That’s where the couple is going.  Maybe it’s where the crippled man is going too, carrying his own rose of Sarajevo on the back of his jacket in two red nudes, seated back to back over the word “Pretty.”  Their color offers a kind of a bridge between the café chairs and the splash of paint.

A university student said to Terry:   “Everyone thinks it’s great that the war is over.  But we Bosnians often say we have yet to survive the peace.  This peace.”  Aftermath offer images of this peace, often bright and regenerative, yet still studded with vestiges of war.  There are memories that can never heal:  they can only be sealed off as a tree seals off wounds and infections so that it can go on living.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus
6 Comments

HOWARD ZINN, TONIGHT, IN MY LIVING ROOM.

-by Barry Brodsky

In 1974, I found myself living in Brockton in a federally subsidized housing project called Battles Farm Village, going to UMass-Boston on the GI Bill, and working as a tenant organizer for a statewide housing organization.

While at a meeting one night, I met someone who worked at something called The Boston Community School. He told me about the school’s mission – bring classes to adults who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend them. I told him about the tenant union I was part of in Brockton, and he said to check with the tenants and see if they were interested in having a class taught at the project. Back home, several people said they’d love to learn more about the history of community organizing in America, and did this school have a class like that? I relayed that message to the school.

A few days later, I got a phone call from Howard Zinn. He told me he taught at Boston University, was volunteering with the Boston Community School, and that he would love to meet on a weekly basis with tenants active in the tenant union to discuss the history of community organizing.

For the next 12 weeks or so, Howard drove down to Brockton one night each week to deliver a lecture and then talk with the men and women cramped into a living room about ways people band together to fight for their rights. I attended three or four of the sessions. I still remember him talking about eviction blockings during the Great Depression, and about a citywide rent strike in New York City. He brought readings for people to study for the next session. He did it all for a cup of coffee (or maybe tea, I forget) and a piece of pastry each week.

People rotated apartments in the project, and would usually put out a flyer inviting their neighbors: the flyer would read something like “Come hear BU Professor Howard Zinn tonight in my living room” and describe the subject of the evening’s discussion. There was a core of about a dozen people who attended every session, and then there were others, like me, who would show up occasionally.

And then one week sessions were over. One of the tenant reps told me that Howard had wrapped up the night before. I felt badly that I missed most of the sessions, but during the next couple years, when we’d have a meeting and some issue or other would come up, it wasn’t unusual for one of the tenants, in the midst of a heated debate, to say something like “remember when Howard talked about…” and a lively discussion would ensue comparing the current situation to some historical event they had discussed with Howard in someone’s living room.

I started writing plays in the 1980s and was delighted to find Howard was also writing plays. I went to see his play “Emma” and hoped he would be there, but he wasn’t. I saw him speak a few times at rallies and events, but never approached him to remind him of those classes he taught in the living rooms of Battles Farm. I wanted to tell him how much it meant to all of us, and how empowering it is to know that what you’re doing is part of the flow of American History. I have a feeling, however, that he already knew.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus
2 Comments

REMEMBERING HOWARD ZINN

-by Noam Chomsky,Resist Newsletter

It is not easy for me to write a few words about Howard Zinn, the great American activist and historian who passed away a few days ago.  He was a very close friend for 45 years.  The families were very close too.  His wife Roz, who died of cancer not long before, was also a marvelous person and close friend.   Also somber is the realization that a whole generation seems to be disappearing, including several other old friends: Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed, and others, who were not only astute and productive scholars but also dedicated and courageous militants, always on call when needed – which was constant.  A combination that is essential if there is to be hope of decent survival.

Howard’s remarkable life and work are summarized best in his own words.  His primary concern, he explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma.  His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews.  It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments.  That was true when he was an industrial worker and labor activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spellman college in Atlanta Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

While teaching at Spellman, Howard supported the students who were at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in its early and most dangerous days, many of whom became quite well-known in later years — Alice Walker, Julian Bond, and others – and who loved and revered him, as did everyone who knew him well.   And as always, he did not just support them, which was rare enough, but also participated directly with them in their most hazardous efforts — no easy undertaking at that time, before there was any organized popular movement and in the face of government hostility that lasted for some years.  Finally, popular support was ignited, in large part by the courageous actions of the young people who were sitting in at lunch counters, riding freedom buses, organizing demonstrations, facing bitter racism and brutality, sometimes death.  By the early 1960s a mass popular movement was taking shape, by then with Martin Luther King in a leadership role, and the government had to respond.  As a reward for his courage and honesty, Howard was soon expelled from the college where he taught.  A few years later he wrote the standard work on SNCC (the Student non-violent Coordinating Committee), the major organization of those “unknown people” whose “countless small actions” played such an important part in creating the groundswell that enabled King to gain significant influence, as I am sure he would have been the first to say, and to bring the country to honor the constitutional amendments of a century earlier that had theoretically granted elementary civil rights to former slaves – at least to do so partially; no need to stress that there remains a long way to go.

On a personal note, I came to know Howard well when we went together to a civil rights demonstration in Jackson Mississippi in (I think) 1964, even at that late date a scene of violent public antagonism, police brutality, and indifference or even cooperation with state security forces on the part of federal authorities, sometimes in ways that were quite shocking.

After being expelled from the Atlanta college where he taught, Howard came to Boston, and spent the rest of his academic career at Boston University, where he was, I am sure, the most admired and loved faculty member on campus, and the target of bitter antagonism and petty cruelty on the part of the administration – though in later years, after his retirement, he gained the public honor and respect that was always overwhelming among students, staff, much of the faculty, and the general community.  While there, Howard wrote the books that brought him well-deserved fame.  His book Logic of Withdrawal, in 1967, was the first to express clearly and powerfully what many were then beginning barely to contemplate: that the US had no right even to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, leaving Washington with power and substantial control in the country it had invaded and by then already largely destroyed.  Rather, the US should do what any aggressor should: withdraw, allow the population to somehow reconstruct as they could from the wreckage, and if minimal honesty could be attained, pay massive reparations for the crimes that the invading armies had committed, vast crimes in this case.  The book had wide influence among the public, although to this day its message can barely even be comprehended in elite educated circles, an indication of how much necessary work lies ahead.

Significantly, among the general public by the war’s end, 70% regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” a remarkable figure considering the fact that scarcely a hint of such a thought was expressible in mainstream opinion.   Howard’s writings — and, as always, his prominent presence in protest and direct resistance — were a major factor in civilizing much of the country.

In those same years, Howard also became one of the most prominent supporters of the resistance movement that was then developing.  He was one of the early signers of the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority and was so close to the activities of Resist that he was practically one of the organizers.  He also took part at once in the sanctuary actions that had a remarkable impact in galvanizing antiwar protest.  Whatever was needed – talks, participation in civil disobedience, support for resisters, testimony at trials – Howard was always there.

Even more influential in the long run than Howard’s anti-war writings and actions was his enduring masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States, a book that literally changed the consciousness of a generation.  Here he developed with care, lucidity, and comprehensive sweep his fundamental message about the crucial role of the people who remain unknown in carrying forward the endless struggle for peace and justice, and about the victims of the systems of power that create their own versions of history and seek to impose it.  Later, his “Voices” from the People’s History, now an acclaimed theatrical and television production, has brought to many the actual words of those forgotten or ignored people who have played such a valuable role in creating a better world.

Howard’s unique success in drawing the actions and voices of unknown people from the depths to which they had largely been consigned has spawned extensive historical research following a similar path, focusing on critical periods of American history, and turning to the record in other countries as well, a very welcome development.  It is not entirely novel – there had been scholarly inquiries of particular topics before – but nothing to compare with Howard’s broad and incisive evocation of “history from below,” compensating for critical omissions in how American history had been interpreted and conveyed.

Howard’s dedicated activism continued, literally without a break, until the very end, even in his last years, when he was suffering from severe infirmity and personal loss, though one would hardly know it when meeting him or watching him speaking tirelessly to captivated audiences all over the country.  Whenever there was a struggle for peace and justice, Howard was there, on the front lines, unflagging in his enthusiasm, and inspiring in his integrity, engagement, eloquence and insight, light touch of humor in the face of adversity, dedication to non-violence, and sheer decency.  It is hard even to imagine how many young people’s lives were touched, and how deeply, by his achievements, both in his work and his life.

There are places where Howard’s life and work should have particular resonance.  One, which should be much better known, is Turkey.  I know of no other country where leading writers, artists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals have compiled such an impressive record of bravery and integrity in condemning crimes of state, and going beyond to engage in civil disobedience to try to bring oppression and violence to an end, facing and sometimes enduring severe repression, and then returning to the task.  It is an honorable record, unique to my knowledge, a record of which the country should be proud.  And one that should be a model for others, just as Howard Zinn’s life and work are an unforgettable model, sure to leave a permanent stamp on how history is understood and how a decent and honorable life should be lived.

February 26, 2011
by Nexus
1 Comment

ON TEACHING HOWARD ZINN

Larry Aaronson

Former Chair of Social Studies Department

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School

“You wanna read a really good American History book? Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I will knock your socks off!” -Will Hunting (Matt Damon), “Good Will Hunting”

The world famous historian, retired BU professor, playwright, poet, novelist, and “radical” peace and civil rights activist, died Jan. 26th, the same day President Obama delivered his State of the Union message. Howie was 87, active until the day he died, struck down by a massive heart attack. His famous history book, The People’s History of the United States, has sold well over 2 million copies, and counting. Last Dec. 11th, “The People Speak,” produced in part by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (’88 and ’90) appeared on the History Channel. Before moving to Cambridge in the mid-70’s, Matt Damon grew up next door to the Zinns. Both households equally sharing progressive politics, they became life long “family.” September ’81, Kyle Damon, Matty’s older brother, enrolled in my US History class. It was Kyle’s freshmen year, my “rookie” year at The Pilot, the very first year “A People’s History” appeared.  This was pure serendipity, all to the delight of their mom. Soon after I was invited over for dinner with the Zinn’s. The rest is history.

Howard Zinn’s history book A People’s History of The United States, has a compelling connection with CRLS. Rindge was one of the very first US urban high schools to allow teachers to use the controversial revisionists history book. I was one of the very first history teachers allowed to teach Zinn’s revisionist history in an American public high school. The year was 1981, less than a year after the book appeared. I taught 20-some years at The Pilot School, the progressive alternative school program housed in CRLS. I taught extensively from “The Peoples’ History” for the next two decades.

I submit there is a direct correlation between the introduction of Zinn’s book and the extraordinary awakening of student leadership in Cambridge Rindge and Latin during the 80’s and lasted until early 90’s. The change in the political activism in the school was palpable. Student leaders angered by US indifference to the Apartheid in South Africa, drove out all Coca-Cola dispenser machines from CRLS when they learned the corporation lied about their divestment policy. Students’ response to the California jury’s acquittal of the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King was to organize with teachers and alumni to produce their own revisionist multicultural curriculum writing project (Onesimus), dedicated to combat racial, gender and class prejudice and stereotypes in our schools. When a former CRLS student was senselessly murdered outside a housing project, students established Students Against Violence and For Equality (SAVE). When local educators, parents and civic leaders feared the worst– a rampaging AIDS epidemic, youth peer leaders organized a condom distributions program in our school’s Teen Health Clinic, one of the very first such projects in any public school in America. Student activists also helped establish Project 10 East, the second in-school support youth program for GTLB community in the country, another first! I actively joined my students in their endeavors.

Howie died promoting his latest project, “The People Speak.” He wanted it to inspire students to find their voice and take courage to fight for social justice and human rights. How will we be able to get this curriculum into our public schools?

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