I teach at a college but every year a local high school teacher has me present to her classes about Elizabethan literature, primarily Shakespeare; and my sister-in-law, Heathcliff, who teaches at the junior high, makes me talk to hers about the Holocaust, with a focus on Anne Frank. It is not hard for her to make me because Heathcliff is the boss; I do whatever she says. But it is hard to speak about the Holocaust. I have to force myself to do it because it is so horrifically sad.
I know about Anne Frank because my teacher mother put the diary in my hands when I was in fifth grade. As I grew closer to the age of Anne when she lived in the Secret Annex, my ability to comprehend the story and interest in her grew. By the time I was in college I was hellbent on visiting the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, so Stone and I backpacked there when we graduated, and we took our kids as soon as they were old enough even though we really could not afford the trip.
I am glad that Arkansas collectively appreciates the importance of teaching about the Holocaust. A bill proposed in our legislature, if approved, will require Arkansas public schools to observe Holocaust Education Week the last week of January, in keeping with the United Nations designation of January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
My goal when I speak to students, in a nutshell, is empathy. We start with macro-facts, like the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, close to twice the population of Arkansas. And then we put that number under a microscope and examine closely the one short life of a child the same age as Heathcliff’s 8th graders. The girl who moved from Germany to Holland to be safe. Who received a small diary covered in red plaid for her 13th birthday; who was sassy, friendly, and funny; who cut out pictures of movie stars from a magazine to tape to her wall. The girl who, with her family, would leave home in layers of clothes with nothing but a small bag, go into hiding, and stay hunkered down in a tiny apartment in the middle of Amsterdam for two years. Anne would never go outside during that time, or see a movie, or run, or play, or speak to her friends. She would be forced onto a train’s cattle car and taken to a Polish concentration camp. Separated from her parents. Anne Frank would die a few days after her sister at age 15 of starvation and typhus, contracted from the squalid conditions of still another concentration camp in the Netherlands only a short time before it was liberated.
This is painful history we all need to learn. I am scared of junior high students. It takes a special kind of person to teach in a junior high school day in and day out and I am not that special. But these students who might not listen to me about anything else listen to the story of Anne Frank, because they see themselves in her. And the hope in that for a teacher is the same as Otto Frank’s hope in publishing his daughter’s diary: that it will have an effect on the rest of their lives, and insofar as it is possible within their own circumstances, they will work for unity and peace.
Why is it easy for Arkansas lawmakers to agree on the urgency of teaching the Holocaust in all of its darkness and yet when it comes to our own state’s and nation’s terrible sins there is a debate? This contradiction is something we see in the governor’s executive order to ban so-called CRT, which is not being taught in our schools, but nonetheless sends a message that incites fear about teaching basic historical facts on things like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
It is also clear in legislation that would end Affirmative Action in Arkansas. The phrase “Affirmative Action” came from President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He declared by executive order that government contractors must “take affirmative action to ensure applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” It was a way to try to help people who previously had not had equal opportunity under the law for a couple of hundred years. To acknowledge that as a country and attempt to right that wrong by giving them the chance to catch up. I love it when humans do this—acknowledge wrong and try to make it right—and it makes me proud to see America repent of past sins. It is healthy, responsible, and right. It is often a messy process, not an exact science, and we should err on the side of mercy.
But Senator Dan Sullivan seems to believe 60 years is enough time for catching up, and that white men are now victims of discrimination. His bill to end Affirmative Action in Arkansas, SB 71, passed through committee and will go to the Senate floor.
Dr. Jim Ross, historian, writes that “the philosophical assumption behind Affirmative Action was to identify classes of Americans who had been left behind because they did not have the same access to capital development, education, or political influence that the majority had. It was accepted as a historical fact that because of slavery and Jim Crow laws, African American and Latino business had not grown like they would have in a free and open system where everyone had equal opportunity.” It worries me to imagine schools afraid to teach those facts—and that our lawmakers in Arkansas are no longer accepting of those truths as fact. That they claim somehow 60 years of Affirmative Action has finished the work, when there is not evidence to support such a conclusion. It will be finished when groups marginalized by history’s failings are represented in numbers that correspond to the percentage of those folks who exist in Arkansas. Until then, we still have discrimination, and should keep Affirmative Action until what was wrong is made right. Even if it takes 200 years.