I was never a history student. I majored in German literature. Once in college when I referenced a favorite film, a man I knew stopped me mid sentence. “Amy!” His voice dripped with exasperation. ”Not EVERYone is a German major.”
Thank God I was. To paraphrase Frost, it’s made all the difference.
My newly released book, German Awakening: Tales from an American Life testifies to that truth. I’m not making anything up. The timing of its arrival is almost eerie except …
In my life I have been in exactly the right places to witness certain unique moments in history, related to echoes from Germany, through no conscious intention. I watched Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech from a German living room, then gave a speech of my own, two years before the Wall fell. That story made it into my book.
Here’s one that didn’t.
The day after the current occupant of the White House was elected by a clear minority, I happened to be in Washington DC with my German exchange sister. She’d been warning me for months about this guy. I always brushed her worries off, but I would never have gone to DC — would have stayed home and hid — except that Eva insisted I get myself out there. She’d take care of the rest.
Because I had 10 months earlier resigned my Spanish (!) teaching job mid year (toxic patriarchy is too simple an explanation, but let’s go with it for now) I didn’t have to teach, and I had no clear sense of direction that would land me another job, so I was available.
Eva happens to be friends with the head of the German press corps. So that morning after elections, when I felt so dejected, after we watched Hilary concede the race from a hotel bar, tears streaming down my face, we went upstairs to the hospitality suite from which all of Germany was witnessing ugly history play out in America. My homeland.
Shocked, I recognized another singular moment. The German spoken in that makeshift newsroom made more sense than any English I was hearing. How exactly did “we” (it wasn’t me!) elect a misogynistic, xenophobic man with such an unapologetic legacy of hate?
Afterwards Eva led me to see the Constitution and the faded, barely legible Declaration of Independence. How all men are equal and all that jazz. I stood and squinted, hopeless before that dimly lit scrap of paper. How would I ever move forward?
The following day, we were walking down the street sipping hot lattes — Eva’s treat — when men in black with weapons, screaming, ordered us onto the curb. Eva asked why, because: German, remember? One stammered about it being a normal part of the job.
We looked up and realized that there was the White House and a giant SUV that looked like a hearse soon drove through the opening gates. (We’d crossed paths with the motorcade a few blocks previous, its funereal sirens blaring.) Time for the victor to actually meet Obama. His first time ever.
I know I’m privileged as an American. I love America, my home. But I’m not LGBTQ. I’m not an immigrant, I speak English with precision, I’m Christian, and I’m white. I grew up with a mom who provided her daughter a top notch education. Men have tried — and failed — to silence my voice. I surround myself with men who wouldn’t want to. So I feared that day not for myself but for so many other beloveds who call this place home. That terror.
What could I do?
After the men let us off the curb, we walked down the street to the African American museum. Have you been there? That’s where I learned the name Emmett Till. And felt ashamed that I’d never known it before. Or so much of this painful history. (If you haven’t either, look it up.)
I confessed my sin to two dark-skinned women beside me who received my words with love. Both said, “Yes. Now you know.”
Do you know what Eva did?
She gave me an example to follow. She kept me moving. She talked with people all week. Museum guards, panhandlers, old and new friends, and her terrified American sister. She listened. She showed kindness. And courage. Always has.
And sure, as a privileged white Christian woman, I could hide, but I’ve been just enough of an OTHER (another story, another time) to know we with privilege must bring truth to power. Not matching the anger and fear. Bringing radical love. Let ourselves receive guidance. Listen. See people and shine a light.
It’s time to be present. That’s on us.
Let us speak the names of heroes.
God bless Emmett Till.
God bless Christine Blasey Ford.
God bless Sophie Scholl.
She likewise had her day in court. You may want to look that up.
We remember their courage. With love.
It’s our turn now.