Content note: Genocide.
15yo has an interesting question this morning: What’s the first major news story you can remember living through as a child?
— Ms. (((Rosenberg))) (@Miz_Rosenberg) July 6, 2016
The Falling Berlin Wall. Then the Gulf War. Then the Bosnian War/Genocide. Then the Rwandan Genocide: 1989-1995. https://t.co/gBl2k8rs9I
— mackenzian (@mackenzian) July 6, 2016
In 1989, I sat in my family’s kitchen with my father, listening to radio journalists as East and West Germans broke down the wall that had separated neighbor from neighbor, family member from family member.
In 1991, the stock newspaper photo for stories about the Persian Gulf war was an F-15. My brother and I played a flight simulator computer game. My parents fretted about the price of petrol.
From 1991-1995, I came home from school in the afternoons to children’s news shows on the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian conflict between Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. I learned how to pronounce Srebrenica, Karadžić, Milošević, and Sarajevo. At school, we gossiped about the Los Angeles riots and, later, the O.J. Simpson case.
In 1993, all Adventists would talk about was David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who burned to death in Waco, TX. Some of the dead had once been part of the British Caribbean church circuit I grew up in, and rooms hushed when their names and photos washed up on the other side of the Atlantic. By 1994, Waco had been put to rest, and we learned about the Rwandan genocide. No one told me there were Adventist church leaders among both the murderers and the murdered.
In 1997, I woke up to a frantic TV bulletin about Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s car accident in Paris. In 2001, I watched my then-85-year-old grandmother swaying on her feet in Jamaica while New York’s Twin Towers crumbled live on cable TV. She was on the phone with her oldest daughter. They invoked the apocalypse and soon coming of Jesus: it was their only way to make sense of what they were seeing.
The trait common to all but one of these formative childhood memories is trauma. The spin to all but one of them is negative.
I had a good, safe childhood. And I have lots of great memories, yet almost all of my positive formative memories are private, and almost all of my common memories are negative.
In organizational contexts too, leadership, organizational, and personnel assessments can be like this. We struggle to praise one another and find summing up team accomplishments painful, but we easily notice each other’s errors and evil when it arises.
For years, I’ve insisted that we remember our histories together: Georges Erasmus is right when he describes common national memory as the only viable grounds for a just society.
I just hope that we can train ourselves to tell the truth, and not only the negative truth. I think we need the whole truth at all levels, at the level of persons, organizations, nations, and beyond.
Even when the negative is true, it has to be to our detriment that all we can keep of our past is its shadow.