Amy Shimshon-Santo
May 16, 2017 · 4 min read

Reclaiming Women’s Histories of Activism

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The impulse for writing the essay “My Grandma Was a Radical” was triggered by holes cut in a book, and arrived with a flood of tears. I was sitting in a dark classroom room listening to a lecture on “Race and Erasure” by the National Book Award winning poet Robin Coste Lewis (@thesablevenus). She circulated a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010) for us to touch. The book is an erasure text of another book written by Bruno Schultz called the Street of Crocodiles that was first published in Poland around 1934. Schultz was a Polish Jewish author who was later murdered under fascism. There was something visceral and disturbing about seeing all the empty spaces Foer had purposefully cut from Schultz’s original text. For me, it was symbolic. The holes might have well been carved into my own lungs. Coste Lewis argued that erasure is not just an aesthetic mode, but it is what history has done to marginalized people due to racism, fascism, and patriarchy. No joke. Our ancestors have been cut out of history. Removed. Erased. Rendered invisible. This is how hegemony has distorted truth, memory, and history.

After the presentations ended, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in the dark by the stacked chairs steeped in emotion. Something had hit me hard, and I was taking note. This feeling sparked the search for unwritten histories in my own family. It was something tangible that I could do about the problem. This deep impulse guided the research about my grandmother Reva Mucha Zwolinski described in the essay.

How do we enter marginalized histories into the archive of published material? Are there breadcrumbs that can lead us back to grandmother’s house without a written paper trail to the experiences of our forbearers? How can we — as writers, and activists — help solve this problem?

I road my bike home that night and began to hunt online for a document I’d heard about from my father before he died. I wondered if I could track down grandma’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Los Angeles. Maybe that way I could read a sentence that she formed in her own words. Sure enough, I found a copy on the World Wide Web, dangling in cyberspace. My job immediately became to make sense of this relic. If no one writes about random artifacts, how will future generations know what came before? How did we get here? What are our histories of struggle and resistance?

I found some of my grandmother’s sentences hiding inside a U.S. Government document. She composed them orally while under interrogation, and they were written down by an administrator and filed away. That sparked thebeginning of a search that took me through paper and digital archives to weave a connection between a granddaughter and her grandmother, between the past and the present.

Since grandma died long ago, I turned to critical Jewish women writers from earlier times like Hannah Arendt (1964) and Helene Cixous (1998). I also turned to feminist thinkers of the period like Simone De Beauvoir (1964). I found solace in their interpretations of historical occurrences.

I also found unexpected things I could have never imagined, like a letter addressed to my grandmother in the W.E.B. Dubois archive. This helped me see that there are deep, honorable roots of progressive intercultural collaboration in Los Angeles, and in the United States.

Researching and writing this essay meant reaching my hands into the unknown. It was what I learned in the library, together with oral family stories I’d heard as a child, that allowed me to piece together information to help me better understand the history of my own family, my city, and this country.

I had no idea when I began this journey that we would be facing the rise of white nationalism again to the degree we are seeing now. I didn’t know that Trump would be elected, or that xenophobic policies would be enacted to once again demonize immigrants, or question a women’s right to choose. Historical research now grounds me in the awareness of the past, and reminds me of how important it is to do speak out in an informed, rooted, and fearless way.

My own mother migrated to this country and found her own voice by expressing herself through visual art. Writing has become my canvas. I spoke to my mother about writing about Trumpism and she said, “I will not hold my tongue.” Nor will I. I will speak my mind, and I will write it down. I will not hold my tongue, and I will not hold my pen.

It is an important time for us to connect our ancestral stories with what we are witnessing and experiencing today — what was with what is. Historical knowledge ought to inform our current thinking. We can learn by consulting the archive, but we must also seek to expand it to make it more inclusive of all of us.

You can read “My Grandma Was a Radical” in the Tiferet Journal. Download my essay and the entire spring 2017 volume here:

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