Learning from tragedy

Danielle Zukowski

As I cook, every now and then I stop to take notes to an audiobook playing, in the background entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet Jacob’s recounting of a seven-year-confinement in an attic and an unfulfilled dream to live with her family are much too haunting over a dinner meal. Reflecting upon the denial of human rights based on skin color is a heavy and horrifying issue; why would people subject themselves to such historical tragedy?

Well, the easy and, if I’m being honest, the main answer is probably due to the fact that I am in an early African American literature class and my English degree kind of relies on the completion of this course, however, through this somewhat mandatory and somewhat chosen class, I am exposed to the lessons of the past.

Often I am one to choose happy or mindless books and films as I feel that so many negative emotions are already captured by everyday life. Despite this, every now and then I am encouraged to venture into something thought provoking that might leave me feeling dismayed or otherwise conflicted. As I write more and more of my own work, I am continuously realizing that literature about those non-glimmering emotions are the ones that can feel the most insightful and most valuable to share.

Despite slave narratives being difficult for the audience to consume, they come with first hand experience that we otherwise would not be made aware of. History classes come short of these primary sources because, again, why would we want to reflect on our country’s cruelly hypocritical foundations? To be ever so cliché: history can be quite cyclical. Maybe cyclicality does not occur in directly identical ways, but without learning the lessons of the past, I am likely to not understand why similarities are problematic.

Even though it is extremely saddening at times to learn about the tragedies that afflict other humans, it feels a little self-focused to place one’s own comfort above the reception of a story that was hard for the experiencer themselves to tell because they did it anyway. For example, Elizabeth Keckley who worked for the Lincoln family states in her narrative’s introductory notes her reluctance to write of her life yet she did. 

To sit here and refuse to read their work because it makes me sad feels ridiculous. People share their tragic experiences because they are important, not because they are easy. The least I can do is learn and this is something I want to try to implement more into the genres I surround myself with.

Whether it be taking a class or turning on Netflix, consider exposing yourself to something that will sadden, anger, or confuse you- something that makes you think- every once in a while. Stepping into discomfort does not have to be an art based experience either. Grand Valley’s campus offers opportunities to do so as well. Of particular interest would be the upcoming lecture from Magda Brown, a Holocaust survivor, who is visiting Wednesday, March 15. Unique learning events such as this are hidden in plain sight all around us. Acknowledge the discomfort then do it anyway.