Every time we feel like reading a book, we choose what feels right. Sometimes, we are influenced by a review in the newspaper, something we hear on the radio, or a friend’s enthusiasm. How many times have you wandering around the bookstore or library wondering what your next favorite book will be? It’s just a release to be able to read for pleasure, getting lost in a story. We are extremely fortunate, and often forget how lucky we are to be able to read whatever we like.
Imagine how shocked you’d be if someone ripped a book that you were reading right out of your hands because it was banned. Imagine if you couldn’t read about different religions, cultures, or worlds. Imagine if you couldn’t talk about books with your friends, and that some opinions might even endanger your lives. This is the reality in some parts of the world or history, where literature was viewed as dangerous.
Fortunately, we can read what we like in the library, at home, a café, and even online. We can peruse Facebook or Instagram for the latest gossip. We can listen to the latest news and discuss it with anyone we like. We can comment on posts, photos, and newsfeeds. We can even have arguments and discussions online about what we believe. It doesn’t matter what religious beliefs or values we have as long as we are not hurting anyone else. We have the freedom to believe what we like. So often we take all of this for granted…
The madness of differences
When the African American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, qualified for the 1936 Olympic Games hosted in Berlin, the German Reich vehemently opposed a Black man competing on their soil. He faced harassment and bullying, but he still competed, and won! Racism has been the sources of oppression and pain for centuries. Millions of Africans were sold into the slave trade and shipped to the West Indies and North America for centuries never to return home and never to see freedom again. African slaves were used for mining and agriculture, mostly they were treated less than human.
These stories of discrimination, oppression, and perseverance have not been forgotten though. Fredrick Douglas, a former slave and abolitionist, published a memoir in 1845, that exposed the brutality and injustice of slavery. He wrote:
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. […] The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.
ACTIVITY – Prepare a poster for Human Rights Day. Focus on an issue that you feel best conveys the value of the day, such as racism.
New World, new needs of rights
When Europeans discovered America, they discovered a wealth of natural resources such as gold, silver, forests, fish, and furs. The space and resources were a source of economic opportunity and wealth. However, the European expansion did not account for the impact on local Indigenous populations. Even in the cases where Indigenous populations and Europeans made peaceful agreements, the native populations were impacted by disease and economic exploitation. Treaties that were agreed upon often favored Europeans, moving Indigenous populations onto reserves away from their homeland, restricting their movement, limiting their access to natural resources, and negatively impacting their culture.
When treaties were not successful, violence was employed, and wars broke out. Indigenous populations were disseminated, and for those who survived, reconciliation and healing from colonial violence continue within these populations. Several brave Native Americans such as Apache Chief Geronimo fought to preserve his native territory from European invasion. Here below a page from his book My Life:
[in 1858] we heard that some white men were measuring land to the south of us. In company with a number of other warriors I went to visit them. We could not understand them very well, for we had no interpreter, but we made a treaty with them by shaking hands and promising to be brothers. Then we made our camp near their camp, and they came to trade with us. We gave them buckskin, blankets, and ponies in exchange for shirts and provisions. […] Every day they measured land with curious instruments and put down marks which we could not understand. They were good men, and we were sorry when they had gone on into the west. They were not soldiers. These were the first white men I ever saw. About ten years later some more white men came. These were all warriors. They made their camp on the Gila River south of Hot Springs. At first they were friendly and we did not dislike them, but they were not as good as those who came first.
ACTIVITY – Write an article for the school blog giving your opinion on what basic topics different peoples might start to talk about when they know nothing about each other.
When the word “race” exterminates human beings
The Declaration of Human Rights was signed after a huge tragedy, the Second World War. The years that preceded it were marked by dictatorships that included mass violations of human rights, and even genocide. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany launched a systematic and structured policy of extermination of Jews, gypsies, opponents of the regime, people with disabilities, anyone who was considered a threat to the pure Aryan race. The Holocaust was caused by laws that were enacted against the Jews and created the foundation for mass systematic extermination campaign that killed millions. World War II and the Holocaust is one of the worst man-made tragedies of the 20th century.
Anne Frank, a fourteen-year-old German Jewish girl who lived with her family in Amsterdam, wrote a diary of her experiences hiding in a secret apartment above another family in 1942 to avoid deportation to Germany. Unfortunately, they were discovered in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz and then to Bergen Belsen, where Anne died in February 1945, just before the end of the war. Her diary serves as a reminder of the real families impacted by the horrors of the Holocaust. But, despite a terrible situation, Anna managed to look further, and her words seem to be the inspiration for the document that a few years later tried to put a stop to tragedies like these.
It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. […] . And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realise them!
The Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), only three years after the UN’s formation in 1945. The UN provokes ideals of peace, economic, social, and political equality, and the protection of the planet (natural and human). Above all, the United Nations evokes respect for human rights.
The few voices we have read from their direct accounts are the representation of many others, less famous, less heard, but still valuable. Those who drew up the Declaration of Human Rights had listened to individuals from all over the world to understand which rights were essential to being a human. One of the key political leaders and proponents of women’s and human rights during this period was the wife of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor. She wrote:
Where do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps […] Unless these rights have meaning in these small places, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action close to home, we have no hope of spreading human rights around the world.
ACTIVITY – Send a tweet to a friend telling him what you are doing to stand up for human rights.