Previously published at the Black Commentator, May 3, 2018
Greed and fear exposed themselves without shame and suppressed all tender feeling. We all had to recognize during those weeks that the scales we had used for weighing were no longer accurate. Those nearest to us or those whom we called friends either kept complete silence or evaded their duty with a few shabby words about the hard times that made it impossible for them to help.
Hans Erich Nossack, The End: Hamburg 1943
It wasn't whitefolks--that much she could tell--so it must be colored ones. And then she knew. Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (Baby Suggs)
Allied bombs have come and gone, and, in an instant, home in Hamburg disappears. Two people, a man and a woman, crawling from under their makeshift shelter, begin walking in disbelief, in search of their street, their home.
Everywhere is the midst and the rubble. At some point, the two people stop and look up "spellbound." In the middle of total chaos, there's a woman cleaning a window of the only house intact. Maybe it's one incidence of "madness," the man thinks, as the couple continue walking. But soon, their nudging each other as they look on--rubble everywhere, but here are children raking the front yard of their home.
And then, one afternoon, thinking they have seen it all, the two find themselves in a suburb that has been "completely undestroyed." When the two look up, they see people, on their balconies, drinking coffee!
This image, described in the late German novelist Hans Erich Nossack's The End: Hamburg, 1943 of him and his wife coming upon people drinking coffee on their balconies, doesn't escape W.G. Sebald's attention 50 years later. In On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald recognizes the necessity for a principled witness who, in turn, asks of contemporaries and future generations to imagine a world, visible, one second, and, in the next, all destroyed.
Reduced to fragments. Unusable.
"Close your eyes." Sebald does, we do, too, because this is what happens to people after we're made no longer able to recognize the rubble around us. We start in this moment, accessing the surroundings, acknowledging in the end, that we, too, have seen people sitting on balconies.
And we have seen these people before.