The Long View, II: On Who We Can Become
Karen Murphy is the director of international strategy at Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit educational and professional development organization. She has worked in many countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, France, the U.S., and South Africa. She writes and speaks about the role education plays in the development of stability, peaceful coexistence, and the process of reconciliation.
Krista Tippett, host: Somehow, in the wake of an election season that has built on fractures decades in the making, we are called now to consider who we want to be as a people and what kind of world we will build with and for our children. I believe that across every divide of party and age and race and class and geography, the vast majority of us don’t want to live this way any more. And my guest today, Karen Murphy, has been gathering wisdom for this juncture we’re at as she’s worked with teachers and students across the world who are taking up the existential societal challenge of moving beyond destabilizing and dehumanizing division. As the title of her organization suggests, and the American present demonstrates, this always entails “facing history and ourselves” — history as nothing more and nothing less than “the story of us.” We learn much this hour about the work of repair ahead, and how to prepare ourselves for a great civic adventure, in which the stakes are so high.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Karen Murphy: The thing that we hope that we are striving for, which is to actually imagine repair, reconstruction, accountability, is not going to be in a straight line. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be multigenerational — creating a foundation so that the young people who are in high school now have firmer ground to stand upon. This is a marathon. And we need to carry the baton a certain distance for them.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
Karen Murphy creates curricula, trains teachers, and leads global gatherings for Facing History and Ourselves, which partners with over 100,000 teachers and their classrooms around the world. A hallmark of this work is trusting the moral and civic intelligence of the young, with a focus on 11-18 year olds. Karen has worked from Rwanda to Colombia, from South Africa to Northern Ireland, and she grew up in Illinois.
Tippett: So this question I often ask about the spiritual background of someone’s childhood — What I find is that when people start talking about that, you actually get at roots of questions that somebody may have started to follow, may be really the questions they follow the rest of their lives.
And when I look at your work, you are following the deepest of questions: What is the story of us; how do we learn it; how do we tell it; how does that lodge in us and shape how we live?
You wrote a little something about your personal background, and you mentioned — it sounds like you have a relationship with both of your parents now, but you went through, you wrote, a “rather ugly custody battle.” And it doesn’t seem to me completely accidental that you have ended up being a person who faces divides. That story of us is often a contested story. [laughs]
Murphy: I think that’s totally right. That’s totally right. And look, I’m not close to my father; I wouldn’t want to misrepresent that. But my parents had a really terrible custody battle at the age of 14 — meant, for me, leaving my mom and my little brother Patrick, and living with my dad. And because I was a pretty resilient, into-school kind of kid, I just got into it and “succeeded” in all those ways that — I don’t know how you measure that.
But then, later, not only was I very focused on wanting to have a real relationship with my mother, but I felt cheated of that time. Now, I should say, my stepmother took amazing care of me; But I moved back to Springfield for a few months before grad school. And to me, that was a real reclamation, not of being 14, but of the stuff of everyday life. My brother was a senior in high school — just being around. So yes, exactly. And I’m a middle child. So I’m sure that … [laughs]
Tippett: All right, so we’ve done that. We got that checked … [laughs]
I have my own version of that story, so someday when we meet, I’ll tell you why I became a good listener.
So as I’m thinking about the perspective you have to offer on our country at this particular moment in time — “moment” with a capital “M,” which may last for a century — I think about how we did a production trip to Northern Ireland in 2016. And when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I would read about a place like Northern Ireland in the news, or learn about it in school, as one of those places in the world where people just hated each other and sometimes killed each other, and that they were doomed to do it forever.
And in 2016, mid-2016, I’m in Belfast, I’m at Corrymeela, which actually is one of the communities that over decades helped stitch that place into a new reality — I realized I was in this place where people had been on the other side of sectarianism and come out, in not a perfect place, but they never took peace for granted for a second. They lived it. And it was like my vision shifted, and I realized that our country is now the one that is spiraling into a dangerous and, in many ways, violent sectarianism, and these people are now our teachers about how to go beyond that. And so I think of you as someone who, perhaps, has been walking through the world with this kind of perspective on our country, on your own country, for some time.
Murphy: Yes, and Corrymeela is actually our partner in Northern Ireland, and I’ve been working there, in Northern Ireland, since 2003. And look, I think the United States is a country in transition, which would be language that American policymakers would use for developing countries or countries in the wake of war, mass violence. But I think that the moment we’re in, and have been in for quite some time, is a real period of liminality, of betwixt and between. And we are standing in the middle of a bridge and need to decide how we’re gonna walk across it together and in what direction, and your point is so important, that let’s have the humility and the generosity to step back and learn from these places that have had the courage to look at themselves and look at where they’ve been and try to forge a new path with something that resembles “together.” And there are exceptional models for us. And look, I think that right now we should be taking these stories and these examples and these places and filling our pockets and our lungs and our hearts and our minds with them and learning deeply.
Tippett: It’s actually really stunning — and again, I’ve taken this in. I’m so aware of how shaped we are by history, and by a much longer history than I think Americans think about; it’s just not in us. It’s like the frontier; it’s like you’re only moving forward. But it’s only in thinking about talking to you that I started to really internalize how history, overt references to history and overt references to our divisions around history, have just come absolutely to the surface on every side of our divisions. So of course, there are monuments and names that are contested, that come from history. And there’s this sense of recovering chapters of our history that have been underplayed or that we never learned — or never learned in school, anyway. And then even “Make America great again” is also an appeal to history, or to an understanding of history.
Murphy: It’s interesting to see the changes in this country, in the way that we have used, for example, being ahistorical — and you mentioned the Western myth and the idea of reinvention — and how you don’t cloak yourself in the past because you’re moving forward, and how that’s been so bound up in our identity. And at the same time, we have these things — these dates, these people — that are seemingly so important to what it means to be an American. And we go through these debates almost every generation, it feels, about who we are.
Tippett: What do you think of, specifically, when you think of that?
Murphy: About the debates, or about the —
Tippett: The subjects of the debates in different generations, or in ours.
Murphy: Well, like I think about, for example, when I was at the University of Minnesota, there was a decision that there was going to be a required multicultural curriculum, in the early 1990s, for American Studies. Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Beverly Daniel Tatum, tons of books, ethnic studies — it felt like a real moment. So there were cultural wars, but there was also what seemed to be this time of people saying what it means to be American is more expansive and complex, and more voices need to be not just integrated, but have a prominence. So I remember that period very clearly, because I remember teaching then.
And then, in the 2000s, it was almost like that was a blip — not that it didn’t matter, but the prominence for that period. So, we start conversations in this country, we get to the edge, [laughs] and then they become very particular among groups of people, I think, but they don’t get integrated as part of something we’re really willing to wrestle with.
Tippett: Do you have a guess about what that is about us, why we operate that way?
Murphy: Very ahistorical; I think intolerant, at times, of complexity; probably conflict-avoidant. [laughs] Talking about the Civil Rights Movement, if we were to really say, let’s look at U.S. history. Let’s just hold it up for a minute. It was from 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, to 2013 with the Shelby decision, that we really had something close to a democracy. That’s it. That’s it. And I think that we’ve got to get to a place where the language we use, the words we use, are more precise.
And I think part of what could be, for us, a period of learning and transition is an effort to think about what is the shared vocabulary we need; what are the words; how do we describe our past, so that we don’t say, “At the founding of this country, it was democracy.” It was not. But at the same time, what do you do? “Democracy-minus”? Not a helpful way to think about something.
And then you look at this period between 2013 and 2020, and you say, well, we’ve been living without full voting rights protections, which is a primary element of democracy, which isn’t abstract. It’s so tangible. And then you can point to things like other civil rights commitments, like integrated schools. And most of our schools have re-segregated. So I think that —
Tippett: Something I’m thinking of — I think, in saying this, I’m naming something that a lot of people are feeling right now, that there has been this great — I think about in 1976, I was sixteen, and it was the [U.S.] Bicentennial. It was a big deal. People remember this, right? Two hundredth anniversary of our country. And I think about that, and if I think about, there was this overarching theme that we have always been moving forward; that this is a land of progress. And we don’t always get everything right, but we’re moving more right at all times. And I think that that is deep, deep — it’s been deep in the history we’ve learned at schools and deep in our bones, and especially about what America is.
And I’m wondering if that’s a reason that when something has bubbled up, where it is a terrible contradiction between our view of ourselves and what is actually true, or true for many people, it gets put in a box or in a corner, because it can be there on the side, but it doesn’t cohere with the large story of us that we wanted to tell. And if I think about — right now, again, there’s this shocked awakening to chapters of our own history. I grew up in Oklahoma, really not knowing about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, never learning, and all kinds of things. And I would also say, on another place on the spectrum of our country, the idea of Make America Great Again also is very much about that we’ve always been a certain way, always moving forward, always opportunity for everybody to move up. And whether that’s been true or not, that’s how people have internalized it.
Murphy: Yes. We have a linear, progressive narrative that is ascending. And so we use it to explain not just material progress — your kids are better than you were, and so on — which shifted a while ago, and so that’s also a contradiction, as you say, that makes people say, “Hmm, this isn’t like it should be” —
Tippett: Right, it’s not what it should be.
Murphy: It isn’t what it should be. And then there’s the contradiction — the way we’ve treated these things …
Tippett: Not what we were promised.
Murphy: … are aberrations. So Jim Crow, rather than this huge, long period, is an “aberration.” Lynching, rather than something fairly regular, is an “aberration.” When we talk about racial violence, we treat it as an “aberration.” And so I think that part of what you’re talking about — it’s like I can see it in my head — it’s the challenge of a narrative where you do — and this isn’t everybody, you know, there are young people in classrooms for whom there is not a contradiction, because they haven’t experienced the promise. And so they’re not suddenly saying to themselves, “Oh, wait, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” It hasn’t been.
But it’s interesting that you point to 1976. [laughs] That’s when Facing History was founded.
That’s when schools were being desegregated in the United States. It took that long, for a lot of them; think about busing in Boston. That’s the Soweto protests. So I think the other thing that Americans do is remove themselves from the world and not see that we’re part of, also, these reverberations; that some of these movements that are happening simultaneously — not just here; people are talking to each other; they’re sharing ideas, good and bad — that that was a real turning point. And that period you identified, interestingly enough, was also a pretty expansive one in terms of education.
Tippett: I’m not sure I felt that; [laughs] I’m not sure that had made its way to my small town in Oklahoma.
Tippett: there’s this adage — who said this? “He who does not know history is doomed to repeat it.” Who said it?
Tippett: It feels to me implicit in the title of your project, which is Facing History and Facing Ourselves —
Murphy: Facing History and Ourselves.
Tippett: Right. Facing History and Ourselves is actually pointing at not just learning history or teaching it, which is really important, but how does that become shaping history?
Murphy: Yes, the work of looking at the past is insufficient if you don’t also look at yourself. And you have to actually [laughs] look at yourself first. There’s a bit of a dance, where facing history begins with self, and that’s because we focus on adolescents, who are in this extraordinary period of change and transformation, not unlike the one we’re living through. And so it’s questions about how do I see myself, and how do other people see me, and how does that affect the decisions I make, and so on, so that by the time they’re looking at history, you are asking questions about what people did, why they did it, why they didn’t do it, why they failed to act, or why some people stand up in extraordinary ways, and what does that mean for you.
It’s a marriage of head and heart, it’s the deep work that humanities does, which is take something so particular and allow you to make universal connections and ask those questions you started with, which is, this history reveals so much — about me. And it happened 60 years ago, or whatever the moment is that you’re looking at. And so I agree with you, it’s insufficient to just know the facts of the past.
Tippett: And the truth is, we’re really living through this in very vivid ways right now in our world. The Holocaust — “never again; never again” — well, it keeps happening. Versions of it, variations on it keep happening, and we stand back and despair and watch. And so somehow, knowing that it happened didn’t get us all the way.
Murphy: So I think we are in, sort of, three periods. It’s a period of transition that’s national in the United States. It’s happening within other countries that right now are trying to figure out where they’re gonna go, whether it’s countries that are moving away from democracy or countries that are becoming more isolationist or nationalist or dealing with their own divisions. But then there’s this other question about what kind of world do we want to live in together? And those post-World War II commitments — to memory, to prevention, to justice, to human rights — we have largely abandoned. And I think that a question for us as Americans, as we grapple with our own past and its legacies, as we restore our democracy, as we build relationships with each other and rebuild them where they existed and that we’ve lost trust, we also have to reimagine our place in the world and in relationship to other places and decide where we stand when it comes to these commitments, because some of them are extraordinary and important, and importantly, were made in a time of crisis. They weren’t made when everything was great and peaceful and flush.
Tippett: They were made when humanity had seen the worst of what it was capable.
Murphy: Exactly. And in 1994, when the Rwandan genocide took place, and South Africa simultaneously voting for the first time, and then Srebrenica just a few years later, and you had the apologies from the U.N., and attention in particular to the failure to act, and Samantha Power’s work and others, and there was, in the early 2000s, around Darfur in particular, the rumblings of an anti-genocide movement that looked like it was gonna be a bit of an awakening, and — yeah. Where is it?
Tippett: But again, how can we have an anti-genocide movement if we don’t really, deeply understand how genocide becomes possible in culture after culture after culture? To me, that points back at “facing history and ourselves.” And ourselves is the human condition. I think it’s so interesting that you’re using this language of the United States being in a transition — that’s a technical phrase. There’s a piece you wrote about transitional justice, “Reconstruction After Violence: How Teachers and Schools Can Deal With the Legacy of the Past” — and I guess I should say here, I think we live in a very violent country. [laughs] That’s not an original insight of mine, but I feel like that’s another thing we don’t let in, even now; we still wanna … there’s this violence over here and that violence over there.
My colleague Lucas Johnson, who you’ve met, who’s the head of our social healing initiatives, he says we have been living with a degree of low-level violence that we have just tolerated and become used to, but in some ways — not even just what’s happening in 2020, not even our vitriolic divides — we have been a country at war. So you wrote — this is what you wrote about transitional justice: “Late August, 1994, the Irish Republican Army announced a ceasefire after 25-years of armed conflict. A few days later, “Michael Longley’s poem ‘Ceasefire’ was published in The Irish Times, the final lines (‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / and kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son,’) [those lines] poignantly capturing the challenging, for many unimaginable, path that lay ahead.”
And then you posed these questions, Karen: “How do you live in peace after years of violence? What does it look like? What does peace sound like? How do you learn to trust ‘the other’? How is confidence restored within communities, among people who feel betrayed by their ‘own’? Must the violent past be faced in order to secure peace, or coexistence, or forgiveness? And what role, if any, must there be for acknowledgment, responsibility, blame, punishment, or justice?”
When I read that, I thought, those are precisely the questions before our country right now.
Murphy: I think you’re right, and your earlier point about violence is such an important one, because again, we treat it as an aberration. But I think one of the things I learned early, about Northern Ireland compared to Bosnia, when I would talk to people about how — they called it a “low-grade fever” — could exist for so long, the answer was, “We were rich. Compared to Bosnia, we were rich.”
And I think that there’s a part of that for the United States, too, that our general wealth — obviously, not uniformly shared, but our general wealth has prevented us from being fully on our knees. And that’s not where we should be, in order to address these issues. In Northern Ireland, in 2006 in June, I did this five-day seminar with educators. And it was cross-communal: they came from different places, different experiences; it was gonna be the first time that together, they, through Facing History and Ourselves, dug into their history.
But first, we started with a case study in Holocaust and Human Behavior as a way to create a window and a mirror and to begin to move out. And I asked them, as a closing activity, to go home and create toolboxes with found objects that represented the tools of transitional justice. And it should just have meaning to them. So they all come back. And they included things like a mirror, because you have to look at yourself; like a candle, because you have to have hope; like a flashlight so that you can see your way; like a book, because you need knowledge; a journal, because you need to reflect, and you also need to write history.
But one of the things that was so moving to me is, to a person, they included an adhesive tape, glue, sewing kit. And it was because if we do this work we need to do, we will sever our relationship. And so we had to talk about the fact that how much of a relationship is it, if there’s no trust, if you don’t have a shared past, if you don’t have a shared future? And they, like South Africans, really took an affirmative step in the direction of the unknown, in part for their children, because they don’t want them to have the life they had. And I think that Americans of our age need to ask ourselves not just the kind of present and future we want for ourselves, but oh, I do not want our kids to be having not just the same conversations every 20 years, but I want them to enjoy peace and stability and security and democracy and freedom and all of those things that we have not fully enjoyed. And in order to get there, I think we should use every tool in that toolbox.
Tippett: And even just not live the way we’re living now. All of those things, but so much anger and demonization on every side; that others — all kinds of others — have become intolerable to us, and it’s a terrible way to live.
Murphy: If I could just say, one thing we have to do is restore truth. The basis of democracy is relationships. And trust is the glue.
[music: “Slate Tracker” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Karen Murphy. You can listen to this show again as always at onbeing.org, and there you can also hear Michael Longley reading his historic poem “Ceasefire” as part of The On Being Project’s new Experience Poetry home. Again that’s onbeing.org.
[music: “Slate Tracker” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Karen Murphy, who is director of international strategy for the global organization Facing History and Ourselves. She creates curricula and works with teachers in societies that are moving towards repair after histories of violence. We’re exploring the wisdom and counsel her perspective holds towards recreating civil society in the U.S. in the period ahead.
Tippett: Yesterday, again as I was getting ready to interview you, I was introduced to the work of a physician, Rangan Chatterjee, who’s in the U.K. So I feel like something that’s so interesting to observe about the moment we live in, which if you can step back from everything that feels so catastrophic about it, is, there’s a holistic mindset arising, I feel, across disciplines.
And medicine is such a great example of that, because medicine is a place that divided us up — divided every organ and our brain from our heart and our emotions from our thoughts and our bodies, and now we understand all those things are just wildly connected. So the new model of medicine is not that you treat the symptoms, but that you look for root causes and inflammation. And he said, when we diagnose a chronic illness, that has resulted from inflammation that has been building and building and building for a very long time. And I felt like that’s such a good description of our civic life.
Murphy: That’s it. [laughs] That’s it. That’s it. And I think that, look, one of the things I was thinking about when I was thinking of talking to you is, Facing History is very much based in an idea of prevention, but that’s both antithetical, not just to the way Americans think, but to the way people think. And so I think that another opening, in terms of our maybe creative and moral consciousness, is this idea of, how do we prevent things before they get “too,” whatever that “too”-place is? And I think, actually, the healthcare model’s a very good one, because we have changed our way of thinking of health, from, “it’s just about the doctor,” to including things like exercise and sleep.
Tippett: Right, or just about dysfunction …
Tippett: … that anything you work with is dysfunction. Now they’re trying to work with health.
Murphy: Right, and so how do you create a healthy society, and how do you create a healthy democracy, and how do you create healthy race relations? And so we sort of have to do three things at once: deal with what’s in front of us, aspire to the kinds of tools that help us reckon with both the restoration of our democracy and issues of redress and acknowledgement and accountability, and we need to work on prevention.
And we can do those things. I think this is where I feel hopeful, because both in history and the examples of other countries, people have done this in crisis. They have.
Tippett: Again, I feel like I get so excited about the questions you raise in a lot of what you write, and I also think Americans really love answers, but I believe that questions have the force of action, and they work on us. I think questions also help us move towards what you just said, that what we can be that is not yet. So here’s something you wrote, from this project you did on lynching. And it might seem like a strange turn, to turn to lynching when you just said something hopeful, but it seems to me that lynching — well, let me first read these questions.
It’s called “Facing the Past: Lynching and American Civic Memory,” and these are questions that educators can ask. “How does a history move from one that is national to one that is regional to one that ultimately becomes a burden of memory that rests solely on the victims and a few allies?” Again, a question that describes something that has happened in this country, that we don’t even reflect on. And then you also ask, “How do we understand what triggers a choice to not remember?”
Murphy: I was very involved with — there was a collection of photography called Without Sanctuary. It still exists. It’s a book and a collection that has traveled. And it’s photographs of lynchings, that include postcards, and those postcards are photographs of white people who have paid a photographer to come and take a picture of them, standing, smiling, or next to the body of a Black human being who has been murdered. There are often children in these pictures; often, people are dressed up in their Sunday best.
And patterns became clear, really quickly, that most of the white people who came knew the myths of lynching: that this is a Southern thing; that it happened in the dark of night; that it was only people who wore white sheets. And so part of this exhibition really demythologized and deeply troubled the way that they held onto what we were first talking about, which is that this was an aberrant history. And most of the participants in these discussions who were Black knew something of this history from a relative or from seeking out African American studies classes or African American history.
And we would end up having really great discussions about how is it that something so public — these were postcards passed through the US mail; these were events that were advertised in a newspaper, that were written about — not only is repressed and became private, but people, whether they were ashamed or not, knew not to talk about it anymore. And so you have this gap, where it not only doesn’t exist in history, but if you want to seek it out in history, you don’t look for U.S. history, you look for African American history, which again points to, how does that shift happen?
But then the burden of memory and its legacies and questions of commemoration go to this conversation, too, which is, do Jewish people have to be the ones who remind us that the Holocaust matters? Are Black Americans responsible for making sure that slavery, the Middle Passage, and Jim Crow are taught? If we’re trying to get to a more holistic approach to not just history, but how we’re gonna live together, then there’s this question —
Tippett: And who we are, what made us — what actually made us.
Murphy: That’s right. And Facing History works with Helen Fein’s, who’s a genocide scholar, concept, universe of obligation, which young people take that image, ”universe of obligation”: to who am I obligated? To whom do I owe amends? And you think about, how do you make that more inclusive? And —
Tippett: What do you mean by that?
Murphy: So if you start out by saying, “You know what, the people to whom I’m obligated are my immediate family, closest friends, and a handful of others,” versus what we’re talking about, which is, that child is my child, this history is my history, the Holocaust is a universal history, slavery is a universal history; I have a connection to it; it’s not the property of someone else, who has been historically marginalized or bears the burden of this, to represent it.
Tippett: It’s not just the inheritance of people who suffered the most.
Murphy: That’s right.
Tippett: It’s our inheritance, even if we didn’t perpetrate it directly.
Murphy: It’s our collective inheritance. And so what do you do with that inheritance, and what is your responsibility to it, including, what does it mean to carry that responsibility of history? And Germany is actually a very interesting example — I think you lived in Berlin, right? — a very — [laughs]
Tippett: I did. I try to not mention Germany in every interview; my producers are quite — behind the glass, making fun of me, I know.
I sometimes hear people saying now, that the Germans are the models of what it means to take a difficult history and actually have a shared, collective responsibility for it. And I think that’s true, but I was also there in the 1980s, and I know that that stretch of now 70 years has been so messy. And it went through terrorist periods [laughs] that nobody remembers — generational terrorism. And that what we’re seeing now, which doesn’t surprise me at all, is that where history was not taught, in East Germany — and I spent a half a year at a university in East Germany, and they learned that fascism and the Holocaust were all about the capitalist West and that it was not their inheritance and it had nothing to do with Eastern Germans. And that’s where you have the Alternative für Deutschland, the new …
Murphy: The AFD.
Tippett: …the new movement that would roll back what looks like the progress West Germany has made. It’s not only based there, but that’s where it has had its foothold.
Murphy: Well, you point to something really important we need to remember: that this thing that we hope that we are striving for, which is to actually imagine repair, reconstruction, accountability, is not going to be in a straight line. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be multigenerational. What we should strive for is creating opportunities for learning, including from ourselves and other models, but creating a foundation so that the young people who are in high school now have firmer ground to stand upon. This is a marathon. And we need to carry the baton a certain distance for them.
[music: “Taoudella” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Karen Murphy of Facing History and Ourselves, a global organization with a network of 100,000 teachers and their classrooms.
[music: “Taoudella” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I think what I hear coming out in you is also something that I’ve heard; that there’s this deep respect that you have —and this is how Pádraig Ó Tuama said it — for the moral and intellectual capacity of young people; that they, if you treat them this way, are up to what you just described, taking in a fuller sense of who we are, where we’ve been, and who we can be.
Murphy: We trust them. And we need to trust young people — developmentally appropriate ways, so age-wise — but with the truth of the world around them, because they are living in it and need to make decisions. And they’re also in relationship with others, and if you don’t understand what’s happened, how can you treat people from other communities with respect? How can you understand how you’re seen and perceived? So Facing History very much believes that young people are moral philosophers.
And young people, adolescents, are immersed in questions of judgment and justice and fairness, and we spend so much time —
Tippett: And passion around —
Murphy: And passion, and we spend so much time quieting that voice. And then we spend, it feels like, our adulthood trying to find it again. Whereas what Facing History, I think, is doing is saying, let’s help you to amplify that moral voice, that civic voice, and not base it on opinion, but informed judgment, and so that young people are able to fully represent themselves.
Tippett: When you and I first started talking, we were talking about the background of your childhood and the rupture within your family. And then you talked about when you grew older and you were able to go back and spend time with your mother, and you felt then that you’d been cheated of time with her; that you appreciated the time; you appreciated the just being around her. I feel like it’s a way — I want our country to come to that. And I hope it’s in my lifetime — it’s not gonna be next year, but that we get to know each other and people across all these divisions and categories that don’t utterly define us; they don’t define our humanity — that we start to feel like we were cheated of time with each other and happy to just be around.
Murphy: I think that’s right. And you know, this is where I think cultural production — art and poetry and music — I remember in Northern Ireland, talking to a group of people and said, “Just tell me,” I said, “tell me one thing you agree on.” And they said, “Van Morrison.” [laughs] OK, fine. We should find some things that become the adhesive, so that we are able to then look in the mirror.
Tippett: You have mentioned that one of your teachers …
Murphy: Rudolph Byrd.
Tippett: … as you were getting into this work, used poetry, and that there are poems that you always hear in his voice. I asked you if you had some poetry that you wanted to bring along.
Murphy: I do. And so Rudolph Byrd was my professor at Carleton; he became my advisor; and then he became professor of African American Studies at Emory. He passed a few years ago, and he had a profound effect on my life — as a person, as a student, as a reader — but he had this voice. Oh, my goodness. He always wore a suit, and he was tall and elegant, and he would say, “Ms. Tippett.” So it was very formal. Anyway, so he introduced us to Robert Hayden. And Robert Hayden became also very important to me, because he writes about poetry and prose, and one of the things he talks about poetry doing is, it captures the silence in the sounds. A laugh or a sigh or a groan and that moment of silence. And I think our history is replete with silences. So I think that — that, too. So this is Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass.” And I write in journals — I have to use a computer, obviously, but I carry journals around with me all the time, and I always have this poem.
“When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”
Murphy: So when you were asking before about when I teach, sometimes I just start with poetry. And you let people breathe and find a word or a phrase that means something to them. And sometimes I say, “OK, we’re gonna go around the room with your word or phrase,” and then they’ve created a poem together. And something happens in that space. The molecules shift. And we can have different conversations.
[music: “Children of Lemuel” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: Karen Murphy is the director of international strategy at Facing History and Ourselves. You can find their curricula, teaching strategies, and other resources they’ve created at facinghistory.org.
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, and Gautam Srikishan.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
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And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.>>