For many progressives and people that become seriously committed to global justice there is a moment where everything clicks. I remember when I had my “ah-ha” moment. I was at my grandfather’s Detroit Townhouse when he presented a large, blue binder to me across the dining room table. I was sixteen years old.
The binder contained the stenograph documents of my great-grandfather’s deportation trial. There was an attempt made between around the 1920s by the U.S. Justice Department to kick out well over 10,000 immigrants mostly from Eastern Europe for “radical activity.” My great-grandfather, Peter, was just one of those immigrants taken during what became known as the Palmer Raids.
He traveled to the State’s from after deserting the Bulgarian Army during the Balkan Wars as a pacifist and anti-royalist. He came to the US in New York as a fur worker. He was politicized through his travels and the people he met at his workplace and in his churches. After settling in Detroit, he became very active in union organizing and socialist activity. After the failed attempt by the US Attorney General to deport him, he had toned down his radicalism, but stayed active with unions.
I reflect on this part of my life often. I feel like it’s important for me as an organizer to understand where my politics come from and at what points they developed.
I took a lesson from hearing this story.
Before this moment, I had a rather narrow concept of history. History was passive; never something we took part in. We studied history; never lived it. We read history and history was only about the great men that made it happen.
Peter lived at this powerful moment on the cusp of history. It hit me when I thought about the conversations he was having, and the people he was meeting. He often spent time in Orthodox churches with other Bulgarian, Macedonian and Russian radicals at a time when Russia was about to shape the 20th century.
Finding this part of my family’s history taught me something powerful, something profoundly life changing for me. I was reading history, sure, but it was the history from the perspective of a Bulgarian immigrant just like any other. The point is that Peter was a part of history. We all are.
The lesson was realizing that history is a dynamic process. We all participate in it. Our activities, conversations, relationships all shape it. I learned about our power to create change and shape the world we live in.
It’s disappointing that we’re taught to be alienated from history, rather than learning to engage it. We are all agents of history, and we have the collective power to choose our relationship to it. Our relationship to history will determine our future.