In my world, the discussion of human rights has revolved most closely around the now-defeated Minnesota Marriage Amendment, which would have banned marriage between same-sex couples. In the few weeks since same-sex marriages became possible in Minnesota, they are no longer news. They are simply part of the fabric of this year, and of the future.
I grew up during the U.S. civil rights era. My parents made a big deal of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They wouldn’t have voted for John F. Kennedy, or any Kennedy, but they let us know that the Kennedy family were champions of civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero. My dad’s message: “It’s wrong to deny others the rights you demand for yourself.”
Fast forward to 2012 conversations at my dinner table between my conservative dad and his liberal college-age grandchildren, three generations who live their lives around this message. In the end, my parents were actually the first in our family to attend a same-sex wedding, for Erik and Larry, their friends from church.
I’ve come to believe that the work we do as personal historians is as much about the right to be human as it is about human rights. It’s about the unassailable desire of every human to be fully human—to move about their community unmolested, to do meaningful work for a fair wage, to marry whom they love, to raise a family, to speak and think as they choose, to live in freedom.
When I work with veterans to record their stories for the Veterans’ History Project at the Library of Congress, I’m very aware that I’m spending time with people who have defended my freedoms in ways I’ll never myself be called upon to do. Their stories are set within the backdrop of world history, but at heart, I’m helping them tell their very personal stories. I know, and so do they, that individual stories are what connect we humans to each other, person to person.
One WWII veteran in particular, Nicholas Karras, helps me understand this anew every time I teach. Mr. Karras gave me two photos from his service days, and I start most of my writing workshops by sharing these. One photo was taken at Fort Leonard Wood, where he was assigned to train new recruits.
The other is a portrait from a studio near Monte Cassino, Italy, taken two years later, after he had served in active combat. In both photos, he wears round wire-rimmed eyeglasses, but his eyes are sadder, deeper, more vulnerable in the second photo. His story lies in the space between those photos. In that space, he became fully human, with a story all his own.
And in the space between those photos, he encountered someone else’s story. On a hillside in Italy in 1943, after a firefight with a German unit, Nicholas Karras rested for a few moments while he waited for help for his wounded comrades. He looked up to see a German soldier approaching, a teen-ager, holding a white handkerchief in one hand, and a photo of his parents in the other. Was it a trap? He had seconds to decide, and chose to take the boy prisoner. He choose the route that honored the story the boy was trying to tell, the way that let them both be fully human, the way that let them both live another day.
Yes, certainly, we must pay attention to the bigger picture of human rights on a global scale. The gross inequities, the physical and mental and economic abuse of children and adults with whom we share the world. But the scale we work on day to day is so much smaller, and that is where our personal actions and attitudes make a difference.
This is the invitation every time we listen to someone’s story: Tell me what it’s like to be you.
~APH: Life, Stories, People~
About today’s contributor: Judy Budreau is a writer, teacher, editor, and researcher whose work includes twenty-five years of helping people tell their stories. Her writing appears in a variety of regional and national media, including APH Perspectives: the trade journal for personal historians. Judy is an active volunteer with the Library of Congress Veterans’ History Project and with the Minnesota Literacy Council.
Editor’s Note: This post was written on topic for Blog Action Day 2013. Another post on the topic of Human Rights was published here last week.
Photo credit: Human Rights Foundation image by FranKapranos (own work). Used via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photos of Mr. Karras from his family collection. Used with permission.