The most precious heirloom I have is not an object that I can look at and hold in my hand. About 20-some years ago, I was a teenager when my sisters and I decided to make an audio recording of our German grandmother (whom I will refer to as Oma) telling us all of her stories. She was a great storyteller and she could make us laugh so hard it hurt.
The recordings were meant to be transcribed by one of my sisters but they ended up sitting in storage for at least 15 years. They were found again in 2017 and with modern technology, my sister was able to convert the audio from cassette tape to a digital format that allows us to hear it any time.
When I hear Oma’s heavily accented voice, soft classical music in the background and the chiming of her clock, the memories flood in as if I were sitting at her kitchen table. I see the tall mahogany desk that held crossword puzzles, Oma’s daily journals, and of course bottles of liquor. I can taste the spaetzle, the sauerkraut that had been simmering in wine all morning, and the European chocolate that spoiled Hershey’s for me forever. It was a special treat to be taken to the German store and I was dazzled by the giant, beautifully decorated gingerbread cookies.
Growing up, I did not find it unusual to be exposed to diversity. Having Asian, Jewish, and LGBT people in my house was normal for me. My mother read to us every night and she chose many books from a diverse perspective. Since this was just how I grew up, it wasn’t until much later that I understood this to be very deliberate.
Now I know that this experience is very unusual for a white person growing up in America. Oma taught her children and grandchildren the value of diversity because she understood full what happens when this is not taught.
Listening to these audio recordings at a time when we had just elected a President who rose to the White House on a platform of racist and bigoted hate was emotionally powerful. I knew Oma would be rolling in her grave if she knew we were about to relive some of the worst parts of her life. Just as she watched her neighborhood friend’s grandmother be hauled away in a truck on Kristallnacht, we are now witnessing families be torn apart by ICE and children being locked up in one prison while their parents become victim to the modern day slavery system of privatized prisons.
Oma wanted her family to do better. She normalized and taught us the value of diversity. Although I understand now that this is only the first tiny step toward racial and social justice, I feel fortunate that at least I had that advantage. My family celebrates our German heritage with food, music, and culture. There are dark parts of our heritage that we are not proud of and do not celebrate because it is hurtful to others.
I have not been deprived of a historical education because my family does not display the swastika. Flags and statues are meant to celebrate and honor, not educate. The dark parts of our history belong in history books where they can be explained with proper context. The Confederate flag and statues of Confederate soldiers are not representative of the history we should be proud of. If America wants to meet its promise of “freedom and justice” for all, we must put away icons that stand for oppression and exploitation.
Jenica Roenneburg is an artist and quality of life coordinator for memory care residents. Her diverse life experiences, combined with her B.A. in psychology and voracious appetite for learning have given her a lifelong passion for social and racial justice. She loves cats, reading books, and playing video games.