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Columns, Opinions

Oke ’20: Words of hate, words of healing

Staff Columnist
Friday, February 9, 2018

Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (German, n.): the process of coming to terms with the past.

I started this article at a loss for words. It’s ironic because I’m supposed to be a writer, but there are some instances in life that garner such great emotion, there’s little room left for anything at all to say. Such was the case the first time I saw the “Negro Crime” pamphlets that were recently plastered at the corner of Brook and George Streets and elsewhere on College Hill. As I skimmed through them, I didn’t yell. I didn’t post a rant on Facebook. But for the rest of that day, I couldn’t get the images of those hate-filled pages out of my head. “How did this happen?” I thought to myself. No doubt racism in this country is alive and well. But even here at Brown, the so-called liberal champion of the Ivy League, it’s important for us not to become complacent in our struggle for equality. That’s exactly how issues surrounding race get swept under the colorblind rug.  At the time, I figured the booklets would be justified as some white supremacist’s “freedom of speech,” and then it dawned on me: The Constitution grants us that very same right. Why not use it to continue the conversation about racism on this campus?

Last Saturday, several booklets were found around the East Side alleging “Negro Crime in Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s Sanctuary City of Providence, RI.” Inside, the pages were littered with pictures of mostly black Providence locals, along with details of their supposed crimes. These ranged from assault and gun violence to things like “extorting money from white people” and “committing food stamp fraud.” Whether or not the content was accurate — there were no sources listed — is beside the point. The authors of this pamphlet intentionally used harmful and divisive language to get their bigoted message across.

I can’t say that I was surprised to see this kind of document in President Donald Trump’s America. What shocked me, though, was how close the flyers were to the place I’ve come to call my home. Until now, I’ve always secretly believed that all Brown students share the same basic moral values. Sure, some opinions may be problematic or ignorant, but everyone means well, I told myself. You can’t go to Brown and really be a racist, right?

In conversation on Saturday with some of my black peers, I expressed my disbelief and questioned again, is it even possible that anyone here would endorse these vile posters, even if they didn’t print them themselves?

As our discussion went on, I soon realized that the people we tend to exclude from the conversation, whether it’s because of their identity or their opinions, aren’t always going to just sit and keep their thoughts to themselves. Much like we saw in the wake of the 2016 election and in Charlottesville, many white supremacists are silent — until they turn violent. In fact, several hate groups now spread their message and gather support by sitting at their computers and posting satirical, anti-PC commentary and internet memes. This method appeals to them because, if met with criticism, these individuals can defend themselves by claiming it was all just a joke. It may not seem too concerning on the surface, but take that harmless joke and trace it back to its origin; you could find a judge, police officer or maybe even a privileged Ivy League student who will go on to assume a position of power.

So the question is no longer who or why, but where do we go from here? How do we heal today and grow toward a happier, more equal tomorrow?

It’s often said that there is a German word for every emotion you can’t describe in English. I don’t know to what extent that rings true, but when I found the meaning of ‘vergangenheitsbewaeltigung,’ it seemed perfect. Here is a term that evolved out of Germany’s conscious effort to educate its citizens about the Holocaust and to ensure that nothing like it would ever happen there again. The Germans reflected on the atrocities carried out against millions of innocent people, accepted that their nation was to blame and then worked to atone for their wrongs. Most German people I’ve met don’t shy away from the subject of the Holocaust, but rather acknowledge their country’s past and denounce it fervently, which makes me wonder why America hasn’t done the same.

Until the time comes when we can create a language to address our own past, we as American citizens cannot afford to avoid these difficult conversations about race. As uncomfortable and angry as I was when I saw those pamphlets, there was nothing I could physically do about them. Perhaps I and a couple friends could have organized a demonstration, but what were we going to protest, freedom of speech? Alternatively, we could have gone to the authorities and demanded that they find the culprit, but I didn’t necessarily want to see someone punished either. I knew that wouldn’t do much to change any silent biases on campus, so I took all the emotion I felt from seeing those pamphlets and decided to write about it. I had to remind myself, and anyone who reads this, not to abandon words as the first line of defense — they are the strongest suit of armor we have.

Bami Oke ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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