By: Frederic Murray
Recent events continue to demand our attention.
Professor Henry Rousso, a French historian and primary editor of a book of comparative essays: Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared (2004), was recently detained at a Houston airport. Dr. Rousso is an Egyptian-born French citizen. There was no explanation given for his detention or threatened deportation.
As a scholar, professor Rousso has edited 12 works of history. His own major publications include: The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (1994); The Haunting Past History, Memory, and Justice in Contemporary France (2004) and The Latest Catastrophe: History, the Present, the Contemporary (2016). He holds a professorship at the University of Panthéon-Sorbonne, a major center of research and teaching with more than 40,000 students. Rousso has also served and taught as a visiting scholar for the Center for European Studies (Harvard University, 1986-1987); New York University (1992), Dartmouth College (1994), U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (2005), Texas A&M University, (2007), Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (2009), and Yale University (2012).
Despite his accomplishments, wealth of experience, and many years of service to education in the United States, it would seem that Henry Rousso’s mere presence in an American airport warranted his detention. On arrival to Texas from Paris on Feb. 22, 2017, en route to Texas A&M University, where he was an invited guest, Dr. Rousso was held for 11 hours; and though eventually released, through the intercession of Texas A&M University’s president and a law professor, his experience is telling of where we are headed as people and a nation. In fact, it is telling of where we have arrived, now, in this moment.
Why was a teacher detained at an airport? Why is anyone being detained and searched at airports? Fear serves a political purpose. It is a method. Its deliberate use is to ensure that there are only two choices: us or them.
I won’t accept this as the inevitable outcome of a flawed election, and neither should you.
I spent the weekend before the Henry Rousso story broke serving as a judge for the Oklahoma Association of Professional Historians Regional Conference. The Phi Alpha Theta meeting on our campus that Saturday morning was an opportunity for undergraduates and graduate students, from across the state, to share, discuss and defend their work. It was a beautiful morning, a recent cold front had dried up what remained of a warm, damp end to the week. Our Oklahoma sky is a dark sharp blue on mornings like this, and the cold lent a snap to everyone’s step and approach to the conference.
It was my first opportunity to engage with this conference and it was a great experience. There were students discussing the politics of memory in Mexico, the racial integration of popular media and music, BS deeper and sophisticated exhumations of the Jim Crow South. There were presentations about the formation of national identity, reactionary leaders from America’s political past, and the Holocaust — a topic that continues to challenge students on a fundamental level. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom was the prevailing mood. The challenge behind the questions asked were in the best spirit of inquiry, and there was good work being done all morning. It was refreshing and the problems that face us seemed to recede with the perspective of greater challenges, greater tragedies being met, and if not overcome, endured.
From Weatherford, OK, to Houston, TX is a 7 ½-hour drive. From Houston to Paris is a 9 ½ hour flight. Henry Rousso was put in a cell for 11 hours, I suspect, because his passport declared him to be an Egyptian-born French citizen. He was not one of us. And today, that seems to be enough. Not many people are as accomplished as professor Henry Rousso, and not many people have powerful friends they can call upon, or really rely upon in dire situations. And that’s the problem: None of us should need any type of prerequisite to preserve our liberty of movement, thought and action.
If you’re a librarian, check your collections. If possible stock your shelves with his works. It’s an apology of sorts. I have to believe that his books will outlast executive orders. I can’t afford to believe otherwise, because Dr. Rousso’s work, at its most central point, is focused on the cost of forgetting the past.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org