Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reader's Diary #830- Hartmut Lutz (editor): The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab

It was Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues in which I first heard of Germany's "human zoos" and it was while researching if such travesties actually existed that I first learned of Abraham Ulrikab. Ulrikab was an Inuk from Labrador who, along with his immediate family and another family from a neighbouring community, was persuaded to go to Europe to be exhibited in zoos and tour on an ethnographic circuit. What sets Ulrikab apart from his companions is that he is literate and keeps a diary about his experiences.

Though it's called The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab, it's actually much more than that. Through letters written by people close to Ulrikab, newspaper articles, and even advertisements, a reader is able not only to get a sense of who he was as a person, but also the context of the time, including prevailing attitudes and values. The diary entries themselves speak volumes, but certainly don't take up as much space. At only 100 pages in total, Ulrikab's diary entries take up less than half those pages. I wasn't crazy about the layout. Presented as almost a scrap book, with letters posted below diary entries, newspaper articles and advertisements thrown in haphazardly, the flow felt interrupted and I found myself flipping back and forth. It wasn't a huge deal, of course, and some people might prefer such a style, but personally, I would have preferred the diary upfront and the rest of the information presented in an appendix.

Minor details, really, when I quite enjoyed the book and the information that was there was fascinating and provocative. I think what I enjoyed the most was the complicated human emotion that was exhibited. From a 2012 perspective, it's perhaps a little too easy to look back and see things in black and white: the Inuit were exploited and the white people were evil. It was, undeniably a disaster, and many people were most certainly wrong in their actions, but it more complicated when you look at all the history Lutz has compiled.

In the foreword, the late Alootook Ipeelie (who also drew the cover art), shares an anecdote from 1992 about a carver from Cape Dorset who was invited to Ontario for a conference on Inuit art. This man, Iyola Kingwatsiak, remarked in an interview that he felt like a piece of art on display, and that he wasn't really expected to contribute anything. It was a clever opening on Ipeelie's part to force this comparison to Ulrikab's circumstances. For the remainder of the book, it would be impossible not to constantly ponder whether or not we've progressed as a society.

Complicating the simple narrative is the fact that Ulrikab and others went willingly. Were they misled as to what they could expect or the reason why they were even invited? Even then, there isn't a simple answer. The Moravian clergy at Hebron, Labrador (where Ulrikab and his family lived) were opposed to it. When Adrian Jacobsen, the German in charge of "collecting specimens" first presented the idea, Moravian brothers W. Haugk Kretschmer and A. Hlawatscheck were vehemently opposed stating that they were "[not] willing to help him so that our christened people are exhibited outside and looked at like wild animals for money." At first glance, Kretschmer and Hlawatscheck appear to share modern day sympathies and pinpoint exactly what qualms we would feel about such an endeavour today. But even Jacobsen, who was definitely not a good guy in this story by any means (he even beats one of the Inuit at one point), is able to pinpoint why their statement was not exactly noble. "It is sad that a people are so suppressed," he wrote, "and still more so that Europeans demonstrate such power." It was still, ultimately, the Inuit's decision to make. It was the "our" in Kretschmer and Hlawatscheck's statement that undercut their nobility.

Kretschmer and Hlawatscheck weren't the only ones who could see the immorality in human zoos. Though most newspaper articles presented were horribly racist and ill-informed (one tells of how the polar bears who also shared the zoo were terrified by the mere presence of their natural enemies), one particular German journalist who simply went by J.K. wrote a brave and enlightened article criticizing the entire endeavour. Calling it repulsive and comparing their treatment to that of slaves, s/he goes on to call for a sense of "racial ethics" that would prevent "displaying our equals" in zoos [emphasis mine]. Considering that the world allowed such things to exist as "human zoos" at that time, I found it refreshing to know that there were at least some who recognized the inhumanity and inspiring to know that they were willing to stand up against the majority.

I found myself thinking of Darwin's theory of natural selection, where new ideas and values could be compared to genetic mutations that prove beneficial and eventually become the norm. The analogy falls apart when you think of people who died for their radical beliefs, so I don't know, maybe it's more akin to artificial selection?

All I'm really sure is that there was a lot of food for thought in such a small book.


Perogyo said...

I have thought a lot about the human zoos part of Half-Blood Blues since I read it.

It sounds like there is a lot of food for thought here. I wonder what happened to the journalist J.K. - although I can probably guess. :(

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It sounds like the sort of book where one wants to pause to ponder occasionally. Perhaps that was the purpose behind the layout?