Sunday, December 12, 2010


Memorializing past human rights crises serves vital functions: It can validate the victims or survivors of such disasters, generate ongoing dialogue on human rights, and perhaps mobilize people to action to protect human rights in the future. Those most deeply affected, and their allies, may feel compelled to pay witness; they must testify about their experience. And yet, sometimes, I can't help but feel that the books, films, museums and other projects that document human rights travesties don't do much good, that they're just more horror stories for concerned people to tut-tut over after the horror is over. Genocide in Rwanda? The U.S. and other countries didn't do as much as they could have at the time to stop the butchery, but we may be happy to support a documentary film or memorial about it today. It's not just governments, but citizens, all of us, that are implicated.

Even when documenting a contemporary human rights crisis, a book or film may take so long to produce that the crisis is over by the time the book is ready, thus rendering it a form of memorialization, rather than a tool for action. And even if a book or film is produced in a timely manner, it's hard to create something that will not just move readers/viewers emotionally -- but move them to action.

That's why I'm impressed with the work of Voice of Witness, which the website describes as "a nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. Voice of Witness was founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, and is the nonprofit division of McSweeney's Books.  

The series effectively confronts the challenges of making worthwhile media by documenting contemporary and ongoing crises in the U.S. and worldwide -- the perennial problem of wrongly convicted prisoners, the enduring legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and the longstanding human rights disasters in Sudan and, in the most recent book, Zimbabwe. That book is called "Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives." In the video above, the volume's co-editor Annie Holmes introduces then reads from one woman's tale of egregious abuse. 

The publisher goes beyond just documenting current crises, but also smartly puts books in the hands of people most likely to make use of them -- educators in schools and colleges, and national advocacy groups such as the Enough Project, STAND, and the Save Darfur Coalition. By starting with the proposition that the books must serve a public good -- and so choosing the subjects and their project partners carefully -- the publishers and editors have made it that much more likely that hope will not be further deferred, but fulfilled.


  1. A book or film may take so long to create that the emergency is over when the book is prepared, along these lines rendering it a type of remebering, instead of a device for activity.

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