Pittsburgh rarely makes headlines here in Victoria. It usually appears when its world-class medical facilities are referenced by heart surgeons, when its locally beloved football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, win yet another NFL championship, or when on occasion the New York Times or other major news outlets report on its friendly people and charming neighbourhoods.
Pittsburgh sits in a wooded and forested environment near the confluence of three rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. Besides steel and football, Pittsburgh is also a city of large, globally situated universities.
It is at one of these universities — the University of Pittsburgh — that I studied as an undergraduate student and encountered a world outside the woods of southwestern Pennsylvania. It was there that I studied African literature and first encountered the writings of the great Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi.
One memorable discussion focused on Rotimi’s signature work, The Gods Are Not To Blame, a post-colonial West African adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. During these discussions I heard the phrase “Humanity is my tribe,” referring to Rotimi’s words in a 1975 interview about his work.
I recall having those discussions, now nearly 20 years ago, while in the protective shell of the Cathedral of Learning, a few blocks down the street from Squirrel Hill, the neighbourhood where the recent massacre of 11 members of the Tree of Life synagogue occurred.
These simple and hopefully self-evident words — “Humanity is my tribe” — are sentiments I convey to my students here in Victoria, where I now teach global and comparative history at the University of Victoria.
Pittsburgh maintains a reputation for being one of the most livable cities in the United States. I now live in Victoria, known to the world for its natural beauty and quiet lifestyle. Neither place is usually known for violent anti-Semitic acts.
As David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and many others have mentioned, this is not the Pittsburgh we know. It doesn’t happen in this kind of place.
Victoria, now my home, hides behind its façade a long history of dispossession, violence against Indigenous peoples, racism and, as well, a history of anti-Semitism, such as anti-Semitic posters found on UVic’s campus last year and instances of local Jewish congregations receiving hate mail. Pittsburgh’s image as one of the most livable cities in America also hides an ongoing history of racism, police brutality, and spates of recent murders and attacks on minorities.
As a historian of globalization, I have found that all the world’s a stage for so much conflict that it is difficult to keep it all straight. As long as we live on the traditional territories of the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEC peoples, the legacy of colonialism is alive, well and impossible to miss.
The violence in Pittsburgh reminds all of us that hatred, bigotry, racism and all the violence associated with such positions have yet to wash away with the tide of history. When we ask about why and how events happened in killing fields that appear so far away, we are compelled, without a doubt, to ask why it is happening now, here and among us.
Around the world, before and during the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump, proposals for Brexit, the election of reactionary nationalists in India, the Philippines, Brazil and many more places, localized acts of violence have risen with a numbing frequency. Victoria has been listed by Statistics Canada in the top 10 cities for hate crimes.
Rabbi Harry Brechner, at the vigil this past Tuesday at Victoria’s Jewish Community Centre, said an attack on Jews is not an attack on one group, one community or one religious formation. It is an attack on all humanity. Whether in Pittsburgh or in Victoria, when these attacks occur, the largely heartfelt responses — in our neighbourhoods, homes, on campuses or at local places of worship — showcase the resilience, love and hard work that happen every day without news cameras or journalists taking note.
As horrific events seem to happen at a pace faster than we have the ability to comprehend, the local remains a tangible sanctuary not for one, but for all. These local spaces must be protected and preserved.
Yes, violence, racism, anti-Semitism and much more occur in places such as Pittsburgh and Victoria. They show us, though, that as much as that happens, locals get together across spaces of difference, to heal and do the hard work of getting on with life when nobody out there is noticing.
It is in these moments when nobody has to be taught that humanity is our tribe. It is shown in our actions.
Neilesh Bose is a Canada Research Chair in Global and Comparative History and an assistant professor in history at the University of Victoria.