Select excerpts from various oral history projects. The full transcripts of these interviews are available upon request.
Excerpt from an oral history produced in conjunction with Columbia University's Oral History Master of Arts program's 2016 Election Project.
"She was a woman. And he was a man. Enough said.
He was just abusive. I mean, obviously she should have known, but you were naive back then, you didn't have the internet. You didn't have Oprah, you know, to warn you. Or these chat groups or Dr. Phil. She just fell in love with this guy up there [in Harlem].
She used to take the A train. She was the the only white girl going up the to Apollo Theater with her black girlfriends. But she didn't think it was any big issue. Nobody ever called her out, or tried to beat her up. And then they went further when she got older. She went up to Savoy Ballroom, met this guy who was a jazz dancer, and he was very slick with the ladies-- And she knew that there were other women, but she figured the buck would stop, as most people do, the buck would stop with her. And that so did not happen.
Things just happened, you know? Men become abusive. They'll do whatever they can to rule the person [they're with]. And once you're in there, and they've had sex a couple of times, they start calling the shots again. Like they're running things and you should just be happy to be in their world. And sometimes women are still just happy to be in their world. But my mom was not so happy.
And then the punches came. And he would beat her up and knock her teeth out. I didn't even know-- I thought every adult had fake teeth. They put them on the side table in a jar, until I got older and realized oh, whoa-- he knocked them all out-- they're all fake-- the whole bridge up there—
She finally got rid of him when I was around 6. Somehow she filed for separation. And he died when I was 12, so for 6 years she got herself together. And she was tough! But that year, she lost her ex-husband and her father and her mother. They all died in the same year. And it was like this big vacuum in her life...
My mom. I can't really talk much about things with her because it's this ugly period, so I always try to block it out, you know? And [my dad's] somewhat celebrated as a dancer; there's a lot of footage of him online and in film. There's been a couple of award shows, and me and my brother have gone and accepted awards on his behalf, posthumously.
But to this day [mom's] my hero, because somehow... She may have cried and we didn't know about it. But she did what she had to do, you know. 'I've got five half-black kids up here in Harlem, and I've got no money.' She had no network, either. No cousins, no brothers, no uncles---nothing! But there was welfare and all these other government systems, and health aid, medicare and shit, and she just handled her business. Never cried! She just handled shit, brilliantly. To this day, I always try to remind her. Because now she's frail and not the same. And insecure and depressed. And I always try to remind her: 'Ma, you were bad-ass back in the day. You didn't have time to sit back and be depressed, or worry about your man, or this or that.' She just had to handle shit..."
Excerpt from an oral history with the founding director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, produced in conjunction with the ICSC.
"[My dad] wasn't— he was just sort of Eastern European, you know? Because he grew up in Warsaw, but he had this Ukrainian thing. This very strong nationalist identity. He founded the Harvard Ukrainian institute; and in the house, all the time, there were just people--people coming in and out, people coming through. And in the early 80's [when I was 10], we were very active. We did a lot of sending peanut butter to Warsaw, and I had my little solidarity t-shirt.
So I was aware of different social movements, but they were all sort of 'over there.' Not like starving children in Africa, over there. But like over where he used to be and where he still— they were very connected to people who had just gotten out of Moscow, that whole Cold War deal.
Having the name "Sevcenko" in the early 80's was, you know, it was kind of a thing. Not a huge deal, but it was a thing. We had a house in New Hampshire, that was a weekends / summer place, but we lived there for long stretches at a time sometimes. I was fairly insulated from anything in Cambridge but when we went to Warren, New Hampshire, the population was 300.
The weird characteristic of Warren, New Hampshire was that there was a little New England town square, you know: little green with the church on one side and the town hall on the other; but in the 70's, a local boy had made good and got a job at NASA, and somehow in return, he brought a decommissioned missile back to the town. I don't really get the logic of the whole thing, but everyone was very proud of this missile. It was huge--stories tall! Towering over the town square. And we just kinda thought it was funny.
But I remember when we first got there, when we first pulled into town, my dad walked into Bud's Country Store to get some gas, and he bought a lottery ticket (because he always did that; he was a compulsive lottery ticket buyer) and he won a hundred dollars. In 1981! Which is not, you know, an insubstantial amount of money. (I'm sure Bud would get it back, I don't know quite how these things work.) But it was just very strange. The stranger who came to town and won $100.
And then people started to understand that we bought this house, and we were actually living there. And I don't know how my parents found out, but I remember my mom was always trying not to talk about stuff. And she was like 'oh we're just gonna hop-on down to the green for just a second.' You know? 'Just hold on' and 'You guys are gonna stay in the car, make sure you stay in the car, I'm just gonna pop out and have a little look-see.'
And as we pulled into the green, we saw there were people spilling out of the town hall, apparently having a meeting about how this guy Sevcenko—this RUSSIAN guy—which is hilarious, because if you have any sense of history, you’d know that to call my dad Russian would be the greatest offense you could ever pay to him.
So they said this Russian guy showed up and it must be because of the missile. And he must be a spy, this just can't be a coincidence. So they were there talking about both how and when to run us out of town, but also whether to take the missile down. Because it obviously it was drawing a lot of attention to Warren, and maybe the Russians were gonna bomb Warren thinking we were aiming a missile at them!
That was really when I was like, oh, people have ideas about people that are— Because I had grown up with him just— He hated Moscow more than anybody, and all these people in our house— its just, he was hardcore! A nationalist in an annoying way! So it was really, it just helped me understand just how these kind of total miscommunications can happen, and how when there's an enormous amount of anxiety in the world, that people, that it can just get sorta— misdirected.
Excerpt from an oral history with the director of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, produced in conjunction with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
"Forced removal was very painful for people. But personally, I can't claim to have been traumatized by it.
I think it has to do with age, you know what I mean? My older cousins can't understand why I don't recall that in the mornings you'd walk past houses on your way to play, and then when you'd walk home in the evening— well, it was to their home, not our home— the houses would be gone. They remember being so horrified and wondering about their friends.
I have no personal recollection of that. It's all through the stories of other people. So I've got this euphoric, strange recollection of a wonderful childhood playing between ruins and rubble, and not really being aware of what that was. And I think part of it is also the way parents protect kids and I imagine there was some game that was created for us, of what was happening around. So I wasn't completely aware of what happened.
EC: So they didn't clear away the rubble? They didn't rebuild?
No, and that's so weird. They didn't. I mean, they started. There were always plans to rebuild. Because the whole intention was to clear the area because it was declared for whites only, and then to develop it into this pristine mixed / white and residential area. But it never happened, and part of the reason is the resistance. There was always— there was a very strong hands off District Six campaign, and out of that campaign people— although they were not successful in stopping the forced removal from happening, they were very successful in stopping it from developing into white group area.
District Six was gradually destroyed. It was an act that took about twelve to fifteen years. And at the tail end of the fifteen years there was a mass democratic movement in South Africa that had been quite strengthened. There were protests all over the country, there were states of emergency. And there was a lot of pressure from the international community in terms of disinvestment: the cultural boycott, the sports boycott, the academic boycott.
One of the largest investors in the redevelopment of District Six was British Petroleum (BP), and this put lot of pressure on them to withdraw their funding from the development. So suddenly the Apartheid government didn't have any partners. I think it became very clear that it was being isolated. It was being treated like it was the pariah of the world, and I think they were slightly cautious about [District Six]. They didn't know what to do with it, and they didn't have the money to develop it because all the business had withdrawn..."