Elie Wiesel, who died this week, said in his Nobel Prize speech, “I have tried to keep memory alive […] I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” But it’s worse than that. If we forget what has happened to us, we forget what we have done, and we can’t know ourselves.
The Federal Writers Project of the Works Project Administration of the US government, had something similar in mind in its collection of slave narratives from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It wanted to keep memory alive and to fight those who would forget the reality of slavery in the US by interviewing men and women who had been enslaved. This was a way of providing the raw facts of the past to future historians and civil rights activists. Catherine A. Stewart’s current book, Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers Project (April 25, 2016), analyzes the different conditions under which these memories are collected and the different purposes to which they have been put. See also here and here.
This week, in Dallas and in the rest of the country, we have been seeing this country collecting a different database, in which the information about the past is not so much written as seen. We’re familiar with the night scenes in urban centers, large crowds of American citizens, police and police cars, lights flashing, and arms of citizens everywhere holding up phones, videoing the action. Now, when cops shoot citizens, videos surface and are analyzed as carefully as the slave narratives of the Federal Writers Project in Catherine Stewart’s book.
The streets of Dallas tells us about the importance of the past to the present. If we just say, Five policemen were killed Thursday night, July 7, we leave out what happened in Baton Rouge on the Tuesday night, July 5, and in Minneapolis on Wednesday evening, July 6, murders which may have led to Thursday night. Without data from all three nights, it is impossible to tell what your side did as well as what my side did, and we can’t know ourselves. The larger the database, that is, the more we know about the past, the more likely it is that we are going to be able to answer the questions Why? and Who?
Why do we have marriage equality now? It is not just a consequence of a winning combination of lawyers and activist organizations and Justice Kennedy. It is also because of the quality of the abuse LGBTQ people have suffered in this culture. The worst aspects of that abuse took place in families among family members, and the worst perpetrators of that abuse were often parents abusing their children. The street kids who provided the most courageous fighting during the Stonewall Riots were living on the street—most of them—because their parents had thrown them out of their homes when they were twelve and thirteen and fourteen. The central locus of the greatest portion of the bigotry against us has been the family. We have marriage equality now because of that fact. We claimed for ourselves in marriage what had been taken from us in our families. I think that even if we didn’t know it at first (I couldn’t see this at first), we came to know that marriage reached deeper into our condition than any other change we could make. And after marriage, other obstacles to our freedom would be less difficult.
Elie Wiesel had to tell us his experiences in the Holocaust and had to speak for the dead when they couldn’t speak for themselves. Former slaves who are all dead now tell us what they suffered so we can have a record and can know what happened to our fellow citizens and can know that it was some of us who did it. Our phones are recording devices to prove that this is what happened. It is the only way to claim the future. It is the only way to reclaim ourselves, to be able to say, This is what happened. This is what I did. This is what was done to me.
I alone am escaped to tell thee.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick, “Epilogue.” Originally from Job, 1:19. Source of the title.
Elie Wiesel. Nobel Prize Speech. Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1986. Source of the quotation in the first paragraph.