Talk About Memory

I’ve posted before about the events of 9/11/2001, my experience(s) of it, and how my undergraduate studies emphasized another 11 September, in 1973 in Chile.

It seems every year when this day rolls around I’m in a situation with new people and we all share the “where were you stories.” It’s a ritual, a bonding experience, and a conversational opening into topics like politics, college life, or the expression of shared memory. In some ways, reciting my experience of the events of that sunny Tuesday morning in September is as calming as any liturgy or mantra. (( On a side note, the fact that 9/11 is again a Tuesday, and sunny, is more commemorative for me than last year’s 10th anniversary. )) Sharing memories, the individual facets of a collective experience, isn’t new, nor do I expect that we’ll stop doing it in time.

A friend of mine who is a very talented historical research focused on genealogy posted today about her 9/11/01 memories, and I want to share a part of that post:

“The December after the attacks I sat at a Holiday Dinner with my mother’s family.  With us was the last few members of my grandmother’s generation.  My Great-aunt Bertie told us about Pearl Harbor.  She could remember exaclty where she was, what was playing on the radio, and what happened that day in December 1941.  She told us that this was our Pearl Harbor.  This event would define us as people and as a nation.”

11 November 1918. 7 December 1941. November 1989. 11 September 2001. Dates that generations and populations remember and commemorate in their own ways.

My Oldest Friend

My oldest friend, by which I mean the friend I have known the longest, leaves the country today. She is off on her first posting as an employee of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and over the next twenty or thirty years she will get to live in all sorts of interesting places.

Her father worked for USAID all during our childhoods, so she has already lived or spent extended periods of time in Peru, Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, not to mention North Carolina, Massachusetts, and the DC metro area. Every summer, she would come back to our hometown in North Carolina with her mother and brother. Her mom had seen too many USAID and foreign service kids grow up without a sense of place, a rootedness, so she determined that my friend and her brother would spend months every year in the town where both their grandparents lived.

Recently, we went out to dinner. My friend had just finished speaking at a panel on “third culture kids,” a term for children whose parents work and live in country or culture different from that of their origin. Most of the literature about third culture kids talks about their distance from their ‘home’ country, the place which issues their passport. I get the sense that coming back to North Carolina helped assuage some of that alienation and differentiation, which was, of course, the point.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about all of this on a blog which focuses more on history and my experiences as a PhD student? Because my friend’s experience resonates with the family about whom I want to write my dissertation. One of the first US consuls in England, married an Englishwoman and had five children, all of whom em/immigrated to the United States at some point in adulthood and there stayed. Were they English or American or something else? These five people are in some ways the cultural precursors of my oldest friend. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be intrigued by their story if I hadn’t grown up with a friend who lived overseas, but neither can I deny an increasing interest in the cultural history of early diplomats and citizens living abroad and their families.

When my friend was applying for the job, I got to sit down with someone and act as a reference. They wanted to know if she was reliable (she is), but also get a sense of how well she would represent the country. I answered, truthfully, that I felt she had grown up knowing that she was a representative of the country, and I thought she did it really well. What did it mean for people (men, women and children) to represent a nation which was only years or months old?

Safe travels, friend. Who knows where the future is going to take either of us.

 

What you save

I declared my undergraduate major in History on the first day of classes of my sophomore year of college, September 2001.

A handful of days later, what might have been an ordinary Tuesday became a historic event. I knew it was going to be what children in the next generation would ask me about, saying “Do you remember” and “Where were you?”

A few months ago, in preparation for a move from Charlottesville, where I was working as a historian, to Northern Virginia, where I am now again a history student, I went through the box of papers I’d saved from college. In the box was a letter-sized plastic envelope with documentation about the immediate aftermath of that September.

Until I came across it, I’d forgotten completely about collecting these things. It made sense then, as now, to try and gather an archive of my experience, of the experience of my college friends and community. The envelope has a copy of the student newspaper and the daily broadside from campus, the cover of a New Yorker magazine, emails and a poem I wrote, and some other items. I remembered selecting things to save, making sure to get copies of things, even though I knew that the college library was probably doing the same thing. It didn’t matter if they were. I was saving these not for the next year, or even 10 years out, but 30 or 40.

I looked over everything carefully, then put it all back in the plastic envelope and promised myself I’d get archival storage once I finished moving.

Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum

what remains of a piano damaged by Hurricane Katrina
Fats Domino's piano

Last month I was in New Orleans for a joyful family occasion, and I had the chance to see a new exhibit at the Presbytere building of the Louisiana State Museum titled Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond. I was intrigued by the exhibit to see how a museum in the heart of an affected area remembered and interpreted a major natural and human disaster. I was also drawn because Katrina had a direct impact on my family.

The joyful family occasion was my sister and her husband’s graduation from medical school. My sister moved to New Orleans for med school at the beginning of August 2005. Less than a month later, she was thousands of miles from her barely-unpacked house, with two cats, a car, and no idea when she’d be able to get back into the city. I viewed the events of Katrina and Rita through a familial lens; this exhibit was a chance to look at it from a different angle.

Overall, I found the exhibit compelling, informative, and I think designed in a way so that every visitor would come away having learned something. Information was presented in a number of ways, providing all sorts of ways for a visitor to connect to the story. The exhibit also seemed like it would not be too traumatic for someone who had experienced the storm to visit.

Continue reading “Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum”

Organizing the revolution

My alarm clock wakes me with the voices of the BBC World Service every weekday morning. These past few days, the news has been full of the tumult in Egypt, Tunis, and elsewhere in their region.

This morning I heard that the Egyptian government had shut down the phone and internet networks; a reporter or interviewee said that the protest could no longer be organized, without twitter, facebook, and texting. I understand that the movement started on the internet, but the statement made me laugh a little. Are pen and paper, or word of mouth, so useless now that we have mobile phones? How many rebellions, revolutions, marches and movements were organized before the telephone, much less the internet? It is amazing how much we have come to rely on something we didn’t even have 5 years ago.

11 September

This day had a huge impact on my undergraduate life.

2001 was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, in New York State, only about 2 hours by train from New York City. My parents and sister were in northern Virginia. When I finally understood the scale of what had happened, I knew it was going to be one of those events my children would ask me about, decades in the future.

This date, 11 September, was also the basis of my undergraduate thesis. 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean tradition of democracy was dealt a blow from which it took seventeen years (or more) to recover.  I wrote about the coverage of the coup by US newspapers; partly because my Spanish is limited to what most Americans pick up, and partly because the events of the two intervening years had made me curious about how openly critical newspapers had been of our own government in the past.

(In January 2003 my mother and I attended a celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attended by people from all religions and backgrounds. Following the service we walked down Massachusetts Avenue, intending to gather in a prayerful vigil for peace in Lafayette Square – but due to “security concerns” the police stood on horseback, preventing this crowd celebrating nonviolent protest from getting too close to the White House. Later that year, friends at William and Mary who were also studying in the UK were told that they would lose all credits and might be expelled if they joined in anti-war protests in Britain).

I spent the fall of my senior year of college reading book after book on the coup in 1973, the imprisonment of thousands in the National Stadium, the torture and killings – and all this in a nation which had been very proud of its democratic process. It was disturbing reading, and I only got through it because of the breaks imposed by college life, and by self-imposed breaks with a box of 96 Crayola crayons and a coloring book. Still, I’m glad  that I know about that tragedy in the history of a nation not my own.

September 11 is a day, for me, to remember the power of democracy, the importance of human rights, and that the power of fear and anger and hatred can be overcome.

My Grandfather

My paternal grandfather died on Saturday. He turned 87 at the beginning of this month.

I’m doing my best not to focus on the loss, on the fact that (more than likely) whoever I marry will never have met my wonderful grandfather, and think instead about what time I did have with him. After all, my maternal grandfather died when I was about four years old, and my memories of him are limited to an impression of pale plaid and beige, of the smell of pipe tobacco, and an overall sense of being loved. Which is wonderful, but different from the memories of a man who I knew for almost thirty years.

My grandfather was a living connection to the events of the 20th century. Not just for me – a few years ago he sent me a clipping from his local paper, talking about the travelling portion of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and how Vietnam vets were talking with the junior high kids, helping them to understand the reality of that history. My grandfather was named in the article, and his picture was there too. I have that clipping somewhere. He loved talking about history, whether it was his, our family’s, or the world’s.

Continue reading “My Grandfather”

Citizenship and National Identity

This morning on NPR I heard a story about the push for immigration reform, and a rally in Washington to happen this weekend. Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, who apparently opposes reform, said of the pro-reform marchers “They’re as treasonous and as un-American as anyone I know.” The quote came on the heels of a conversation with woman who works with teenage children of illegal immigrants, trying to keep them out of gangs. The teenagers feel that no opportunity is open to them because of their uncertain immigrant status.

Now, the history of the South-West and Central America are not my area of expertise. What I know has been gathered haphazardly through media and the occasional lecture. However, the question of who is an American (or rather, what makes someone an American) has resonance. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, how a person is identified as a citizen or subject of one nation or another was a part of what led to the War of 1812.

I know that there is scholarship on how Americans resident in the (present) US came to conceptualize themselves as a new nation. What this NPR story has me wondering about, in addition to that, is how quickly or slowly did new immigrants become “Americans”? What was the process, social or political, through which a person who moved to the US after 1783 came to be regarded by their neighbors as an American and not a Brit or Frenchman or Italian, or what have you? I am given to understand that slaves, not being thought of exactly as people, were probably not thought of as citizens either. What of indentured servants?

I have no answers to these questions. I know that at the local university there are papers from numerous families from this period, including a family whose children were all born in England to an American father and English mother, but who apparently considered themselves American citizens. Maybe some small part of the answers lie there?