Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Need for a Memorial

I have never seen this photo before: MLK picking a (previously burning) cross out of his front yard will his son stands by. I tire of people saying things like "racism is a thing of the past" and accusing anyone who speaks of the institutional racism that still plagues the country as "playing the race card." Things are much better, yes. But it takes longer for hearts and minds to change than it does for mere laws to change. And I believe that it takes the power of God to change hearts and minds, so I hope we can all faithfully pray that progress continues. I took a course at Newcastle called "Cultural Representations of Slavery and Genocide;' one of the course's central questions was why the US has no national memorial or museum for the many, many victims of slavery? We have a holocaust memorial--and a national holocaust museum (and I think this is a very good thing)--but where are the slavery memorials? Where is the national slavery museum?It seems that the efforts to build one in VA died because of insufficient funds. What does that say about us? Don't we need a space for public grieving and remembrance--rather than an encouragement to sweep it all under the rug and pretend this has always been "land of the free"? For many the American dream was an American nightmare. Of course, fixating on the past and holding on to hate (on either side) does not help either. But I strongly believe that we need a space to memorialize the many who lost their lives (physical, mental, emotional) to the corrupt, dehumanizing institution of slavery.

Toni Morrison's dark, moving, profound, and Real 1987 novel Beloved is a memorial to the "60 million and more" that Morrison alludes to in the novel's dedication. Beloved is a ghost story based on the painful story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, a woman who slit the throat of her own child in an attempt to rescue her from falling prey to the very slaveowners that molested and abused her mother. The haunting of the novel might be the ghost of the mercifully murdered baby, Beloved, (this is implied but never clearly explained)--but it is also a metaphor for the haunting of our bloody past, a past in which dignity, justice, and an acknowledgement of personhood were traded for physical and psychological violence: "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief." These ghosts have not been exorcised; they continue to wreak havoc and prolong grief. Sethe, the novel's protagonist, claims that even after someone or something is dead, they have left a "rememory" that we can literally bump in when walking down the street. As Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead; it's not even passed." Only after acknowledging, naming, and memorializing the "60 million and more" can the past begin to move from a painful "re-memory" to a space of healing.

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