October 2018

Remembering World War I, 100 years later: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity …

All a poet can do today is warn.”

words by Wilfred Owen, used on the title page of Britten’s War Requiem

On Sunday November 11th, The War Requiem, Benjamin Britten’s dissonant, inter-textual and pacifistic masterpiece is being brought to Tulsa for the World War I Centennial.

Described on the Tulsa Symphony website as “one of the great defining masterworks of the 20th century,” the performance will involve the Tulsa Oratorio chorus, Tulsa Opera Chorus, Youth Opera, University of Tulsa Concert Chorale, and the Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Bagwell.  In short, this means that hundreds of elite musicians are lending their skills to represent Britten’s epic and singular vision, including several TU students, faculty and alumni. Dr. Tim Sharp, Artistic Director and Composer of the Tulsa Oratorio describes this collection of ensembles as “iconic.” “I want listeners to see the incredible power art has to capture our most extreme thoughts and emotions and to do so in a way that has beauty and dignity” says Sharp. “It is quite a model of collaboration, art’s power to capture emotions and concepts, and an incredible showing of humanity.”

Zachary Malavolti, the Assistant Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio and a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma describes Benjamin Britten as “one of the leading English composers of the twentieth century” with a “wide and diverse” body of work. “His musical voice is uniquely his own, neither exceptionally modernist nor overly traditional” says Malavolti. “A common thread throughout many of his works is his poignant ability to genuinely convey his personal convictions through his musical structures and rhetoric. Britten was an ardent pacifist and War Requiem is a carefully constructed musical appeal that makes his own passion heard.”

The War Requiem was initially commissioned for the 1962 rebuilding of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by Nazi bombing in 1940. Britten combined the war poetry of Wilfred Owen with text from traditional Latin mass to craft his project,  directly responding to the horrors of war he witnessed during his life. The difficulty of the subject matter directly matches the dissonance of the piece: often abstract, discordant, and difficult to follow. “It is a piece that asks more from its audience that just mere listening” says Malavolti. “It is a piece that wants you to wrestle with its material and message. War Requiem resonates because it asks for the same thoughtfulness that this centennial itself asks of us.”

Dr. Tim Sharp and the Tulsa Oratorio

Though the complexity of the piece and the morbidity of the subject matter could seem to paint a picture of inaccessibility and audience alienation, Britten’s piece has had resounding commercial success, and has deeply connected with audiences throughout the world. “This is a FIRST for the Tulsa Symphony, TOC, and TU.” says Dr. Tim Sharp. “It is truly an epic event. I would love for our audience to marvel at what we are able to do in our community as collaborative artists and musicians. I would love for this to be symbolic of the richness of our culture in this area.”

As part of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities theme of “Memory,” we hope that the presentation of Britten’s manifesto of pacifism is an effective way to use the memory of the past in order to forge ahead into a brighter future.

You can find further event details linked below.

Classics II – Britten’s War Requiem

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Collective Memory

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Liz Blood, a freelance journalist and writer whose work focuses on place, contemporary art, indigenous peoples, immigrant issues, and the environment.

 

“On Collective Memory”

I have a recurring memory: Our cohort of ten Oklahoma Center for Humanities fellows are circled around a large wooden conference table in the University of Tulsa’s Tyrell Hall. It is dark outside and we are deep in discussion. Someone in our group uses the phrase “collective memory.” Some of us nod. Others—myself included—furrow our brows and puzzle.

“Collective memory” is a term that engages and confuses me. And for the last nine weeks or so that we have been studying memory, I can’t seem to let it go. It makes sense that a group, the collective, shares a memory—say, a family’s memory of the birth of the first grandchild—and individuals in the group can each recall it. On the other hand, I am concerned that collective memory is only possible for the living. The ancestors of that family can’t recall this memory and those born after this first grandchild won’t be able to recall it, either.

And what about a larger group, like the citizens of an entire state, or country? Are they able to recall things through which they did not live?

“The memory of a society extends as far as the groups composing it,” writes French sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945), who contributed to the study of collective memory through his book of the same name. Halbwachs believed the collective did have a memory separate from that of the individual, and that the individual’s understanding of the past was bound up in the group’s consciousness. But he also believed collective memory and history to be ultimately opposed to one other. “If history is restricted to preserving the image of the past still having a place in the contemporary collective memory,” he writes, “then it retains only what reminds of interest to present-day society—that is, very little.”

As I’ve been reading Halbwachs and tripping over these ideas, I was happy to see my colleague, Dr. Jennie Ikuta from TU’s political science department, discuss collective memory on a national scale, as it pertains to Monticello and its remembrance (or not) of slavery.

“If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory, then Monticello—the estate of Thomas Jefferson—is presumably part of it,” Ikuta writes. “In visiting Monticello, we as Americans are invited to remember something about our national past. But what exactly are we remembering?” She goes on to explore how, when the keepers of a place like Monticello cause its visitors to recall only pieces of that history—such as the good and not the bad, the remembrance is incomplete.

Here’s Halbwachs again: “General history starts only when … the social memory is fading or breaking up. So long as a remembrance continues to exist, it is useless to set it down in writing or otherwise fix it in memory. Likewise the need to write the history of a period, a society, or even a person is only aroused when the subject is already too distant in the past to allow for the testimony of those who preserve some remembrance of it.”

If history is a break in the continuity of memory—in other words, those learning the history were not those who experienced it happening—then the collective cannot truly recall what it did not directly experience. So what is the experience Ikuta describes? She begins her post with a built in question: “If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory.” I believe it does exist, I’m just not sure about the mechanics of it.

Historical places like Monticello, or memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., require of their visitors a more imaginative kind of remembering—learning and recalling the facts of history, imagining experiences through which they did not live, and then potentially engaging with a kind of prospective memory, or memory focused on the future and what might be done differently in times to come.

“With respect to collective memory,” Ikuta writes, “…the question cannot only be whether or not we remember certain morally problematic features of our history—although that is certainly important—but also, how we do so.”

That how seems to have everything to do with making collective memories not only accurate, but also complete, as in a kind of repair or re-build. As a nonfiction writer, I’m interested in how my own work and that of others—whether visual, literary, performative, etc.—might influence the way a culture remembers by reconstructing in the present fixed memories of the past. Halbwachs believed the living continuously did this, based on their present needs and desires.

According to Mary Douglas, who introduces the English translation of The Collective Memory, Halbwachs’ concept was of “social segments consisting of live individuals who sustain their common interests by their own selective and highly partial view of history.” History, Halbwachs writes, “is a collection of the most notable facts in the memory of man,” but it is selected, combined, and evaluated “in accord with necessities and rules not imposed on the groups that had through time guarded [the events] as living trust.”

In our current situtation, it is no wonder that public spaces of remembering–like Monticello, the former Robert E. Lee Elementary here in Tulsa, and various institutions, monuments, and memorials around the country–are being publicly (you might say collectively) reevaluated in new ways.

I think of the collective memory Ikuta writes of as something always in the making. Individuals do the living, experiencing, and remembering. How we are taught history, what we are taught, what we teach, and what we remember becomes just one facet of collective memory.

_____________________

Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Translated by Francis J. Ditter and Vida Yazdi Ditter, Harper & Row, 1980.

From the Voices of Oklahoma: Jeanne Eason Phillips Remembers

From The Voices of Oklahoma: Jeanne Eason Phillips Remembers…

In this memorable interview, John Erling chats with Jeanne Eason Phillips and her daughter Judy–two Oklahoma natives who lived through segregation and the civil rights movement.

 

“You know what? Every era has its own goodness. I can’t think that there’s any worse in any part of it. Life gets better all the time, the more you look at it.”

For the next piece in our series “From the Voices of Oklahoma,” documenting stand-out interviews from John Erling’s extensive oral history project, we’re looking at his talk with Jeanne Eason Phillips and her daughter Judy Eason McIntyre. From the “Voices” bio, “Even though they endured the pain of racism, Jeanne and Judy tell a very upbeat story of making Oklahoma a better place to live.” Upbeat is putting it lightly, as the banter between Judy and Jeanne is often electric and hilarious. At times it seems that Judy is the one conducting the interview, as she is clearly fascinated with her mother’s story, and wants to explore every little piece that she hasn’t yet heard about. Her interjections are almost the best part of the proceedings, whether it’s her handful of follow-up questions about her mother’s love life: (“Well, when did you meet Dad?” “When did Daddy come? Was he there when you got there?” “Did you date somebody before Daddy?”), or her amused incredulity that her mother could ever dance the “jitter-bug” (through laughter: “I can’t imagine Mother doing that.”)

Though not initially the major subject of the interview, Judy herself has an amazing story, and she takes John through her upbringing, experiencing horrific racism in college, joining the Black Panther movement and then cutting ties with it, and going on to serve ten years in Oklahoma’s legislature.

Jeanne and Judy’s account weaves through the story of the African-American experience across generations, ideologies, and perspectives, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, revolutionary action from outside to political change from within.

Jeanne attended Langston University, married her husband Garland Eason, and together they supported all four of their children through college. Garland worked multiple jobs, and Phillips was at her children’s school so much that everyone thought she was the teacher; Judy amusingly notes that “I was always having to look over my shoulder.” Jeanne has a remarkably positive outlook on every nook and cranny of life, from the process of aging to her disturbing experiences of discrimination. On whether she is happy about her fast approaching ninetieth birthday: “Oh, yes, oh, yes, yes. Every one of them I look forward to. I’ve never been one of those that say, ‘Well, I’m in the forties and gonna stay.’ No, no, no, no, I welcome every one of mine.”

Even through this positivity, Eason’s narrative brings to light several painful and unjust realities of what it means to be black in America. Choices have to be made: do you educate your children about the horrors of discrimination, or do you shield them from racism until they are adults themselves? Jeanne and Garland chose to protect their children from the hatred, from the darkness, and throughout the interview you can hear both Phillips and McIntyre wonder about whether or not it was the right call.

“I think that’s there good and bad in both ways.” Phillips says. “But we did not want them to start hating or having your mind made up.” Because of this parenting decision, Judy never experienced direct personal racism until she attended OU. “…it made a real rebel out of her” says Phillips. In McIntyre’s words across the interview, “I think they just didn’t talk about it because both of them didn’t want us being that angry black person. So I went to OU when I was called the N word at class. I didn’t know what was going on…And then you walked on campus and from my dorm to the library or wherever I went it was, “Black bitch,” “Nigger,” just the whole bit… I cried, I cried… Begging Daddy to let me come home and leave that place.”

Both Jeanne and Judy were there for Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. They attended with their church, and their pastor Ben Hill introduced King. Phillips perspective is quite funny in retrospect: “I didn’t know anything about Martin Luther King…I said to the person standing next to me, I said, ‘If this man can’t speak Reverand Hill will just kill him.’” Then she experienced one of the most climactic events in all of American history. “I didn’t know what he was dreaming about until I got to OU” says Judy. “OU was the life-changing.”

Judy then tells her story about joining the Black Panthers; it is best to hear it from her. She left the panthers after a particularly terrifying experience with the police, but the anger remained for years. She worked in child welfare and wouldn’t work with white clients. “I wouldn’t even go to lunch with the white workers. I wouldn’t talk with them except to have to answer questions and stuff.”

Judy’s story should help audiences to reconsider the false equivalencies wrapped up in terms like “reverse racism” or phrases like “racist against white people,” and the rampant cliché of “both sides-ism.” Responding to hatred is always more accurately described as self-defense. Even so, when Erling labels Mcintyre’s understandable response to injustice “reverse discrimination” McIntyre doesn’t miss a beat” “oh yeah, they used to say I was a racist. And I proudly said, “I am.” She credits her parents with her eventual de-radicalization: “thank God for my parents that I was able to move back to some sanity…And some stability”

When Jeanne reflects on racism today she notices shame as the one notable difference: “People who are racist don’t mind you knowing that they’re racist. That’s the feeling I got, ’cause when I see things like with the President when they do all of these little ugly things and say all these little things, they want you to know exactly how they feel about it. So it’s open, it’s in the open, so you don’t get away with anything anymore without being called on it.” But for herself? “I don’t even let it touch me. It can’t even hurt me.”

Judy traces all of her success to parents that valued education and church. Erling asks Jeanne Eason Phillips to close with what she is most proud of: her legacy in life: “Oh, dear. I just want to be remembered as Jeanne. I just want to be remembered as a good person.  A person who loved life and people. Nothing spectacular. I’m proud of a lot of things, the accomplishments with four children. My biggest pride is in the accomplishments that they’ve made and we desired for them.”

Check out the full interview on the Voices of Oklahoma.

 

 

Collective Memory at Monticello

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Dr. Jennie Ikuta, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tulsa.

Collective Memory at Monticello

If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory, then Monticello—the estate of Thomas Jefferson—is presumably part of it. In visiting Monticello, we as Americans are invited to remember something about our national past. But what exactly are we remembering?

In July 2016, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia; like many visitors, I drove to Monticello to meander the former president’s estate. Over the last few years, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—which administers and oversees the home and its grounds—has drawn national attention regarding its concerted effort to correct the public portrayal of Monticello that until the 1990s, did not acknowledge the existence of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved mistress. This refusal to acknowledge the existence of Hemings—and presumably, slavery more broadly—grew, as historian Christa Dierksheide explained, from a fear that doing so might stain Jefferson’s reputation.[1] To correct these historical omissions, the Foundation has embarked on a multi-year, $35 million plan to renovate and restore Monticello to its appearance during Jefferson’s lifetime. This plan would render the existence of slavery publicly visible.

As part of its attempt to publicly acknowledge the existence of slavery at Monticello, the Foundation has also created tours such as the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” and the “Hemings Family Tour” that visitors can embark on in addition to the main attraction for most visitors, the “Main House Tour,” which centers Jefferson’s scientific and philosophical achievements. Presumably, the Foundation has admirable aims: it seeks to offer a more complete, and therefore, a truer description of life on the plantation. However, how the Foundation has gone about this is curious. Crucially, both the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” and the “Hemings Family Tour” are separate from the “Main House Tour.” the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” is included in the price of admission to the “Monticello Day Pass & House Tour,” even as the slavery tour is separate from the tour of the main house. However, the “Hemings Family Tour” is separately ticketed from the Monticello Day Pass & House Tour. Even more intriguing is that while the “Hemings Family Tour” incorporates the tour of the house, the tour of the house does not incorporate the “Hemings Family Tour.” In other words, there are two ways to experience the main house—one with and one without the perspectives of slaves. As the visiting experience of Monticello is currently structured, visitors curate their own experience of Monticello and thereby, choose to see what they want to see. As a result, one possibility is that a visitor can elect to only embark on the House Tour, and thereby ignore the existence of slavery at the estate altogether. In this way, slavery can be both visible and invisible to visitors of Monticello; if one can choose to see, one can also choose to not see, or to ignore. Monticello certainly acknowledged the existence of slavery, but ironically, the bifurcated structure of its tours enable visitors to avoid acknowledging it. Another possible visiting experience might take visitors through the Main House Tour as well as the Slavery at Monticello Tour; however, the relationship between the two remains unspecified. One might experience Jefferson’s home imagining that slavery, while unfortunate, was merely incidental to his accomplishments–that slavery was an exception to an otherwise remarkable life. It was as though one could marvel at Jefferson’s achievements by walking through the Main House, and then as a separate matter, lament the existence of slavery.

But this response misses something important, even foundational. Slavery was not incidental to Monticello; it was inextricably bound up with and made the wondrous home and many of its owner’s great achievements possible.  To visit Monticello is to see that slavery was part of the place, but what part exactly? The strangely divided tours do little to suggest that there was any relationship between the achievements of Jefferson, on the one hand, and slavery, on the other. In this way, the Foundation fails to show how slavery underwrote and made Monticello possible.

With respect to collective memory, then, the question cannot only be whether or not we remember certain morally problematic features of our history—although that is certainly important—but also, how we do so. As slavery is currently situated in the public presentation of Monticello, one can either choose to ignore it or imagine that slavery was simply a lamentable glitch—as opposed to a defining feature—of the system. Recognizing the existence of slavery at Monticello is important, but it is not enough; it is crucial to recognize the central role it occupied at Monticello.

What could the Thomas Jefferson Foundation do to create a more accurate and complete experience for visitors of Monticello? One possibility is to create one tour that combines the Main House Tour, the Slavery at Monticello Tour, and the Hemings Family Tour—and draws the deep connections between them. This more comprehensive tour would render the standalone Main House Tour obsolete. In fact, as of the writing of this post, the Foundation has incorporated a newly opened exhibit on the life of Hemings into the Main House Tour, and it plans to create a single tour that features the life of Jefferson as well as the slaves who made his life possible.[3] These developments are a step in the right direction towards making our collective memories not only more complete, but also, more accurate.

It matters not just that we remember, but what we remember about it, and how we do so.

 

[1] NPR, “Monticello Restoration Project Puts an Increased Focus on Jefferson’s Slaves,” https://www.npr.org/2017/02/20/516292305/monticello-restoration-project-puts-an-increased-focus-on-jeffersons-slaves

[2] As of August 2018,

[3] Steve Dubb, “New Exhibits at Monticello Recover Slave Narratives,” Nonprofit Quarterly, June 19th, 2018, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2018/06/19/new-exhibits-at-monticello-recover-slave-narratives/

Making and Involuntary Memory

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Dr. Jeffrey Drouin, an associate professor of English at TU.

Making and Involuntary Memory

Shortly after 9/11, while living in Brooklyn with an old friend, I was surprised to hear a woman singing in his room. “Jonathan didn’t tell me he had a guest,” I thought, as I walked in to see several black boxes with glowing glass bottles on them. Strangely, there was no one else in the room, yet my ears told me that a real person was there, standing exactly in one spot and singing about science like an impassioned schoolteacher. I had walked into 1954. Mabel Mercer was performing Cole Porter’s “Experiment” with piano accompaniment in a studio room that had somehow been overlaid with this room by means of a seamless space-time fold. I was there, able to hear every nuance of breath, the wetness of her voice, the acoustics of a space that was considerably larger than the “real” one we inhabited, and most importantly the emotion that guided her interpretation of Porter’s classic tune.

It turned out that my friend Alex had loaned Jonathan a turntable, some records, and a system of thermionic vacuum tube amplifiers. It changed my life, leaving an impression that, many years later, led me to learn the basics of vacuum tube electronics in a search for that lost sound – that lost time. I built many different circuits but eventually poured all of my scholarly effort into documenting and building the amplifiers I’d heard back in 2001, in the hope that duplicating them would result in the same uncanny effect.

Only after three years of building amplifiers did I realize that I was engaged in a project very similar to that of one of the authors whom I study, the French novelist Marcel Proust. His À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past), a sprawling masterpiece comprising roughly 4,400 pages in seven volumes, seeks to unlock the mystery of involuntary memory, to make the past present again as a form of being. Strangely, Proust’s narrator ascribes the locus of involuntary memory to objects rather than the mind.

“[T]here is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison…. And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it. All the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.” (I.59)

Trying to achieve this type of memory deliberately is impossible, since its power depends on chance, yet try we must. Hence the title: Recherche, the Search. It can become a lifelong attempt to uncover the mysteries of a form of memory that only occurs when we stop trying, when some object provides a sensory impression that opens the boundary between past and present. The memories we recall by acts of will tend to appear as images of past experiences held in the mind’s eye, while involuntary memories are a form of resurrection, the re-vivification of a past event, a flashback – a chance moment in which some sensory channel makes the past present and alive again.

Releasing the genie from the thermionic bottles is a goal not limited to old amplifiers, however. What analog design brings to literature and the resurrection of recorded music, digital design in the humanities offers by way of a different yet somewhat similar kind of making.

Digital Humanities is a somewhat new field that uses computing applications to ask and answer humanistic questions. During graduate school, in order to facilitate recall for a meditative essay on the Recherche’s recurring use of church architecture as a motif, I made a spreadsheet containing all of the relevant passages (totaling about 190,000 words) and related information such as keywords and contextual notes. With the help of a friend, I later turned it into a database, paired the passages with church images, wrapped it in a blog, and put it all online as Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. Later on, I was exposed to computational techniques such as text mining, which processes natural language texts to reveal linguistic and stylistic patterns; topic modeling, which discovers patterns of terms that recur together; and network graphing, which shows connections among a set of structured data such as a spreadsheet.

The magic in these algorithmic techniques lies in visualizing patterns in the text that would not be uncovered in the act of serial reading: they reveal a latent reality by means of a different way of seeing. Take network graphing of the church motif spreadsheet, for instance. If we eliminate the temporal dimension to make all connections simultaneously present, what shape would the motif take? What patterns would appear among the passages and their keywords? How might it change our understanding of the novel? Without any particular question or reasoned possible outcome, I let the algorithm do its work to unlock the specter I’d been hunting. This may have been a naïve use of tools, but the first graph I generated with Gephi resembled the explosion of a firework in all the uncanniness with which the apparition of Mabel Mercer appeared to us all those years ago. Later iterations resemble a rose window. The church motif was centrifugal, radiating from the center rather than appearing as a periodic repetition along a chronological line, an artifact of the layout algorithm used in that instance.  Patterns revealed through text mining and topic modeling of the whole text lead to similarly unpredictable insights. In a way, digital techniques are akin to involuntary memory in that they expose hidden realities that we hadn’t thought to seek and raise questions we hadn’t thought to ask.

Proust’s narrative, like my exploration of audio design and Digital Humanities, works by creating the conditions through which involuntary memory can work upon us. All of this is made possible by the fact that the digital medium has shifted the archive from its institutional home in a building that stores official records, to a space in which anyone with sufficient means and technical ability can compile their own material, then create something new with it. Throughout much of the Recherche, objects such as gothic cathedrals and Norman churches play a kind of pagan role as the repositories of involuntary memory, of memory that we do not directly control, of collective, historical memory whose art forms act across generations and transform the subjectivities of individual lives wrought in time. Narratives of national, local, and religious memory are stored in stained glass, statuary, ornamentation; they are reproduced in performances of the liturgy, weddings, funerals, and even the simple gathering of the townsfolk once a week. They stand as archives of the primary material out of which the individual psyche and the social body are made, sacramentally transforming the deep history of Proust’s France into the forms of experience undergone by the narrator and his contemporaries. Today, prosthetic memory devices store the digital data of the past and, though we might purposely initiate a search or an algorithmic analysis, they remind us that sometimes we don’t get to choose the ways in which memory works, or works through us.

Work Cited

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, Volume I: Swann’s Way. Trans. C.K. Scot Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Where Memory and Trauma Meet

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to introduce the first of a new series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This first post was composed by Layla Mortadha, a sophomore at TU studying political science and French language, and one of the two student fellows this year.

 

“Where Memory and Trauma Meet”

The train ride from the heart of Paris to my apartment was a straight, twenty-five-minute shot. After a day in the city, on my way home, I would take a seat and watch the gradient of people change from light to dark as we approached the city’s edge. Travelers would hop on and off in just two stops, someone new always asking to sit next to me. Somewhere in the middle of my journey I would notice fewer noisy tourists and more families board. I stayed in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, renting an apartment from a local man in the Goutte d’Or, the “Drop of Gold” neighborhood, known for its North African and sub-Saharan communities. I booked the place by chance, but staying in this neighborhood offered a rare experience for an American visiting Paris. I traded decorated mille feuilles for sheet pans of baklava, and exploring the similarities between North African and Iraqi cuisine gave me a comforting sense of home while I was abroad.

As in most cities, life in Paris happens in the streets. The first person you may speak to in the morning is the baker down the avenue, and the person you may say goodnight to is the driver who took you from the subway station to your bus stop. While public services are often written off as dirty or inefficient, they are essential to equitable, accessible, and integrated cities. In serving all, public services like rail systems and schools bring people together by requiring interaction and encouraging civility among difference. In places like Tulsa, where there is a need for better public services, public life suffers. Community suffers. As we turn to our smart phones more often than our city squares, it becomes easier to stay confined to our silos. It becomes easier to forget about narratives different from our own. In Tulsa, this comes at the loss of our own history. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 continues to create silos in our city, affecting not only Black Tulsans, but immigrants and noncitizens living in the city. While public spaces alone cannot alleviate this trauma, they can serve as foundations for understanding and reconciliation.

In larger cities, collective memory and therefore, collective meaning are attached to public spaces. Particularly when focused on the memory of trauma, public historical sites offer space for mourning, reflection, and community as integral parts of an ongoing healing process. Sites like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., for example, hold many memories and thus tend to become part of a city’s identity. However, while monuments and memorials may serve as points of entry to accessing a public space, they do not guarantee reconciliation. In The Culture of Redemption, literary theorist Leo Bersani challenges art’s role in reconciliation, arguing that “catastrophes of history [appear to] matter less if they are somehow compensated in art.”1 What then does lend itself to reconciliation in public spaces?

Urban architect Alberto Pérez-Gómez calls public spaces a “theater for memory capable of embodying truths that make it possible to affirm life and contemplate a better future.”2 His mention of multiple truths suggests a public space that upholds a single truth or only a few truths is incomplete, static, even damaging. To activate the power of the public space and the power of place making, a city must insist on racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion that questions how public spaces are used.  It must be aware of who is present and who is not as it challenges any one dominant narrative by valuing many truths. It must also continuously seek inclusion that welcomes dialogue, listens to all voices, and celebrates cross-cultural experiences. It must be vibrant, musical, and memorable. We resist historical amnesia by encouraging our children to make new memories in more colorful, inclusive public spaces. We reconcile past wrongs by teaching our children that the memory of the past lives in our memory today. Finally, we ensure a better future by drawing the memories we make back to our painful past with the hope that our children will remember to do the same when it is their turn to reimagine the spaces we leave behind us.

 

  1. Bersani, Leo. The Culture of Redemption. To Excel. 2000. Print.
  2. See the essay by Alberto Pérez-Gómez in Richard Henriquez, Memory Theatre, edited by Howard Shubert (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1993; distributed by MIT Press).

Remembering: Wilma Mankiller on the Voices of Oklahoma

From The Voices of Oklahoma: Remembering Wilma Mankiller

I would have never been able to do the things that I’ve done if I wasn’t a positive person. So I think that I was just given this gift. My Dad always described me as a sunny child. –Wilma Mankiller

One year before her death, Wilma Mankiller spoke with John Erling on August 13th 2009, in an inspiring interview that captures the brilliant and unifying legacy of the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In a clear and inviting manner, Mankiller discusses personal tragedy, racist injustice, and the difficulty of being a woman in politics. Never opting to let these debilitating factors get in her way, Mankiller forged a path of powerful activism, communal engagement and unity: not letting divisive partisan political lines get in the way of working together for a better world.

Wilma Mankiller begins by tracing some historical background of the Cherokees and her own upbringing: “The federal government did everything it could to try to destroy the Cherokee Nation” she states, discussing historic traumas such as the “Trail of Tears,” the Dawes Act in 1907, and what she directly experienced during “The Termination Era.” Cut off from a shared identity, the loss experienced by her displaced community is impossible to imagine for anyone but those inside. The story itself seemed distant to Mankiller in her youth, almost lost: “they talked pieces, but no one sat down and said, this is the story, the entire story.” Another memory she shares is of the man who thought there would be another removal: “he never felt secure.”

After hearing Mankiller’s story about being relocated from her community in rural Oklahoma for a “better life” in the late 1950s, her grand achievements are all the more astonishing. “There was no kind of orientation program or anything like that…All we knew was that we were going and we weren’t coming back.” Her family spent their first night in an old hotel in the red light district of San Francisco: “it was like landing in Mars.”

Though she points to the occupation of Alcatraz as the catalyst for her career in activism, it is perhaps this rending of her sense of community that inspired work such as the Bell Community Revitalization Project in 1981 in which Mankiller and former Principal Chief Ross Swimmer worked together to “set the foundation of the self-help movement within the Cherokee Nation” by providing resources to the struggling community and partnering with them to help rebuild their own infrastructure. Calling it both “an experiment in development” and “an affirmation of the human spirit,” Mankiller has these inspiring and empowering words to say about the marginalized in society:

“For me, I think, I’ve always believed that poor people, not just Cherokee people and Native people but poor people in general have a much greater capacity for leadership and creativity, than they’re ever given credit for. And that a lot of people who work with poor people want them to just be passive recipients of services and not really be involved. So Bell was really an affirmation for me that if you give people resources and an opportunity they will help themselves. They’ll rise to the occasion, they’ll help other people.”

Mankiller does not mince words in regards to her own political ideology: “I’m definitely a Democrat.” But her career points to several engagements and friendships across party lines, embracing a spirit of unity rather than division: “I don’t believe in solving problems in a divisive way, so I just stayed steady, was respectful to everybody no matter how they treated me. I tried to keep them involved and tried to be diplomatic and we eventually managed to get along.” In her words, former Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, a Republican, “never wavered in his support of me ever.” What they had in common, in her estimation, was that they both “believed in people.” More amusingly, she paints a picture of the differing ideas within her own family: “My Mother’s a Republican and a conservative, but my brother Richard wanted to go off and join the Wounded Knee Occupation, it was like, okay, well take care of yourself.”

Though Mankiller was exceptionally successful in the 80’s and 90’s, she still sees much room for improvement in the way that our culture disadvantages women in politics. “I think we’re behind as a nation” she claims, and points to the stream of sexist rhetoric imposed on Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election cycle. She isn’t blind to this phenomenon across party lines, identifying Sarah Palin as someone she “has nothing in common with and probably wouldn’t want to be in a room with” yet had to be subjected to “terribly inappropriate” comments throughout her campaign. With eyes towards a more contemporary political moment, it is clear that this issue has only gotten worse. Mankiller’s advice for women is to embrace power and independence: “I think that girls should not let other people define for them what it means to be a woman. I think they should not let magazines, or the culture of the larger society, or their boyfriends, influence who they are as a person. That they need to figure out how to define for themselves, what does it mean to be a woman, for me?” For Mankiller “being a woman” seems to mean getting things done: “I don’t think I ever sat down and thought, well, I can’t do this because I’m a woman.”

At the end of the interview Erling asks a final question: “Accomplishments that you were most proud of or, or the most effective as you were Chief?” And though Mankiller has no need to be humble in light of her life filled with achievements, including three terms as Principal Chief, landslide elections, and 18 honorary doctorates, she responds with another shout out for collaboration: “First of all I never did anything by myself. Anything that I’ve ever done in my life has been with a team.”

 

Check out the rest of the Interview at “Voices of Oklahoma” by following the link below:

Mankiller, Wilma