googleplus linkedin pinterest snapchat vimeo youtube

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).
one comment
  1. beautiful, lay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *