☞ Thoughts on Ferguson and "Forgetting" ☜

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A couple years ago I took an introductory Government class about nationalism. It focused a lot on Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, not so much on America. While we are lauded for being the harbinger of democracy, capitalism, and freedom, America has been struggling with a uniform definition of nationalism since our beginnings. One of the concepts we discussed in that class was "shared forgetting," be it in war, genocide, injustice, or inquisition. 

When we think about our Founding Fathers, we think of bright minds and progressive ideas. It’s no coincidence higher education is one of the founding tenets of Washington D.C. America is also home to some of the best universities in the world. The institution of education is part of our blood, but “shared forgetting” is part of our educational system as well. This trickles down from the leaders who run the schools to the way that we cognitively process information in the classroom. Think about when you're studying for a test: you make sure you know the “important” information. When we come across material that we don't think will be on the test, we don't pay as much attention to it. When we take the test, it's likely we will forget the information that we glanced over, as opposed to the information we studied in full detail.

While whites are able to collectively "forget" slavery, blacks don't have a choice in "shared remembering." Society reminds African Americans every day of their traumatic history in America. Conversely, society positively reinforces “shared forgetting” for American whites; whites have it good. But this failure or refusal to remember is actually a karmic debt. 

Academia aside, I want to bring up a point about American culture. As a culture, we don't always deal with our psychological issues. In decades and centuries past, we have lived without acknowledging our mental illnesses or trauma. We live today under the faces of "progress" and “success” without acknowledging the fact that we have traumatized the African American psyche for centuries. How many successful people have a hidden psychological trauma, how many people exist on the edges of "normalcy", hanging on by a thread? To quote Lewis Carroll, "are we all mad here?" 

We're not insane, we're not dysfunctional, we're not "inhuman"-no one is. There is deep-seeded anger and pain,  as we have compartmentalized and denied trauma on both ends of the spectrum. This lack of recognition has erupted in bursts of revolution, animosity, and "insanity" throughout the years when triggers like Mike Brown remind us of this trauma. We should not feign "being OK" when it is not the reality.

I liken this to academia because in the sense of thinking, remembering, and using these verbs to change, learning is a cognitive process. It can be inhibited by trauma. When you repress, ignore, or "forget" trauma, you are not "healing." You have to uncover it, relieve its memory, and understand it.  White Americans neither acknowledge this trauma/ its lingering effects, nor have we ever been traumatized to the same caliber. We don’t try to empathize; instead we ignore.

To "dismiss" the legacy of slavery, of the fact that we stole the land from Native Americans, of the fact that we inflicted oppression for centuries, is the biggest problem of all. It is an action, that we as humans, fail to recognize, fail to study, and fail to change. Indeed, this history is very much alive and present, as witnessed in our institutions, in our "tests"(the Mike Brown trial), and in our lifestyles

In the way that society is structured today, white Americans may ask how to educate themselves. If an institution, a trial, or an economic system, do not provide justice, what does? My answer to this is information, specifically art and pop culture. We make art to tell our stories, show our feelings, our experiences, and sometimes our spiritual motivations. Art connects us on a human level.

Educate yourself on African American culture. Whether you read W.E.B. DuBois, listen to music, look at websites-consciously educate yourself. The power of the Internet gives us access to a huge range of information, but remember that lots of media are institutions that protect the status quo. Do not consume the information to feel ironic, to fetishize it, or to subsume it under your own human experience: consume it to understand it. Pop culture may reinforce what's "cool" but recognize the intentions and feelings behind the material you are consuming, not its "otherness" or "novelty." And most importantly, don't "forget" the material you've studied. Just like when you take a test at school, you very well know that forgetting the information sets you up to fail. I urge this to all young Americans-most of you have Internet connections, so unlike your parents and grandparents, you have access to this information. 

White Americans will never fully understand the black American experience, but if you have the privilege of education, or if you consider yourself a proud American, you have no excuse to ignore the part of your nation's history that has been silenced under centuries of trauma. 
 xo  SFB

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