In A Shared Language Of Remembrance, Whose Memories Are 'Ours'?

Nov 1, 2015
Originally published on November 1, 2015 5:10 pm

On November 1, many Christians observe All Saints' Day. It's a time to honor martyrs and saints, especially those without specific feast days set aside for them; some churches mark this day by remembering their own local congregants and loved ones who have died over the course of the past year.

Christians aren't the only ones to do this, of course. Many religions and cultures have a practice of setting aside a time to remember the deceased. In fact, there are many rituals that the religious and non-religious now share, such as releasing balloons, lighting lanterns, scattering flowers or ringing a bell. These have become part of our shared language of remembrance.

But this all made me think about memory — how much remembering is enough, and how much is too much, and who gets to decide? In other words, whose memories get to be our memories?

I was thinking about how many ongoing fights around the world are rooted in disputes about memory, about differences over a sense of place or self that have never been resolved.

But if you think about it, so are many of our fights in this country: they're about economics, or resources — who gets what now — but they are also about the past, as much as the present. There's a reason we are still arguing over flags and statues from the Civil War.

I am sure that is why, as much as I love history, I have never been big on nostalgia. It's just too easy to rest on a reality that never existed to justify a present that shouldn't continue.

One of the most popular tourist sites in the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C. is the American History Museum's exhibition of First Ladies gowns. Whenever I go, I am always amused by the number of mothers who point to the huge ball gowns and ask their daughters, "Wouldn't you have liked to have lived back then to wear those pretty dresses?"

I am always floored by this comment, because I always wonder why they assume they would have been the dress-wearer and not the dress-sewer or -cleaner, or even the cotton-grower or fabric-weaver or -dyer — none of whose lives were particularly pretty.

And even the big puffy gown wearers had their "issues," as we say. It's not for nothing that Abigail Adams exhorted her husband John, when he was participating in the Continental Congress, to "remember the ladies" — "for all men would be tyrants if they could," she wrote.

And so would all memoirists. It's not a question of being a good person or not; it's how the mind works.

Earlier this year when I interviewed the wonderful writer Edwidge Danticat she talked about how she has realized she has unintentionally caused hurt feelings in some of her autobiographical writings, so she has taken to giving family members first look.

After one such review, one sibling told her, "It's fine, except why is it so much about you?"

Well, that's just the way, it works. She who writes the story tells the tale.

Still, it strikes me that there is no better argument for studying history from many vantage points — and even arguing about it, because it proves that our past is a living breathing thing.

We say the truth shall set us free. How about many truths, and many memories?

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today is November 1, which many Christians observe as All Saints' Day. It's a time to honor martyrs and saints, especially those without specific feast days set aside for them. Some churches mark this day by remembering their own local congregants and loved ones who've died over the course of the past year. Christians aren't the only ones to do this, of course. Many religions and cultures have a practice of setting aside a time to remember the deceased. And in fact, there are many rituals that the religious and nonreligious now share, such as releasing balloons, lighting lanterns, scattering flowers or ringing a bell. These have become part of our shared language of remembrance. But all this made me think about memory. How much remembering is enough, and how much is too much and who gets to decide? In other words, whose memories get to be our memories? I was thinking about how many ongoing fights around the world are rooted in disputes about memory, about differences over a sense of place or self that have never been resolved. But if you think about it, so are many of the fights in this country. Sure, they're about economics or resources - who gets what now - but they're also about the past as much as the present. There's a reason we're still arguing over flags and statues from the Civil War. Could I just tell you - I'm sure that's why, as much as I love history, I've never been big on nostalgia. It's just too easy to rest on a reality that never existed to justify a present that shouldn't continue. One of the most popular tourist sites in the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C., is the American History Museum's exhibitions of first ladies gowns. Whenever I go, I'm always amused by the number of mothers who point to the huge ball gowns and ask their daughters, wouldn't you have liked to have lived back then to wear those pretty dresses? I'm always floored by this comment because I always wonder why they assume they would have been the dress wearer and not the dress sewer or cleaner, or even the cotton grower or fabric weaver or dyer, none of whose lives were particularly pretty. And even the big puffy gown wearers had their issues, as we say. It's not for nothing that Abigail Adams exhorted her husband John, when he was participating in the Continental Congress, to remember the ladies, she famously wrote, for all men would be tyrants if they could. And so put all memoirists. It's not a question of being a good person or not, it's how the mind works. Earlier this year when I interviewed the wonderful writer Edwidge Danticat, she talked about how she realized she has unintentionally caused hurt feelings in some of her autobiographical writings, so she's taken to giving family members first look. After one such review, one sibling told her, it's fine, except why is it so much about you? Well, that's just the way it works. She who writes the story tells the tale. Still, it strikes me that there is no better argument for studying history from many vantage points - and even arguing about it - because it proves that our past is a living, breathing thing. We say the truth shall set us free. How about many truths, and many memories? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.