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Category Archives: legacy

“Time passes and passes. It passes backward and it passes forward and it carries you along, and no one in the whole wide world knows more about time than this:it is carrying you through an element you do not understand into an element you will not remember. Yet, something remembers – it can even be said that something avenges.”

– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street


“We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future – all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people – to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.”

– Junot Diaz

“To designate a hell is not to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.

“No one after a certain age has the right to this kin dof innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.

“There now exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.

“This is not quite the same as asking people to remember a particularly monstrous bout of evil. Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.

“If the goal is having some space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival. To aim at the perpetuation of memories means, inevitably, that one has undertaken the task of continually renewing, of creating, memories – aided by the impress of iconic photographs. People want to be able to visit their memories. Now many victim peoples want a memory museum, a temple that houses a comprehensive, chronologically organized, illustrated narrative of their sufferings…

“But why is there not already, in the nation’s capital, a Museum of the History of Slavery? This is a memory judged too dangerous to social stability ot activate and to create. The Holocaust Memorial Museum and the future Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial are about what didn’t happen in America, so the meory-work doesn’t risk arousing an embittered domestic population against authority. To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery would be to acknowledge that the evil was here. Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there, and from which the United States is exempt. That this country, like every other country, has a tragic past does not sit well with the founding, and still all-powerful, belief in American exceptionalism. The national consensus on American history as a history of progress is a new setting for distressing photographs – one that focuses our attention on wrongs, both here and elsewhere, for which America sees itself as the solution or cure.

“The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories,’ and that is, over the long run, a fiction.

“All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with teh pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings. They commemorate, in no less blunt fashion than postage stamps, Important Historical Moments; indeed, the triumphalist ones become postage stamps.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“…return is what you hold on to after you have been taken from your country, or when you realize that there is no future in the New World, or that death is the only future. Return is the hunger for all the things you once enjoyed or the yearning for all the things you never enjoyed. It bears the impress of everything that has been taken from you. It is the last resort of the defeated. It is the diversion of suicides and dreamers. It is the elsewhere of insurrectionists. It is the yearning of those who can ‘summon filial love for persons and places they have never known.’

“Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on. The past depends less on ‘what happened then’ than on the desires and discontents of the present. Strivings and failures shape the stories we tell. What we recall has as much to do with the terrible things we hope to avoid as with the good life for which we yearn. But when does one decide to stop looking to the past and instead conceive of a new order? When is it time to dream of another country or to embrace other strangers as allies or to make an opening, an overture, where there is none? When is it clear that the old life is over, a new one has begun, and there is no looking back?”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“…what we both accepted was that the experience of slavery had made us an us, that is, it had created the conditions under which we had fashioned an identity. Dispossession was our history.

“The solidarity I felt with other black people depended largely on this history, whereas in Ghana their identity as Ghanaians and as Africans depended on silencing a past in which elites sold commoners and southerners viewed northerners as disposable people and alienable goods. The lines of division between kin and stranger, neighbor and alien, became hard and fast during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. It decided who lived an died, who was sold and who was protected. In Ghana, slavery wasn’t a rallying cry against the crimes of the West or the evils of white men; to the contrary, it shattered any illusions of a unanimity of sentiment in the black world and exposed the fragility and precariousness of the grand collective we that had yet to be actualized.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“In an apocalyptic account of history, the end is inevitable and destruction can be traced to the most innocuous and routine beginnings, like the exchange of salutations and vows of love on the Atlantic coast. The certitude of hindsight gives the demise an inevitable cast. But there were no black clouds casting a shadow on the Portuguese when they arrived, nor were storms brewing on the horizon. The heavens did not weep. All the omens that might have betrayed something terrible about to happen failed to appear or went unnoticed. Who knew the cost of naming the world anew? Who could have imagined the worlds destroyed by the horse and the musket, or the death reaped by luxury goods, or that sugar, coffee, and tobacco would transform three continents? It was not possible to foresee the Portuguese royal insignia scored along the west African coast as far south as Angola or to anticipate the crucifix branded onto the breasts and arms of captives…

“Deciding the matter of cause and effect is, by necessity, belated; causality is a the benefit of retrospection. One apprehends the signs of an inevitable demise only in hindsight. It is like trying to figure out when things began to change in a failed relationship: are the signs visible only after things have ended badly, or were the signs always there and you just failed to heed them? Only in looking back can the course from now to then be traced; or can we say, ‘Ah, this is how it began’; or weigh contingency and necessity, chance and causality; or wonder if the seemingly inexorable character of events was little more than the collective force of circumstance, accident, and caprice.

“The randomness and contingency of history nonetheless produces two classes, winners and losers. Like men at a gaming table, over the course of time the gap between these groups will become bigger and bigger…

“The record of the encounter between Europe and Africa is a litany of stories about events that never happened. Myth is the threshold of history. On the slave route, it is no different.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“The nomadic Chemehuevi navigated wide expanses of this arid terrain with songs. The songs gave the names of places in geographical order, and the place names were descriptive, evocative, so that a person who’d never been to a place might recognize it from the song. Carobeth Laird commented, ‘Nowadays when a song is sung, it takes great leaps from one locality to another, because there is no one who remembers the route in its entirety.’ ‘How does that song go?’ meant ‘What is the route it travels?’

Men inherited songs from their father or grandfather, and the song gave them hunting rights to the terrain it described. The Salt Song describes the route of a flock made up of every sort of land bird in the region, and it ‘travels all night, arriving at Las Vegas about midnight, at Parker towards morning and back home to the place of origin by sunrise. If the night on which it is sung is very short, the Salt Song may be shortened so that it will not outlast the night.’ The Mojave people just to the south had a turtle song that also lasted the length of a night or several nights.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “One-Story House,” A Field Guide to Getting Lost

“One of the principal problems in making human beings face our history is that sudden events get our attention while slow ones do not – even though the cumulative force of, for example, global warming will prove far more dire for the Arctic than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Our minds are better suited to oil spills than climate change, and so are our media and our stories. The crash of the airplanes into the World Trade Center is unforgettable, but the violent destruction of the South Bronx on a far larger scale throughout the 1970s and 1980s is barely remembered and will likely never elicit a memorial. Yet tens of thousands of intentionally set fires – many of them landlord arsons – devastated this community and turned block after block into ruins. There were an average of thirty-three fires a night in the first half of the 1970s; fires had increased dramatically since the early 1960s. In the last year that insurance companies paid out claims for fires, the Bronx lost about thirteen hundred buildings to flames. Then, ‘in the first year without payoffs,’ Marshall Berman reported, ‘it lost twelve. In the second year, it lost three.’ But the fires were never blamed on economic interests.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “The Ruins of Memory”

“The panoramic photographs taken after the 1906 earthquake show that the old city is gone, replaced by jagged, smoldering spire and piles of ruins. The photographs made a century later demonstrate that the ruins are likewise gone, erased more definitively than the earthquake erased the nineteenth-century city. Ruins represent the physical decay of what preceded them, but their removal erases meaning and memory. Ruins are monuments, but while intentional monuments articulate desire for permanence, even immortality, ruins memorialize the fleeting nature of all things and the limited powers of humankind. ‘Decay can be halted, but only briefly, and then it resumes. It is the negative image of history,’ wrote landscape historian JB Jackson. It is the negative image of history and a necessary aspect of it. To erase decay or consciousness of decay, decline, entropy, and ruin is to erase the understanding of the unfolding relation between all things, of darkness to light, of age to youth, of fall to rise. Rise and fall go together; they presume each other.

In another sense, everything is the ruin of what came before. A table is the ruin of a tree, as is the paper you hold in your hands; a carved figure is the ruin of the block from which it emerged, a block whose removal scarred the mountainside from which it was hacked; and anything made of metal requires earth upheaval and ore extraction on a scale of extraordinary disproportion to the resultant product. To imagine the metamorphoses that are life on earth at its grandest scale is to imagine both creation and destruction, and to imagine them together is to see their kinship in the common ground of change, abrupt and gradual, beautiful and disastrous, to see the generative richness of ruins and the ruinous nature of all change. ‘The child is the father to the man,’ declared Wordsworth, but the man is also the ruin of the child, as much as the butterfly is the ruin of the caterpillar. Corpses feed flowers; flowers eat corpses. San Francisco has been ruined again and again, only most spectacularly in 1906, and those ruins have been erased and forgotten and repeated and erased again.

A city – any city, every city – is the eradication, even the ruin, of the landscape from which it rose. In its fall, that original landscape sometimes triumphs. One day, I looked up and saw to the south the undomesticated crest of Bernal Heights, with its coyote and wild blackberries, and to the west the ridgeline of Twin Peaks and with a shudder perceived, still present as a phantom, the steep natural landscape that underlay the city, the flesh beneath the clothes, the landscape that that reappeared amid the miles of ruins and that someday will reassert itself again… A place like San Francisco could be imagined not as one city stretching out since 1846 but dozens of cities laid over each other’s ruins.

To make this city, much of a windswept, fog-shrouded expanse of sand dunes and chaparral-covered hillsides was smoothed over, dunes removed, hilltops flattened, bays and marshes filled in, streams forced underground, endemic species driven into extinction. Even the view of the resultant simplified topography was obscured by buildings everywhere.

Cities are always maintained, for natural processes of decay produce ruins as surely as violence and fire, flood and earthquake do; and only maintenance and replacement postpone the inevitable ruin – the entropy of the built and the return of the organic.

That nothing lasts forever is perhaps our favorite thing to forget. And forgetting is the ruin of memory, its collapse, decay, shattering, and eventually fading away into nothingness.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “The Ruins of Memory,” After the Ruins: 1906 and 2006

“He was after all not an infant, but a man experiencing the chaos of infancy welling up in his conscious mind. As the compassion expanded he saw himself on equal terms with his supposed persecutors, saw his parents, who appeared to be the cause of his suffering, as unhappy children with parents who appeared to be the cause of their suffering: there was no one to blame and everyone to help, and those who appeared to deserve the most blame needed the most help.

He noticed how his tears cooled as they ran down his cheeks. Washed eyes and a tired and empty feeling. Was that what people meant by peaceful? There must be more to it than that, but he didn’t claim to be an expert. He suddenly wanted to see his children, real children, not the ghosts of their ancestors’ childhoods, real children with a reasonable chance of enjoying their lives. He picked up the phone and dialled Mary’s number. He was going to change his mind. After all, that’s what Thomas said it was for.”

– Edward St Aubyn, At Last

“I miss generosity. I miss magnanimity. I miss a loyalty to the future that makes people reasonable about how they conduct their lives in the present. The idea of a possibility, for ourselves and others – who is it who said that civilization is planting a tree that you will never sit under? That’s what we need to do. We have all these great libraries and all these wonderful resources, museums and so on, because other people planted trees that they were not going to sit under. And now we feel no obligation to leave behind similar legacies, at least in the highest scales of public debate.”

– Marilynne Robinson

“Someday, you observed, there would be no McDonald’s. Just because there are lots of them doesn’t mean that the hot apple pies aren’t excellent or that it isn’t a privilege to live in a time when you can buy them for 99 cents. Profusion, replication, popularity wasn’t necessarily devaluating, and that time itself made all things rare.”

– Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

“The past is over. People make believe that it isn’t, and they show you things in museums. But that’s not the past. You won’t find the past in England. Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

– Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

“It’s nice to think that when you’re making your music and you bring it out, someone’s going to pick it up. And who knows when or where? I listen to stuff that’s fifty years old or older than that and bring it into myself. And so you are in a way having communion and fellowship with folks you have yet to meet, who will someday hopefully bring your record home and put it on, and bring it together with the sounds that they hear in their own head. It’s nice to be part of the dismemberment of linear time.”

– Tom Waits, “Gone North: Tom Waits, Upcountry”