AmericanStudies

One Interesting American Thing per Day

Ben Railton

Ben Railton
Location
Needham, Massachusetts, US
Birthday
August 15
Title
Associate Professor
Company
Fitchburg State University
Bio
One interesting American thing per day, from a professor of American literature, culture, history, and Studies. Check out http://www.americanstudier.org for more!

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AUGUST 25, 2012 11:44AM

August 25-26, 2012: Crowd-Sourcing Bad Memories

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[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I have examined five such dark histories and highlighted a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. This crowd-sourced post is drawn out of the responses of other American Studiers to those posts and this topic—please add your thoughts below!]

Responding to Monday’s post, two fellow American Studiers suggest Benjamin Ray’s Salem Witch Trials “documentary archive and transcription project.”

And Rob Gosselin writes that “When I think of the Salem Witch Trials I think of Giles Corey. An old man crushed to death under a board and pile of stones. His only crime apparently was to defend his wife from a charge of witchcraft. From what I have read he offered no defense at trial. It is not much of an intellectual leap to move forward three hundred years or so to the modern experience of the United States water boarding Muslim prisoners held under military custody. Torture is never acceptable. It is a crime often supported by the desperate and erroneous excuses of people infected with irrational fear.”

Responding to Tuesday’s post, Matt Goguen notes that “Aaron Huey gave a TED talk about photographing poverty at the Pine Ridge Reservation and some of his photos are featured in a recent issue of National Geographic. Along with it is a discussion of the AIM's efforts in the past thirty years.” Matt also nominates the Tuskegee syphilis study as another particularly egregious bad American memory.

Monica Jackson argues that “People seem to think that because the horrible things that happened were so long ago, everyone should have gotten over everything by now. But, as Lisa Ling pointed out in her documentary Our America: Life on the Rez, no one has considered that the reservations were never really rebuilt. Just like when we go to war in another country, our military must stay there to help rebuild the country because of the damage that we've caused. Unfortunately, although we do this for others to make our country look good, we don't do it for ourselves. Therefore, even though Wounded Knee happened so long ago, the aftermath is still very real. There are many Natives who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, the more severe effects of diabetes (gangrene and amputated limbs) and cancer. There are really high numbers of teen suicides each year and it's because a lot of things happen on the reservation that no one ever hears about. There was a magazine called Jane and they once had an article about high profile cases. Two Caucasian girls were kidnapped and there was a huge media frenzy over them. At the exact same time, on one of the reservations, two Native teenage girls were murdered, the family knew who killed them, but the killer only spent 30 days in jail, no media attention was given to them. There is a lot of abuse that happens on the reservation, but the justice system does not work the same at all. It's almost like living in a different country right here in the U.S. The most effective way to bring attention to the Natives is through the media, but it would really be great if Native Americans suddenly had an arts & literature movement (like the Harlem Renaissance) where a lot of writers and artists would suddenly emerge. But, they need teachers to help them with that.”

Emily Hegarty writes, “Last year, I was horrified when white students in a Native American literature course argued that the Wounded Knee Massacre was a justifiable act of war. They specifically argued that the 7th Cavalry was not to blame as they must have been suffering from PTSD after fighting so many Indians. Their arguments were based on their belief that it is always wrong to criticize the U.S. military during a time of war. In their minds, this policy applies equally to all wars throughout history. It was a disturbing class discussion.”

Jeff Renye adds that “Thunderheart, which I first saw with the author of this blog, pairs very nicely with one of the documentary films in the PBS series We Shall Remain. You can view this film, about the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, in its entirety and access its transcript at this site.

One of the important values of work like Ben Railton’s is showing in actuality, from a variety of narrative perspectives and sources, how the American past does find some form of life in the present. To find, recognize, share, and understand these stories with one another carries an implicit hope that to do so will make for better citizens and a better country to call home.

His work continually illustrates that moment in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In addition, we’re asked to consider what T. S. Eliot states in the last part of his poem cycle Four Quartets: “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time. For history is a pattern.”

Another good source to start from for more-recent condition in Pine Ridge and the lives of the Lakota is the photo-essay “Ghosts of Wounded Knee,” Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 2009, Matthew Power and Aaron Huey. Full text with original photographs can be viewed here.”  

And in response to Friday’s post, Jeff highlights “the sampan scene from Apocalypse Now.” Rob Gosselin argues that it’s “edelic and chaotic as Hollywood likes to portray it. I know a lot of men who where there, and none

 

appropriate to mention Apocalypse Now on Howard Zinn Day. That was a movie, in a series of movies, that helped define how people remember The Vietnam War. It was a war with atrocities committed on both sides, but it was not as totally psychedelic and chaotic as Hollywood likes to portray it. I know a lot of men who where there, and none have mentioned anything familiar in Apocalypse Now, The Deerhunter, or Full Metal Jacket. One particular friend, a retired marine, told me that if you want to see Vietnam how he remembers it watch the movie Hamburger Hill. It shows the disorganization, chaos and futility of the war much more accurately than any of the Hollywood blockbusters. Yet when people discuss the war in a historical perspective bombastic popular culture quickly rises to the level of fact. It was a horrible war, and Life magazine had images of soldiers burning villages. And who can forget the photos of children, burned by American napalm running down the street. But as far as I can tell there were no feudal warlords or prison camps where prisoners were forced to play Russian roulette. Hollywood had to add psychotic to the horrific just to make the Vietnam experience more palatable to American audiences convinced that the war was nothing but a series of bizarre drug trips and crazy generals. It wasn't. It was imperialistic war, with all of its horrible consequences. As Americans we never wanted to believe that. The only difference was this time it was televised.” For Jeff and Rob’s further discussion, see this thread.

Next series next week,

Ben

PS. Add your thoughts please!

8/25 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two supremely talented and pioneering 20thcentury icons, composer Leonard Bernstein and tennis great Althea Gibson.

8/26 Memory Day nominee: Lee DeForest, the scientist and inventor without whose contributions the worlds of radio, television, and film would sound very different—if they sounded at all.

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