Repairing America’s Collective Memory
by Danielle Barnard, 30 November 2017
In September, America took time to remember the tragedy that happened in New York City in 2001. Anyone who was in grade school or older remembers everything about that day, from where we were when we found out the first tower had been hit, to the feelings of disbelief as we watched the second tower crumble before our very eyes. I remember sitting in the cafeteria of my elementary school in Maryland, terrified as parents frantically came to pick up their children after the Pentagon was hit. 9/11 was a turning point in the American narrative. A plot-twist that has reshaped the very fabric of American life. So, every year for the past 16 years, we remember.
What is this “it” that black Americans must get over? My high school self was completely baffled by these statements. My young professional self is still baffled, but with a little more understanding. I now understand that my classmates in high school and I were not remembering the same story. I also understand that my white American brothers and sisters who presently make the comment “Just get over it” can choose not to remember the same story, whereas to me, it is an unforgettable narrative.
What is this narrative? It is the story of countless image-bearers whose lives were cut short by hatred and violence. It is the story of systematic oppression that made the “American dream” nearly impossible to achieve for whole segments of society. It is a story that has shaped the very fabric of American life and continues to impact the lives of millions. Unlike the devastation of September 11, this story is not a just a dark day in history, but a story that continues even now.
Just recently protesters gathered in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, heartbroken as Officer Jason Stockley was acquitted for the murder of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. On August 28, in Claremont, NH an 8-year-old boy of mixed-race was playing outside when a group of white teens began to taunt him, call him racial slurs and throw rocks at him. The teenagers got the child to stand on a picnic table, place the rope of a tire swing around his neck, pushed him off of the table and then ran away leaving him hanging in the yard. This child was found alive, but photos show the bruising and cuts from the rope around his neck. A child.
It is quite normal for an 8-year-old to fear the dark or falling off of a bicycle. A young child in 2017 should never fear a lynching.
The list of black men and women who have been victims of violence continues to grow. I imagine seeing the names scroll across our television screens would elicit a similar solemnity as that seemingly endless list from 9/11. Keith Lamont Scott. Terence Crutcher. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Jordan Davis. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Miriam Carey. Clementa Pinckney. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. Daniel Simmons. The screen still has not stopped scrolling. A constant reminder that this is not something to just “get over.”
White America can no longer afford to choose not to remember this portion of our story. The amnesia is harmful and leads us to continue to walk in hatred and fear, instead of love. The placebo narrative creates a dichotomy where the story told by black America is the one deemed to be false.
“Get over it” is a phrase that belittles an experience. To tell the family of a first responder who died on 9/11 to “just get over it” would be cruel. Likewise, to tell a black American (or any minority in this country) to “get over it” is equal to saying his or her experience is not worth remembering.
All of the experiences that make up the American story are worth remembering because that is the only way we can truly heal. If we desire to move towards healing and reconciliation, then it is time we patch the holes in our collective memory.