Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Short Commentary on Selective Memory in the Pursuit of Empire

For background on the following, join in the conversation on my friend's blog about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which replaces the epithet "nigger" with "slave". Please note that when I critique empire, I am not critiquing a singular party or movement, but rather the entire American project that rests on the lingering idea of Manifest Destiny. The following is a slightly elongated revision of the comment I left in response to the above post:

Empires thrive on the rewriting of history, and in its short history the United States has shown itself to be adept at this exercise. The problem with the word nigger is not that it’s an ugly spot in our history we don’t want to look at. The problem is that it is a reminder that a previous injustice was in large measure remedied (and that only a generation ago), and thus there is power in the populace to continue effecting change within the structures of empire. Such reminders are dangerous in the extreme and to be avoided at all cost.

From the days that slavery was abolished, the word nigger was used to keep ideological chains on so many black Americans who either transitioned to the semi-slavery of sharecropping or migrated to the cities of the North. Physical violence was paired with these verbal chains in order to communicate one message: “You may have been freed from slavery, but don’t think that EVERYTHING is going to change. White people are still in charge.”

The battle over vocabulary is a battle over imagination. If a country where the word nigger could not be used with impunity was imagined and then realized, why not imagine a country where Latino students can critically examine history from a minority perspective without being accused of sedition?

Such imagination cannot be given room to grow, so the solution is to get rid of words and stories that serve as touchstones of communal memory, which in turn is the foundation for communal transformation. There are two main options to be rid of such words and stories. The first option is to co-opt them. Think of how Martin Luther King Day fixes in time the nation's victory over its own weakness of racism, rather than propagating Dr. King's radical critique of the military-industrial complex and economic inequality.

The second option is simply to delete such troublesome words and stories. Czech author Milan Kundera illustrates this well in a passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.

It is this latter option which the well-intentioned professor and editor of the newest censored version of Twain's novel unwittingly chooses with his attempts to make the work more accessible to young readers.

Goodbye, “nigger” – you and all the power (good or bad) in your utterance belong to the past, not the future.

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