December 2, 2011


Provost: Making memories poses monumental challenges

Provost Earl Lewis opened a conversation on race and community from the point of view of memory and memorialization. Lewis, who also serves as Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies, delivered the Dialogue on Race on Nov. 29 at the conclusion of Unity Month.

Building on the themes of the previous year's speech, Lewis said he came up with the title, "The Politics of Memory," "as a way to begin to figure out how we own the space that we are a part of."

He took into consideration "the notion that this community is not one community, but many intersecting communities.

"Ask yourself: What do you remember? And why do you remember what you do?"

In Virginia where Lewis grew up, there were the monuments that were created to memorialize certain aspects of history and state-mandated study of and visits to them.

"You begin to realize one of the challenges of memory-making, particularly when institutions and states become involved in memory-making, is that they are actually connected to the politics of their time, that no one controls the narrative that has been created. And this becomes one of the challenges we all face as we begin to try to really construct the boundaries of memory."

He noted that a statue in a public space might be part of a backdrop, not triggering any memory at all but blending into the landscape that was around you.

"If we created a memorial on campus, how do we keep it active so that it does not become historical, almost instantly?" he asked.

During the Q&A portion, Co-chair of the President's Commission on Race and Ethnicity James Scott expressed his support for a slavery memorial on campus, saying it "allows us not only to remember [the contributions of the slaves who were entwined with Emory's early institutional history] but also to heal."

The other pieces to the politics of memory, Lewis pointed out, are that once a memorial is created, who owns it? Who owns its story? And, "How do you make the connection between a story in one place to stories in other places?"

Citing another challenge, he said, "In today's world of digital reproduction of images, who owns the control of the images and their associated narratives? Your image is no longer your image, once you make it available in any digital format, even if you think you've copyrighted it. So that challenge about how we actually memorialize is different than in a previous generation.

"Memory-making in the digital age is something that I think should prompt deep reflection on our part, especially when we are talking about issues of race and equity.

"If we're going to free ourselves, how do we create something that allows for an ongoing level of learning and engagement?"

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