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Collective memory is a dynamic topic that can be discussed through a number of disciplines. In my paper I will attempt to dissect this subject of collective memory as clear and consisely as possible through the exploration of narratives, novels, music, poetry and history.
Collective memory is defined as the breadth of procedural knowledge the community acquires through experience when interacting with each other and the world. Research in collective memory is a relatively new area capturing the interest of scholars in social psychology, memory, sociology, and anthropology -- that our own memories are not entirely personal. The core idea is that collective attitudes and behaviors are created and shared through common experiences and communication among a group of people. Sometimes we are confronted with memory criticism.
What is meant by memory criticism is simply close readings that people do, people coming from a number of different disciplines, when we look at sites of remembrance. This could be texts, movies, monuments, ceremonies, rituals, cemeteries, anything which marks memory. What is meant by “we”, is a little more complicated. We all come from different intellectual traditions, we use different analytical tools, maybe we should know what we are doing and why, when we critically approach how the past is dealt with. So there is that agenda. But the more I think about it, the more I really want to speak about the collective “we”, occasionally, or often, attending to the past, or to remembrance.
In an ad in Harpers magazine, for Zeiss binoculars (that's a German company), their quality was attested to by the fact that these binoculars were regularly used by the border guards at the Wall in Berlin and look at how successfully they caught so many people. Now, it is very difficult to define what got broken here. But it's a similar idea, I think, to what is behind people's opposition to Disney doing exhibits about slavery in theme parks. A place where dreams come true, has the audacity to display Pirates of the Carribean. It represents an important but nasty and wicked era in history, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Solutions are tried in various types of mixtures of forgiving and forgetting and remembering and recording and just closing chapters. Disney attempted to be politically correct by excluding the black presence in this exhibit. Which I feel is a mockery and misrepresentation of history. We need sacred memory--that somehow it's very important that we have it. So the common lay person can see this insult committed by Disney. One needs to acknowledge that for some people, memory is sacred and they will kill in the name of memory and they will do all kinds of things. Whereas for other people, it holds almost no importance. So the argument is simply to recognize that memory will matter differently to different people, but not to ignore the fact that it can have a lot of power, motivating action. Culturally narratives help to organize a set of differing historical experiences and render those experiences more broadly noticed. That is, the narrative itself becomes a vehicle for exchanging ideas, feelings and attitudes about differing historical experiences across and within existing generations. Among the distinguishing features of collective or cultural memory are its construction by a national or social group, its social quality, its indirect and sometimes contradictory to official histories, and its interest in appropriating the past into a contemporary dynamic of power, identity formation or determination of cultural norms. Its documents can be as diverse as acts of commemoration and monuments, memoirs, novels and films, works of art, jokes, children's textbooks, written or filmed testimony relating to a particular cultural event or era. In this paper I will explore cultural memory as it informs narratives, novels, and poetry.
For example, Equiano’s Interesting Narrative’s, Thought and Sentiments of the Evils of Slavery by Ottobah Cugoano, and the film Amistad are works that help catalyzed the abolition of slavery. Equiano (Guatavas Vassa) and Ottobah Cugoano (John Stewart) were ex-slaves who gained their freedom and were educated enough to articulate their collective memory of the middle passage and evils of slavery. Cugoano and Equiano were among the ranks and files of the British anti-slavery movement. Their contributions were in terms propaganda as well as the moral arguements against the slave trade and the enslavement of man. These books published in 1787 and 1789 complemented each other and arrived on the English scene at the same time of the formation of the British Anti-Slavery Society. And as the campaign for abolition intensifying within the British Parliament and having influence on British public opinion. These men assisted William Wilberforce, a wealthy politician and chief parliamentary spokesman for the abolitionist. With Cugoano and Equiano’s narratives and testimonies Wilberforce started a series of parliamentary inquiries that brought out the horrors of the middle passage. After years of debate, the Commons decided to end the British slave trade on March 1,1808.
Joseph Cinque’s story is about the first revolt recorded that he lead in 1839 aboard the Spanish vessel the L’ Amistad. Most of the slaves were bound for the Cuban port of Guanaja from Havana. When the vessel approached the United States it was impounded and the slaves were kept in custody. But John Quincy Adams, prominent lawyer and statesman, took up thier case and by 1841 the United States Supreme court was able to rule that the Africans had been illegally imported to Cuba so the Spanish government could not claim them.. This decision eventually sparked the United States Civil war and the demise of slavery in the United States.
Here are a few additional examples of personal collective memory through narratives.
LAST WEEK, I recounted some aspects of freed Americans in America during the period from 1619 to 1665. Up to now, all emphasis has been on the pain and suffering of Africans, both during the transportation and the ensuing brutality of slavery in the Colonies. This is proper and must be recorded.
The subject of slavery generates a lot of interest and controversy; obviously, the subject of slavery is now directly tied to demands for civil rights. I point this out because I lived a large part of my life prior to the Rights Movement of the Sixties. in Chicago, where I attended school, the subject of slavery was taught in both elementary and high school; in addition to classroom studies, there were Negro History Clubs that provided more information. Looking back, I can see where the real pain and indignity of slavery was glossed over. There was more emphasis on achievements after slavery and contributions we made in the North.
Though I left my birthplace, Beaumont, Texas, at an early age; I did visit every summer until I became a teen-ager. I mention this because I was fortunate enough to know both of my grandmothers who were only two generations away from slavery. Yet, they never discussed slavery with me or in my presence. Perhaps they thought I was too young for this kind of conversation; they did talk about the Klu Klux Klan and mean-spirited and cheap employers. They also talked about harsh vagrancy laws imposed on black citizens.All of the women worked as domestics and the men worked in the shipyards or the refineries. Perhaps these pre-WWII citizens had already put slavery behind them and were looking to the future.
But slavery did exist as it has always from the beginning of civilization. Africa was no exception, where slavery existed long before the Europeans became involved in the 15th century. There was a difference in the African slave trade; all of the slaves were taken from the West coast of Africa and transported thounsands of miles to North and South American colonies to provide cheap labor for plantation owners, for the rest of their lives. In the beginning, Africans were first taken to Spain and later to South America and the Carribbean. Eventually, many of these slaves were traded to the American colonies. America began its slave trade with Europeans, who signed on as indentured servants, to be released after a period of servitude. Not applicable to Africans. There is no instance on record of a white slave, but All Africans eventually became slaves for life.
Another interesting narrative:
'First Leg-Voyage to Africa,' the passage reads:
'A typical slave ship leaving New England for Africa in the 18th century carried a cargo mainly of rum and small amounts of tobacco, muskets, soap, flour, and other items. A slaver out of Liverpool generally carried textiles, metalware, firearms and gunpowder, wool and cotton cloth, fine linens of all colors and patterns, knives, beads, jewelry, brandy, rum, and other goods.
The destination for both vessels was typically the Guinea slave coast of West Africa, between the Senegal and Congo Rivers. Here regions called Loango, Gumbin, the Gold Coast, Goree, Whydah, Calibar, Bonny, and Dahomey provided slave labor to the rest of the world for the nearly four hundred years of the Atlantic slave trade.
Once in West Africa, slaves could be obtained in two ways. The Europeans built forts, also called slave factories, along the coast early in the trade. Here, a factor, who was a representative of a particular country or company, would negotiate with the local African kings and slave traders To supply slaves at a n agreed upon price.
The above narrative validifies the stanza in Lorna Goodison’s For Rosa Parks; “But the people had walked before in yoked formations down to Calabar, into the belly of close-ribbed whales, sealed for seasons.” Testimony of William James, Sea Captain:
The Black Traders of Bonny and Calabar, who are very expert at reckoning and talking the difference languages of their own country and those of the Europeans; come down about once a Fortnight with slaves; Thursday or Friday is generally their trading day. Twenty or Thirty canoes, sometimes more and sometimes less, come down at a time. In each canoe may be twenty or thirty slaves. The arms of some of them are tied behind their backs with twigs, canes, grass rope, or other ligments of the country; and if they happen to be stronger than common, they are pinioned above the knee also. In this situation they are thrown into the bottom of the canoe, where they lie in great pain, and often covered with water. On their landing, they are taken to the Traders Houses, where they are oiled, fed, and made up for sale.'From these reports Africans caught up in being sold or traded; began their ordeal even before entering the death ships.
African chiefs and traders have never been brought to task, by African slaves and their descendants. African slaves became slaves in Africa, and thus the ordeal began.
On one hand, however, such shared notions are inherently selective and, consequently, inherently exclusionary of actual events, ideas, and memories of sets of persons who do not easily fit the alleged mainstream narrative of "who we were." Minorities and the poor have, historically, been rendered invisible by many familiar narratives of the past. In this sense, collective memory also forms certain ideas that are beneficial to a particular group of people are naturalized as the ways things ought to be (and have always been).
This particular piece of collective memory is evidence of the misconception of the African slave trader’s role in the slave trade. Although there was great African slave trading dynasties. Chattel slavery was not practiced among African societies. Slavery in African communities was more like indentured servitude. They were considered part of the family. In Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, Ikemefuna, a servant of Umuofia called Okonkwo, a village representative, father. In fact they grew fond of each other, more so than their natural family. Additionally African rulers did attempt to stop trade with the Europeans such as Queen Nzinga Mbande known as the “unconquerable”of the Matamba Congo region. She fought off the Spanish from 1620 to approximately the 1660's.
In 1938 James completed the manuscript of his most im
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