I’ve been told that phrase, or something like it, by Trump supporters for months (maybe even over a year). This phrase wasn’t used by them leading up to the 2016 election; rather, it was a message they co-opted over the last election cycle. Whenever one of them would disagree about how disliked Trump is or argue they are the silent majority or how they would win in a landslide in 2020, they would typically end their argument with a simple phrase: “Just wait.”
Wait for what?
I imagine, to them, it was waiting for the bigger picture. The Trump presidency was born out of unlikeliness, so the idea that unlikeliness would be imbedded within every Trump election seemed reasonable, even when it was clear Trump was failing. Much of Trump’s cabinet resigned, his polling continually showed him to be very unliked, and more. So even when faced with evidence that Trump’s presidency wasn’t going so well, these people, who believed that they had overcame the unlikeliest of situations to get Trump elected, grasped for something else: “Just wait.”
The first “just wait” was that Trump would win in a landslide event, not just electorally speaking, but state wise. I saw predictions of Trump winning 48/50 states. That’s laughable. After that one, the next “just wait” was for evidence of widespread fraud. Never happened. Following it, “just wait” until the Supreme Court. SCOTUS denied it. “Just wait” until the electors vote. Nothing. All of the “just waits” failed.
Still, one “just wait” startled me. From the beginning, Trump supporters have been fed disinformation and propaganda about January 6th. Either Mike Pence would overthrow the election, or Congress would, or civil war would begin. I was frightened by this date somewhat because of the particulars (anxiety producing) but mostly because, for most of these supporters, they viewed it as *destiny* that Trump was going to be the greatest president ever, and how could that be if he doesn’t receive a second term? Even though yesterday was terrible and people died, I am thankful that it wasn’t the “just wait” that Trump supporters wanted it to be.
The “just waits” are over. The only thing Trump is destined to be, now, is a failure of a one-term president.
Course Description: How do we remember? How is memory shaped, constructed, and appropriated in public and private spheres? Where does memory form? Where is memory enacted in the public–in memorials, statues, and plaques? These questions, in one way or another, all deal with issues of public memory, a budding, interdisciplinary field that investigates the way memory forms, persuades, and maintains. Public memory doesn’t concern itself with issues of singular memory, meaning memories of a single person and their life. Rather, public memory emphasizes the way people as a collective choose to remember certain things or moments, why the remember them, and how the memory-process takes takes place. Thus, this field studies what we might call sites of public memory, particular places where people visit or utilize in order to remember.
However, memory isn’t the sole subject of this course. We will be investigating public memory from a uniquely rhetorical position. Of course, we will discuss rhetoric more in class but for now we want to know that rhetoric focuses on the art of persuasion, emphasizing how people build knowledge, community, and relationships. Historically, classical rhetoricians, such as Cicero and Aristotle, have used rhetoric in the realm of oratory–specifically thinking about the ways people use language in public speaking and how to persuade an audience. This is still the most common understanding of rhetoric today. However, much of the field has changed, developing into the ways people create meaning not only through speaking but also through writing, art, symbols, and even culture.
In class this semester, we will be asking questions about public memory and rhetoric: How is public memory rhetorical? How does public memory create community and communal knowledge? We will explore these questions by investigating different forms of public memory this semester through the likes of memorials and plaques around Middlebury, issues surrounding the Confederacy, memories of 9/11, and more. The purpose of this course will be to study the way public memory forms, changes, is appropriated, and evolves. And during this semester we will explore public memory through various writing assignments that will ask you to engage in local, regional, and national public memories.
On a side note: The rhetorical nature of public memory often involves issues of race, gender, and marginalized identities. This class will focus on cultural identities with a critical and sensitive lens, emphasizing understanding, empathy, and writing about not only personal viewpoints but the views of others as well. I ask for all students to be respectful of others in this classroom, be open to opposing perspectives, and be willing to challenge your own presumptions about racial topics. While the purpose of this course is not to dictate a single ideology of race, we should be mindful of respectful of all viewpoints in this class. This goes for you and me.
Lastly, this course, like all courses at Middlebury, has certain outcomes that should be achieved by the end of the semester that are specific to our program and to this specific course. These outcomes are goals to work toward success in this classroom and should be conscious guides in thinking and writing in our classroom:
Describe, Define, Explain and Discuss public memory and rhetoric
Be able to analyze discursive and non-discursive public memories
Develop your own ideas and arguments regarding public memories and complete research
Be able to effectively use research in one’s papers and adhere to MLA guidelines
Be able to critically examine one’s own positionality
Other Required Materials:
A pocket folder to contain your writings
A notebook for notes
Classroom Assignments Breakdown:
“How is Memory Rhetorical?” Essay (3 pages) — 15%
Local Public Memory Presentation (10 minutes) — 20%
Cultural Identities Essay (5-7 pages) — 25%
Digital Essay (varies) — 20%
Photo Journal — 15%
Class Participation 5%
“How is Memory Rhetorical?” Essay– Your first project of the semester asks you to focus on the ways memory (communal, individual, public, etc.) can be rhetorical. This short essay will give me a sense of your analytical chops and show me that you are grasping both public memory and rhetoric as pivotal concepts in this course.
Local Public Memories Presentation- In your second project, you will be asked to take a site of public memory around Middlebury (on campus or in town), in Vermont, or in your home community and deliver a presentation that discusses what the sites shows about what the site is attempting to convey to a general public audience. This project asks you to do a type of close, rhetorical reading of the site and analyze any “text,” be it discursive or non-discursive. You will then illustrate how this public memory attempts to create community for the people of Middlebury College or the town. The presentation will be about 10 minutes in length.
Cultural Identities Essay- The longest paper this semester asks you to take a national public memory marked by a cultural identity (be it gender, race, sexuality, etc.) and write a paper that argues about how the performance of that identity affects people. In this specific occasion, you will be emphasizing how the symbolic nature of identity creates communities, anti-communities, and audiences. This paper asks you to be not just think about the rhetoric of public memories but look at the specific identity markers of specific memories.
Digital Essay– Our final assignment this semester focuses on creating something digital. I want to leave this assignment open-ended with only one caveat–I want you to illustrate something “new” about the rhetorical nature of public memory. This means I don’t want you to just apply a lens to a text, but rather, I want you to take an idea or concept and show it in a new light. Or create your own lens. Ultimately, I want you to use your thinking caps to create something fresh, and you do this using a different form of writing. You can create a podcast, screencast, video, song, etc., but I want you to use digital tools to make your final essay. We will talk about what might work best for you in class.
Photo Journal- Throughout the semester, I want you to keep a journal of photographs (hopefully photos that you have taken). These photographs should have something to do with public memory (either being photos of public memories or something similar). I want you to keep a journal of a few photos where you write a few sentences discussing their rhetorical nature. Each entry doesn’t have to be super long, just to the point.
Class Participation– Class discussion is important in this course for two reasons: 1) Writing well is essentially communicating well, so being able to discuss your ideas and thoughts with others potentially could help your writing. Since this course is workshop/discussion based, we need participation to move our conversations along. 2) Talking about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and other identity markers can be hard. So we need people to step up and share their opinions to keep the class moving. Also, doing in-class writing assignments, being on time, and attending class are all vital to your success in here and will comprise your participation grade.
A 4.0 Outstanding A- 3.67
B+ 3.33 B 3.0 Exceeds Expectations
B- 2.67 C+ 2.33
C 2.0 Average C- 1.67
D+ 1.33 D Below Average
Week 1: Introductions, Rhetoric, and Public Memory
2/12 Class Begins Cover Syllabus Ice Breaker What is rhetoric? What is public memory?
3/5 Read: “Materialising Memory: The Public Lives of Roadside Crash Shrines” (PDF)
LOCAL RESEARCH TRIP
3/7: Bring in thesis and research from your home area Read: “Everywhere You Go, It’s There”: Forgetting and Remembering the University of Texas Tower Shootings” Discuss Local Situations and Presentation Order
Week 5: Pmalace-Building
3/12 Discuss Presentation Order Skype visit with April O’Brien Read: Part of her work Discuss creating place via public memory
3/14 Read: “Recirculating Our Racism” (PDF) Watch: Man on Fire LOCAL RESEARCH TRIP
The death of David Buckel, a prominent gay rights attorney in New York City, made waves a couple of weeks ago after he self-immolated at Prospect Park in New York City. His death received major attention for a few reasons: his death occurred in a populated area with heavy foot traffic (making it inherently public) and he had a clearly stated goal in his “suicide” letter, asking people to fight against the destruction of the environment.
His act was covered by all of the major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.
While Buckel’s self-immolation is unique via circumstance, the choice of the flame itself is not that rare to the rest of the world and has even occurred in America a handful of times the past few years.
But these deaths often go unnoticed.
To begin, an uptick in self-immolations has occurred over the past decade. In Tunisia and much of North Africa, self-immolation became an en vogue form of protest in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi infamously self-immolated on a Tunisian street corner to protest the police harassing him and confiscating his wages. Many experts claim Bouazizi’s death ignited the Arab Spring and sparked copycat self-immolations across the region. Similarly, in 2016, a young Iranian refugee self-immolated in Australia’s detention center, Narau, after he failed to seek asylum to Australia, which caused a national uproar in the country. However the nucleus of these self-immolations resides in Tibet, where there have been over 150 self-immolations since 2011 to protest the Chinese government’s rule over Tibet’s autonomy.
If you take all these numbers together, on average, a person has self-immolated as protest every 15 days globally between 2009-2016.
While a few of these self-immolations materialized in America over this past decade, they have not received the same attention as their international brethren.
For instance, in January 2017, a man attempted self-immolation outside the Trump Hotel in Washington in D.C. While he didn’t die, many news outlets failed to emphasize his act as protest. Similarly, an elderly man in Ohio lit himself on fire in Akron to protest then President-elect Trump but did not receive much news coverage outside of local media. Outside of these recent Trump protests, a white preacher, Charles Moore, lit himself on fire in 2014 as a way to protest racism in his hometown of Grand Saline, TX (my hometown), but his death did not garner limited national coverage until a month after the fact because people were quick to label him as “crazy.” (As a means to preserve his memory, I recently produced a documentary, titled Man on Fire, with director Joel Fendelman, that attempts to better understand why he found his fate in the flames and how Grand Saline reacted to his death.)
But do people even know about these self-immolations? It seems we can find coverage about self-immolations in Tibet, Tunisia, and India in major U.S. news publications and understand the reasons behind their deaths, but the discourse surrounding self-immolations in America focuses more on mental health than anything else.
We often don’t differentiate between suicide and suicide as protest in America, which dramatically alters the discourse surrounding these acts. While others regions across the globe see value in giving up one’s life as a means to help others, a form of solidarity, or an act of transcendence, in America, we more likely to dismiss such as acts as “crazy.”
In the research I conducted for my dissertation, Preaching behind the Fiery Pulpit: Rhetoric, Self-Immolation, and Public Memory, and the documentary “Man on Fire,” I found that labeling a self-immolation as an extension of someone being “crazy” often occurs because we as a society believe that one’s life in America is too valuable for any cause or social issue. Though many of us look to the regimes in other countries and see self-immolation as a medium for oppressed peoples to gain a voice, we assume America’s problems cannot be that bad–or could not be perceived as that bad in relation to the rest of the world. That’s why when stories like Buckel’s death garner headlines, the issues at the core of the self-immolation, such as environmental concerns, racism, and Trump’s presidency, never produce a national conversation: We believe none of these problems could ever warrant someone killing themselves.
In light of Buckel’s death, we need to reconsider how we talk about self-immolations in America. Those who choose the flame don’t often have histories of mental illness (which is too easy of an argument and too dismissive of the act anyways). They usually embody a national pain or important cause, and their deaths deserve more than sensationalized headlines and undeveloped commentary about mental illness.
In the case of Moore’s death in Grand Saline, he was quickly referred to as a “Madman or Martyr?” in the news and issues of racism in town never became the focal point in local and regional coverage. Why not reframe this conversation and question what heinous of acts of racism drove this man to light himself on fire? While the headlines surrounding Buckel’s self-immolation have been more empathetic, we still need more of a conversation around environmental destruction and how societal stagnation compelled Buckel to react. The impulse to delegitimize is easy, but if we ever want to come to terms with self-immolation as protest, to better understand what is captivating people to choose the flame around the globe, we have to reframe these conversations to look at self-immolators as products of an environment, not people who are “insane.”
Timothy Dickinson, a scholar based in Washington D.C., once noted on self-immolation: “Fire is the most dreaded of all forms of death…The sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority….It’s not that [the self-immolator] is trying to tell me something, but that he’s commanding me.”
Instead of moving back to commonplace arguments against those who self-immolate, let’s allow their symbolic deaths to command us–to listen and reflect on the pain endured literally and figuratively–so that these deaths receive the attention they brutally deserve.
I taught my first non-composition course this semester: “Race, Rhetoric, and Protest.” The course went really well (though I definitely would rework some of the sequencing in the first few weeks ofclass). Since I always want to have my documents to be accessible for others working on similar courses and ideas, I decided to share it below. Would love to hear any thoughts or suggestions.
I started my 7th grade year at Alba-Golden, a school I attended for all of my primary education years. However, entering my grade year, I became fascinated with sports, specifically football. I was already 5’9 and the size of a man (an odd experience for someone that age), and as I start playing for the 7th grade team in Alba something became painfully obvious: we were not going to be good. Alba had never had much success in football, so my family and I decided to find a better school to fit my needs.
I remember one day at the beginning of the school year, my (now former) stepfather came up to me with a question: “I think there are three different nearby schools that would be better at football: Emory, Grand Saline, or Lindale. Where would you like to attend?” That was such a hard question for a boy my age, deciding not only where to play football, but where to attend school, have friends, create a life. A friend of mine at Alba had recently transferred to Emory, which appealed to me because I would have one friend there already, and Lindale was a bigger school than all of the rest and might provide me more opportunities. While these two options enticed me, there was something about Grand Saline that lingered. I had heard stories of football glory in Grand Saline, knowing about their recent deep runs into the playoffs, so it really became an easy choice: “Grand Saline,” I told him. “I want to go to school in Grand Saline.”
I remember having a dream the day before I started school there. Though the town was home to only 3,000 people (not much bigger than Alba), I dreamed of massive Friday night lights in front of thousands of fans and being thrust into glory. The football imaginary captivated my subconscious. In my dreams, Grand Saline became a symbol of hope, a new light, the next adventure in my short life.
And I loved my hometown (yes, I claim it, though I was only there 6 years) and my upbringing there. Many of my best friends to this day are kids I met there. There was something comforting about living in a town where the front door is always unlocked and where I knew most of the townsfolk. I may have never achieved the football acclaim that I desired, but moving to Grand Saline was the right choice for other reasons, primarily a better education.
I say all this with a caveat, of course. My relationship with the town has changed greatly, as I have written about here and here. Most of this change comes down to the dissertation I just completed, where I extensively wrote on the history of Grand Saline, the self-immolation of Charles Moore, and legends of racism in town.
However, this blog post is not going to be me expressing my opinions on the town: rather, this is me coming from a different angle, from a space of reconciliation. I want to talk about how I have gotten to this point.
Over the past two and a half years, I have taken on two major projects in my life: 1) a 310 page dissertation that deals with the history and folklore of racism in Grand Saline and investigates the reasons why an elderly white minister, Charles Moore, self-immolated in town and 2) a documentary on this same subject that focuses more on interviews with town residents (and people from nearby communities). When I took up these two projects, I was met with immediate resistance. Many people felt I was trying to defame the town. I received backlash via emails, Facebook messages, and comments, which truly, honestly hurt. For awhile, these words overwhelmed me and hardened my spirit.
But I received other comments too, comments that took me much longer to process. I have had so many people come out of the woodwork, people from all across Texas and people who have moved from the Grand Saline area to other parts of America who have heard of my work or who have read my blogs and wanted to share their experiences with me. Looking back on it, almost every time I received public flak there would always be at least one stranger willing to reach out to me to share empathy. They shared the stories their ancestors told them about racism in Grand Saline, delved into their understanding of the folklore, and provided personal testimonies of racism that moved me to tears. I don’t think I valued these stories enough over the last few years but now as I reflect with a completed dissertation and film on the cusp of being finished, I realized how valuable those were in my reconciliation process: each of them, in one way or another, let me know that my experiences were not singular. There was a larger counterstory to Grand Saline being cultivated through these conversations that provided me a sense of hope.
Through writing the history of Grand Saline, interviewing Charles Moore’s family and friends, discussing racism with people in town and from nearby towns, and having people reach out to me, I have found some resolve in understanding my past mistakes and acknowledging how I, and others, can change the legacy of Grand Saline: through storytelling. Writing about this subject and having difficult, sometimes awkward conversations with people from town, provided me a voice, gave me agency. The conversations I was having with these people and with myself was a dialectic process, one where I truly believe the journey is more important than the product.
I have interviewed over 75 people for both the film and dissertation and have had so many more conversations with people on Facebook and through messaging. When I reflect on each one of these conversations, I see glimmer of hope. I see hope in people wanting to tell me about how their family has abandoned them because they have mixed children; I see hope in someone calling me a liar; I see hope in the individual who tells me my story is not too different from their’s. I see hope in that we had these conversations, and that I challenged them as much as they challenged me. There is hope in these stories be shared.
But we have to keep sharing them.
I hope others in Grand Saline will pick up the pieces of these conversations and have real, tough talks with one another (however trite that sentence might seem). It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. It will not change you instantly, but it has the capability for systemic refinement. I think my own narrative of the past two and half years can be a testament to that.
I look forward to the release of the film and the eventual (fingers crossed) release of my book as well because maybe, just maybe, these narratives can be as transformative for others as they have been for me.
“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” —Maya Angelou
Growing up in the small town of Grand Saline, TX, I always felt different, especially since I could never get accustomed to the country culture. As a kid, I did not like usual activities like hunting and fishing. Driving big trucks and riding four wheelers were not on the list of hobbies I enjoyed. Actually, I remember being ready for bigger cities when it was close to my high school graduation. I had been preparing for college for most of my life, and I was ready to take on the next chapter of my life. But I never imagined having a longing for home, a feeling of safety in the streets of my adolescence, the freedom from responsibilities, the captivating moments of football on Friday nights, that came when leaving for college. One of the most interesting aspects of leaving your hometown, besides being on your own for the first time in your life, is the way that your perception of “home” changes, especially for me in rural East Texas. With each passing year away from home, I felt more connected to my hometown space, even though I felt “different” being raised there.
But all of that changed, recently.
On June 23, 2014, Rev. Charles Moore self-immolated in my hometown of Grand Saline, TX to protest racism. That truth is undeniable and affected me personally and emotionally, and arguably altered my life. I remember hearing racist stories as a kid in Grand Saline and often brushed them off. I had a strong personality, and even when people called me “Beaner” or “Wetback” I could go along with the joke and not feel uncomfortable in my own skin. When a coach made a racist remark toward an opposing team’s black player, I never thought of his intentions as cruel. When my high school football team chanted, “We’re alright, cuz we’re all white!” in front of other citizens in town, I never thought of the implications of those words. This makes me unique, in some ways, because many other people have to live with those pains on a constant basis, but I was able to play them off, until I really started racism.
I became outspoken on issues of race and racism whenever I first realized that race was rhetorical, that it was a way to position people and communities, a marker of identity, a site of pain, and was, believe it or not, epistemological. When I first read scholarship on race and rhetoric, in 2012 and 2013, I knew I found a niche in my studies, something that uniquely spoke to me in ways that no other rhetorical scholarship ever has. It led to an overwhelming response of memory, taking me back to stories and words stated in my hometown. Ultimately, this drove me to openly and publicly critiquing the culture in which I was raised, not to defame people or label the town of Grand Saline as “racist,” but, rather, to help change the town that I deeply care about.
The town’s problem, to me, is that it has oddly wrapped itself in racist folklore. This folklore ranges from stories describing lynchings that took place at the Poletown Bridge to tales that the KKK once met in the woods at Clark’s Ferry. Some people in town even believe the stories are not just tall-tales but are truths still being played out in Grand Saline today. These stories were told to me soon when I moved into town, and after completing interviews with over 50 people in Grand Saline and around the area, I can state firmly that these are stories that mostly everyone knows. Actually, I have not met a single Grand Saline resident who could not name at least one racist folklore about the town.
That fact is what makes Grand Saline exceptional: not that the town has some actual recorded history of racial violence (the history is pretty similar to most other rural towns across the South) but that they have a history of this folklore, much of which seems untrue. Yet, and this is a major point, this folklore is what some in town and many in surrounding towns believe is true. It is what makes the perception of racism in Grand Saline one of the most well-known stories in all of East Texas. Some have even declared the story of racism in Grand Saline parallels that of Vidor (a town riddled with racist events). A lawyer discussing a discriminatory lawsuit against Grand Saline in the 1980s even stated that the KKK doesn’t have to be out in the open there because the KKK’s values are engrained in the town’s culture. Unfortunately, the town’s circulation of the stories keeps the folklore intact and marks the town as racist to outsiders. While some of these stories are told by people outside of town, the fact students who have just graduated from high school there can recite this folklore is telling (I have interviewed a few of them).
This past weekend I went to town to work on my film project regarding Charles Moore and Grand Saline. I received the most hate I have had to date from town members (I will not mention all of this here). Some claim I want to defame the town; others say my film is about #BlackLivesMatter (a group I support and will defend but which has nothing to do with the film), but the outcry was real, and sudden, and…hurt me. Since my views on race and racism changed drastically in grad school, I have had many debates with friends on social media. But at the end of the day, I still felt like these people love me and understand me (most still do). However, as I went to bed on Friday night after hearing from multiple people what the town thinks about am me (some comments I had received from some people I know, some from others I don’t), I could not help but think I no longer had that “home” that Maya Angelou describes in the epigraph above. I no longer feel safe in Grand Saline (not that someone would actually harm me) because I get those stares, those stares that suggest I am not the same as the people. I am an outsider. I am different. I do not represent them.
As much as I have wanted to help Grand Saline, my relationship to it has changed drastically. Though I remember all the fond moments of my adolescence and cherish them, they are tainted by my present situation.
I hope when this film comes out and I publish my monograph that maybe some people will open up to the work I have done over the last few years. I know some people will for sure, but I also know that there are many who peg me as a “race-baiter” and will not take to anything I do in a positive light. I have become okay with that, now. But really I just want people to know that I only have the best intentions, whether they agree with them or not. This might fall on deaf ears, but it needed to be said.
Grand Saline, you may not be my safe home anymore, but I promise not to abandon you when the tides get choppy.
When Charles Moore killed himself on that fateful day, he died believing someone would tell his story. He died wanting to make change (though we might disagree with his perception of truth, he still understood part of the culture of Grand Saline). I have told people ever since that if I ever had one story to tell in my life, it was this. I feel cosmically connected to Moore and his act. And I can only hope that the story he began can be completed with me.
Sometimes when I need some new air in writing my dissertation, I think about ways of reframing my project, not necessarily in changing chapters but in seeing it in different terms. This morning I was finishing up some grading and am about to talk to my adviser this afternoon about two chapters I have sent out (fingers crossed). Anyways, I have been away from writing my dissertation for about a week and a half now (I did the bus tour and worked on grading and conference papers) and really don’t feel the energy to start taking in comments he is about to give back to me.
To help alleviate this mental push-back, I jumped on Photoshop and attempted to compose my dissertation into one single image with text. This was just on a whim, but I was surprised in how much it helped.
This image and design is very basic, but I realized in putting all this work together that every aspect of my dissertation, the self-immolation, the exploration of myself, and the public debates in town all are attempts to form reconciliation in one way or another. I had known this implicitly, and was already thinking about including this in my conclusion in some capacity, but getting this out in a visual form has already brought some fresh air to my project.
On the final full day of the bus tour, we spent our time going around Memphis and visiting important historical sites. The rain was coming down heavy this morning as we hopped on the bus and headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Friends had told me how unnerving this site was for them, and I think was intensified by the rain following us this morning. We walked past the famous Lorraine Motel sign, with its pristine restoration, and in front of the motel on our way to the lobby. There, roughly twenty feet away, was the balcony I have seen memorialized in images, movies, and textbooks my entire life: the place where MLK was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. While everyone was running to get in from the rain, I stood for a moment, remembering the images I have seen in black and white my entire life. I don’t think I was truly prepared to take in everything that followed.
Inside, we made our way through the museum quickly because we only had 2.5 hours before we had to meet for lunch, but I immediately understood how visitors could spend hours, even an entire day, going through the exhibit. I will touch on a couple of these exhibits here before getting to my main point of intrigue. First, the Rosa Parks and sit-in sections of the museum stood out for their liveliness. Both had replicas of what it would be like on a bus during the boycotts and to sit at a lunch counter if you were protesting civil rights. This forced me to see the experience for what it was: a frightening, oppressing moment in American history. While textbooks often glance over these event quickly, the museum forces participants to see the reality of the pain, hear the slurs, and witness the hatred firsthand. These first two exhibits stood out for their molding of reality.
But I knew I had to move quickly through the first part of the museum to get to one of more intriguing, yet also icky feeling, parts of the tour: the construction and maintenance of the place where MLK died and where the sniper stood to shoot him. Towards the end of the first building of the museum, participants get to stand next to the room where MLK last stayed before getting shot. The curators reconstructed the room to represent what it looked like on the night MLK died. While I am sure the curators contend they do this to persevere history and help people see what it truly looked like on the fateful day, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. I felt as if we were staring into the intimacy of a terrible event and could not explain why people would want to see this image. But this feeling was expanded when in the second building you are able to walk to the space where the sniper stood when he took out MLK. The museum openly touts this space and even allows visitors to go to a window similar right next to the actual window (that they keep under protective glass) to see what the sniper would have seen. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that places choose to glorify sites like this. But it made me wonder if this was due to popular demand or if they museum knew what people really wanted to see.
After we finished with the museum we ate lunch on site and got back on the bus. We had two more events to accomplish: 1) visit with the sanitation protesters who helped take back their wages and civil rights in the city and 2) do a driving tour of the city. We met with three sanitation workers who took part in the famous “I am a man” strike in the late-1960s. The strikers explained the motives for taking part in the protest, the harsh conditions they worked in, and how they set the stage for better equality in the city and nation-wide as well. One of the men even stated that Obama told him that he wasn’t sure if he would be president today if it was not for the work they completed in the city. Overall, these three men represent how change can take place on the small scale, without national figures being involved directly. They brought the attention to themselves which garnered more publicity and pressure on the city to give them decent wages and benefits.
Lastly, we meet with Elaine Turner to end our day of activities, and she drove us around the city to visit important historical places like the First Baptist Church on Bealle Street, Slave Haven, and other sites. The place that stood out the most was the Mason Temple, where MLK gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. We walked into the temple and saw an image similar to the balcony of the Lorraine motel: a place I have seen in videos and images but have never thought about in reality. I was able to walk around and actually stand where MLK proclaimed the truth. I kept thinking about how fateful that night must have seemed to many at the time, MLK saying he had seen the mountaintop the night before he was murdered, and I imagined being in the audience cheering on with the thousands of others who were glad to see the civil rights hero among them. It was such a surreal moment, much like the Lorraine Motel, and I don’t think I will ever forget how awe-struck I was at the temple.
Our final full day on the tour could be defined by its harrowing nature because compared to other sites we had visited on the tour, the MLK history was the stuff we need early in our education. I remember even performing the “I Have a Dream” speech in third grade for a play. Thus, when we saw the MLK history in the material realms of Memphis hit a different nerve. I am actually glad that this day in Memphis was our final full day because I am not sure if I could emotionally handle much more days like that day. And that icky state has stayed with me, now two days removed.
Day four and five of the trip were long, and I spent these nights trying to have fun and resting rather than blogging my trip. Really what I have learned is blogging every single day of a trip is a tough task, and I couldn’t live up to the task. My plan, as of right now, is to blog day four of my adventure tonight (the night my trip ended) and do my blog for the fifth day and today’s adventures tomorrow. Sorry for the late blogs for those following, but I think both of these days will be more interesting with more time to reflect.
On the morning of March 9th, we awoke from Indianola and began our journey out of the Delta. Our first stop on this trip north was at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. In our class, we had learned about the riot that took place with James Meredith on the campus, briefly, and were going to take a tour of the campus before meeting with Charles W. Eagles, the “foremost” expert on James Meredith and the Ole Miss campus, and also student leaders on the campus who took charge in taking down the state flag (a version of the Confederate Flag). Arriving on the campus in the late morning, I was surprised by its beauty. The grove, the trees, the campus all painted pictures of the gallant South, the stories that cover our memories of the South and what it represents.
But checking underneath the surface of this superficial beauty changed my opinion of the campus quickly.
Walking around the first campus of the building I found some very disturbing wall art, art that should have been removed for its racial insensitivity a long time ago. The pictures here demonstrate Native Americans dancing like tropes and black people appearing in an unusual ways as well. This was literally the first thing I saw when looking around the campus and changed how I saw everything moving forward. Next we walked around the circle where the riots took place on campus, and I tried envisioning the hostility of the area. Maybe it was just like the Trump rally that just took place in Chicago. I close my eyes and try to picture white people screaming and yelling hatred at Meredith and officials guarding him. But I have never seen this open hatred before, and it is hard to imagine.
At the front of this circle were two Confederate shrines: 1) a Confederate statue placed by the county in the late-1800s, which calls for recondition of all the soldiers who died for the South. 2) a Confederate stain glass window still portrayed its beauty for all those entering one of the oldest buildings on campus on the circle. I was surprised both of these artifacts still stood in light of the conversations of the flag on campus and the removal of other Confederate memorabilia across the United States. But both of them stood out as stark reminders of the “heritage” argument that still calls for love of the Confederacy in the South.
With these public memories, the last object that stood out on campus was the monument to James Meredith, near the administration building. The Meredith statue is an erect, life-size version of Meredith walking towards the front of the school with quotes from Meredith and others about his inspiration. The statue is an important reminder of the history of the school, but I found it interesting how the school misconstrued Meredith’s words for their own gain. (I’m saving some of this for an article I am writing so I do not want to add much more detail here, but there is SO much analysis that can be done with the Meredith statue). After our tour of campus, we met with Eagles and the ladies who helped take down the flag, had lunch with them, and left the campus.
We took off for Memphis after leaving Oxford and first stopped at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center before turning in for dinner and the hotel for the evening. Here we had more of a learning exercise rather than a historical one and talked about team-building, various forms of power, and the different parts of justice work that convene to create change. The two hour session allowed us to bounce ideas of advocacy, agitation, and other parts of justice work together and consider what our passions are as individuals and the power we have when we work together. The Mid-South Center does terrific work for the people of Memphis and was a great change of pace for us during the middle of our trip.
Day Four ended on a different note, one that allowed me to see the ways I should reconsider power and collaboration, but the time spent on the Ole Miss campus reinvigorated my interests in public memory and sparked ideas for future articles that I hope to begin putting together over the next few weeks. While I loved the history and sites we visited in Jackson and the Delta, it was the campus that really stood out as showcasing how gatekeepers construct public memories for individuals. I think this experience will shape my research for years to come.