What do we tell our children?
It’s one of many questions being asked this summer in light of the recent event in Aurora, CO, where a dozen were murdered and 58 wounded during the theater tragedy which took place at midnight this past Friday.
And it’s a familiar question, one I remember—with little ease—almost eleven years ago, when our country was as similarly wounded and roused as we are now.
The potency of this moment in each of our lives is something I can’t ignore. No longer is this a question addressing the eight-year-old shadow of myself from 2001, as much as it is one I’ve begun to ask myself.
How do we carry this? What can I do?
Without a doubt, I am not alone. Take a walk down the street and look closely: Many have dressed themselves in the burdens of pain caused by this tragedy. All compelled to create something in response, to take some sort of action—be it, in this case, the candlelight vigil, the countless crosses erected into the ground and decorated by floral arrangements, the memorial t-shirt designed to raise money for the grieving families of each victim.
I suppose it is, to some degree, it’s our 21st century style of memorial making. It is our process toward confronting what we tell our children, just as much as it is a way to tackle what we will leave our children with in tragedy’s wake.
Erika Doss, the author of Memorial Mania, puts it eloquently:
“Today’s growing numbers of memorials represent heightened anxieties about who and what should be remembered in America…shaped by the affective conditions of public life in America today: by the fevered pitch of public feelings such as grief, gratitude, fear, shame, and anger.”
This term, “memorial mania,” is defined by Doss as “an obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts.”
It’s not a new theory as much as it is an ancient one.
Memorials can be broken down into two categories: “Spontaneous Memorials,” which sprout as an initial reaction to unanticipated events and/or violent loss of life, and “Traditional Memorials,” which often illuminate a time of war, the role of an individual in society, or a celebration of progress.
Certainly, I’d be remiss not to mention the difficulty that does come with our obsession. From the many desecrations of Christopher Columbus’s memorial in this country and of leaders in other nations during times of war to the even more recent arguing over the proposed design of the Eisenhower memorial by Frank Gehry, memorials (specifically traditional) are a serious endeavor.
They are the artifacts of our history-making, as well as the revisions. They are the evidence and oftentimes opinion of our past, present, and future. And as Doss hints, the power they possess in many ways makes them mortal.
So mortal, I would suggest, that the very definition of what a memorial is has expanded. While we are in an age of rapid communication and development, our lines of social network have become sites of virtual movements, shrines, and cenotaphs that cradle our losses in the same ways our national monuments and statues have done for generations.
The significant difference we should make note of is not authenticity, as many feel the Internet cheapens our intentions, but it is participation. Technology has provided us another way to memorialize, massively and communally across the world.
I admit, it could very well be that since living in Washington, D.C., this summer I’ve merely been riding a euphoric wave from the subtle power each memorial in the district ignites within my soul.
I was born in a Southern city full of memorials. From Graceland to Slave Haven/Burkle Estate to Elmwood Cemetery, my roots from Memphis are steeped in a tradition of collective commemoration.
And at five, I remember my first visit to the Civil Rights Museum. The tour functions as a symbolic journey parallel to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s experience, taking you through the beginning of the Civil Rights movement with videos, paintings, and pictures, until you end your visit, at last, in the physical Lorraine Motel, the room and balcony where Dr. King took his last breath that April night.
On that day, after I asked my mother if Dr. King would come into the room to speak to us, I watched her explain to me with a smile and tears why he would not.
I know not everyone will have this experience. I know also that a virtual tour on the Internet cannot replace it. These are not the points I’m trying to make.
We live in an era where anyone can create a memorial, which by definition means anyone can catalog a piece of history they find unshakeable and immensely important. With that type of influence, I believe to the bottom of my being that memorial making is one of the most powerful conditions our society toils with today.
Rather than discussing how we should speak to and at our children, then, as if to somehow avoid the obvious fact that we are also affected, is futile. We must encourage and engage with them in creating.
We must show them and each other that this manic desire to capture our most immeasurable moments of joy and loss, sorrow and fury is genetically embedded in us. That it is the very thing which has and will free us, educate us, and unite us.