Disciplinary Term/Concept: Historical Memory
“The concept of historical memory refers to ways in which groups, collectives, & nations construct & identify with particular narratives about historical periods or events,”
-Also referred to as: Collective Memory, Social Memory, & The Politics of Memory
The Art of Steve Prince as a class, started off pretty rough for me. I was too shy and nervous to join any class conversations and this lasted for the bulk of the semester. Class discussion was pretty much the most important part of our lessons so you can imagine how poorly I did. Still, I think I’ve learned a lot since the beginning of the semester. I listened intently to the lectures given though I didn’t speak. I’ve learned through Steve Prince’s art, I’ve learned through the books we read, I’ve learned through the class discussions and guest lectures we’ve had, and I’ve learned through simply existing and adapting in this environment. I have learned to throw a little more caution to the wind when it comes to being part of a conversation. I cannot let my limited experiences stop me from contributing. And one of the most interesting lessons I’ve learned in this class that I keep coming back to, is words, and how they influence our perceptions. I have always thought about this concept but this class, specifically a class day in which Professor Cathy Adams visited, has made me think about this concept in a historical sense.
Despite its violent history, most schools in the U.S. hold a very unapologetic approach to teaching the country’s many wrong doings, sometimes going as far as erasing them. The historical memory this nation employs holds a narrative that continuously paints the white imperialist aggressors as gentlemen migrants who-even at their worst-were victims of circumstance. This narrative implores young white students to have little to no sympathy for those we as a nation oppressed, and manages to convince them that this oppression is a thing of the past. This historical memory is a form of indoctrination that must be unlearned.
One of the things Professor Adams spoke about that I remember most vividly was generational trauma. Transgenerational trauma is “Trauma that is transferred from the first generation of trauma to the second & further generations of the survivors via complex post traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.” Intergenerational trauma is defined as the transmission of historical oppression and its negative consequences across generations. Generational trauma and historical memory are intertwined in that a narrative has been pushed in the U.S. education system that can be and is traumatic for groups of people being represented negatively, namely; Black people & Indigenous people.
Feeling triggered in a classroom setting is one of the most horrifying feelings to have-I speak from experience, from the harsh and constant involvement of violence against women in my film classes at School of Visual Arts. It makes oneself wish they were incapable of feeling affected, because no one else seems to be. Imagining having this feeling all my life is heartbreaking. Black and Indigenous students have had no escape from these triggers in the U.S., it is a constant trauma that many have had to become desensitized to and live in a near constant state of fight or flight-an anxiety symptom of PTSD.
Professor Adams showed us poetry and essays from black men and women about history, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and Wendy Walter’s “Lonely In America,” both addressing how forgotten black people feel by American history. How the subject of slavery has made us remember the white enslavers, but not the people who were enslaved. It was heartbreaking to see how forgotten black people feel by the U.S. Adams asked us what do we know about the past? Who do we choose to remember? Who do we choose to forget?
She talked to us about the history of slavery, the different countries that competed in the trade and how many men and women were enslaved. She then showed us a timeline of when schools in America started teaching about slavery and how they taught it. Before the 1980s, it was almost exclusively taught from an economic viewpoint, the people enslaved were not even humanized by textbooks until after the 80s. Even then, there wasn’t in depth teaching about slavery in history until the 90s, when documentaries started being made, schools began teaching about post-mortem turns, burial sites, cemeteries, and repatriation of remains. It was around this time when school began teaching about these things, but they were/are not required to teach about them, my school certainly didn’t. I thought about everything she was teaching us in relation to my own progressive school district, that still didn’t lift a finger to teach complex, in depth black history.
This was one of the first things I remembered after Professor Cathy Adams came into my Steve Prince class and gave a lecture on historical memory and transgenerational trauma linked to history of minorities in America. Professor Adams teaches history at Geneseo. What stuck out about her lecture was the use of words in history classes. This reminded me of my sociology class and the four tiers.
The impact of words is present in every day interactions. When you tell your friend about “some asshole not using their blinker” you’re steering the conversation in your favor. It’s been two years since my sociology class in high school, so please forgive my limited memory on the subject, but something I have not forgotten from the teachings of James Smith is that socialization comes in four tiers.
The first is the most important and most immediate socialization in most people’s lives: Your family. Most people get their political beliefs, as well as moralistic beliefs and personality traits from their parents and siblings. The second is the media, something we are exposed to on tv, the internet, and in magazines and ads. Third is education, which is public school for most Americans. Fourth is our friendships and the least influential as we choose our friends based on previous social exposure.
If we are to ignore the influence of our families, the words used in media and education have a lot of impact on how we view the world. Education differs from community but what we learn in school is often treated as much more absolute than our parents. Our history classes carry authority therefore we are more likely to perceive them as fact as opposed to opinion. So when teachers tell their students that Christopher Columbus was an explorer and a hero, it’s easier for them to ignore the acts of violence he committed later in life because they were brought up trusting him. Words have a huge impact on their own. Professor Adams specifically focused a lot of her lecture on schools using words like, “slaves” and “goods” (Grouping people in with objects used in trading) as opposed to “people” and “men and women”
This made me think of all the times growing up when classmates of mine would have a negative idea of those in marginalized communities already formed. I am well aware racism and bigotry are alive and well, and that many learn these things from their parents, but I couldn’t help but wonder how it might change if schools worked harder to represent black people as people as opposed to goods. If schools humanized indigenous people more, would the levels of prejudices against them decrease? How much stronger are our preconceived notions that come from mass media and our parents than the ones from our schools?
Steve Prince has highlighted these narratives and sought out to teach another. Steve Prince exclusively tells these stories through the point of view of black people or indigenous people in America. Though his artwork can often be stories of the suffering of black people, they are never just victims. They are never meant to look weak, and he has never taught against them. Prince does not push the narrative that these people were subhuman or object-adjacent, he makes pieces that highlight suffering and resilience from their point of views.
There is a lot I don’t pick up on when examining art, I am more accustomed to taking things at face value, but even to an art outsider, Prince’s message is clear and loud, and powerful. I am glad I was able to observe Prince’s work this semester simply because I am glad it exists. I’m glad there is history being re-taught and re-learned through this class and this artist. White people must unlearn the way they view black people in a historical context and black people deserve to see their history in a perspective that matches their own. History can be painful when it directly affects you but there are ways to teach it without amplifying your pain.
When observing Prince’s piece called, “Prince Katrina’s Veil Stand at the Gretna Bridge,” there is clear injustice and misery in the art depicted, but it is not being told from the aggressor’s point of view. The art has a timeline format as there is movement from one end of the page to another. It depicts people from New Orleans, attempting to flee Hurricane Katrina, being met with officers opening fire on them at the Gretna Bridge. It is cruel and devastating, the piece is drawn in a sort of timeline format, showing tired evacuees being blocked by unfeeling, cold officers. Above the first set of people, we see the horsemen of the apocalypse, one of which is directing the officer’s gun at the people. We as viewers are not meant to understand why someone would commit such an act of cruelty, we are meant to understand those who were harmed. It is the people of New Orleans’ perspective we are seeing. This perspective makes all the difference in the world.
On the day of Professor Adam’s lecture, I noted that even when schools in the U.S. do teach black history, it is always traumatic and overwhelmingly negative parts of black history, either involving slavery, or Jim Crow laws. Black students in America don’t get to see themselves represented positively, they only ever see themselves objectified, or at most as victims that rose above. They don’t get to learn the simply good parts of black history. African history is often ignored in classes, or if it is taught, only the parts relevant to European history are highlighted. As Americans, we don’t learn about African cultures, or African American culture like the Baby Dolls of New Orleans. What does that say about how the United States feels about its black citizens? How can anyone living here argue that we are doing enough in our schools if we’re only teaching from a white perspective?
Steve Prince has continuously showcased art that highlights black history from black perspectives. He does not skip over suffering and oppression in history, but he does not tell it in such a way that makes the victims appear as object as opposed to human. His subjects in each piece show that they have had lives outside of being white people’s targets. He shows misery and resilience. He does not force viewers to only see one emotion. He does not force his viewers to see only one part of history either. One of his pieces, “Urban Mixtape,” is set up in a timeline format, similar to Katrina’s Veil Stand at Gretna Bridge, but it is meant to be taken in a more literal sense. It shows many parts of black history and culture from past to present, with different art styles intertwined. One of my first class periods in The Art of Steve Prince was spent analyzing this piece. I can’t say that everyone came to the same conclusions about every single symbol, but it provoked a discussion of black history as well as artistic motifs. The style of art furthest to the left seemed to be influenced by ancient African art styles, with a target surrounding them. My group concluded that the targets actually represent the circle of life, which was even further backed up by the pregnant figure in the circle. As the timeline went on, the style the people were drawn in seemed to become more detailed. The midway point of the piece has jazz players in the background, and Prince is known to have many pieces highlighting the jazz era. Then, furthest to the right, there is a man creating music on turntables, which are also a target, once again representing the circle of life. One might say the artwork came “full circle.” Some of Prince’s trademark symbols were present, the dove in the running woman’s hand, representing peace and innocence. “Urban Mixtape” is just one of many art pieces by Steve Prince that highlight black history and art, by and for black people.
Earlier I mentioned the Baby Dolls of New Orleans. For the semester, one of the books my class was assigned to read was Walking Raddy, The Baby Dolls of New Orleans. The book talks about the tradition and culture of Baby Doll performance/performers, its past, its present, and its future. Baby Dolls are masquerade dancers that originated in 1912, from Mardi Gras, created by black women. Originally, Baby Dolls only performed on special occasions, such as Mardi Gras, but in more recent decades, it’s become a way of expression and culture for black women in New Orleans. The dancers dress in 18-piece costumes, that are meant to be over the top and gain more accessorization as a dancer advances in experience as a baby doll; these additions are known as “masking.” While the Baby Dolls’ popularity has gained more traction over the years, it is unlikely I ever would have heard of them if not for this class.
I can personally attest that I was only taught about black history in the form of Martin Luther King Jr, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks in my school district. More than that, I was taught abridged versions of black history. In my classes, we learned about Rosa Parks as if she was just a tired old woman who had had it, when she was actually a civil rights activist and this was one of her many protests. I never learned that Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, or really anything about her life other than her being a former slave who helped hide people fleeing from slavery in the south. I didn’t hear any of Martin Luther King Jr’s thoughts on white silence until my junior year in high school, and up until then had been given a relatively flowery version of his beliefs. When I learned about the Black Panther movement and Malcolm X, my classmates and I were taught that this movement was wrong and advocated for violence. We were given a rough idea of the Black Panthers having the “right idea, wrong execution,” and I have to assume many of my classmates will spend the rest of their lives thinking that. Schools in the U.S. do not teach black history because they care, they teach the bare minimum because they have to.
This brings me back to my statement about socialization and how the words we hear affect our understanding. Even implying that Martin Luther King Jr was comfortable with white complacency will teach generations of white people that as long as they’re non-racist, they’re doing great, there is no need for them to be anti-racist. It will convince them that the only valid protests are the ones that don’t directly affect them. It will hurt black and Indigenous students, and make them feel uncomfortable voicing their struggle. Words matter, historical memory matters. The narratives must change, the words must change, and the schools must change. Black students deserve to feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed in the classroom.
I started off this semester stifled by my anxiety. That has not gone away, but I am learning to ignore it and speak up. I am writing this essay at 5AM because I do my best work when I am too sleep deprived to feel nervous about it. I have not reached the end of my goal, but I am getting better. Moving forward, I will pay even more attention to what words are said in situations and apply the context of Professor Adam’s lecture. I will always analyze and think deeply about how others view history and current politics. The Art of Steve Prince has taught me many things that I never would’ve learned without taking the class. I care deeply about these issues of inequality, and this country’s need to change our historical memory. The evidence is here, the United State’s historical memory is problematic. It can and it will change. I hope that the rest of SUNY Geneseo will work to introduce the inclusive and safe learning environment that this class has. This school is far from perfect when it comes to incidents and responses to hateful narratives. The Art of Steve Prince is proof that any teacher can educate themselves on how to better deal with prejudice in the classroom. I will use my white privilege and my knowledge that this class has given me to continue learning and to educate others.