It’s All Relative

The Progress of Forgetting
November 22, 2008, 5:50 pm
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Two weeks ago, Judith Warner highlighted a photo in her column in the New York Times:

NYT Harlem Church“A black mother and daughter sit on the floor of a church in Harlem. The mother, Latrice Barnes, having heard of Obama’s victory, is doubled up in tears; her daughter, Jasmine, is reaching a tentative hand up to soothe her. To me, she looks like the future, reaching out to heal the past.

It is, I suppose, in part a matter of temperament, whether one shouts or weeps at happy transformative moments. But I also think it’s a matter of what has come before. The young people joyfully frolicking in front of the Bush White House never knew the universe whose passing was marked by Obama’s victory and Jackson’s tears.

This moment of triumph marks the end of such a long period of pain, of indignity and injustice for African-Americans. And for so many others of us, of the trampling and debasing of our most basic ideals, beliefs that we cherished every bit as deeply and passionately as those of the “values voters” around whose sensibilities we’ve had to tiptoe for the past 28 years.

The election brought the return of a country we’d lost for so long that it was almost forgotten under the accumulated scar tissue of accommodation and acceptance.

For me, this will be the enduring memory of election night 2008: One generation released its grief. The next looked up confusedly, eager to please and yet unable to comprehend just what the tears were about.”

The final sentiment struck me at the time as profound. It is a momentous and historic manifestation of a common dynamic: the younger generation’s discarding of their parent’s fears and concerns.

As I increasingly come to see my own life separated from that of my parents, I am struck by the number of things I can finally begin to understand. There are things that they have always insisted upon – through their actions if not through their words – that I could never quite grasp.

The depth of devotion that a child called forth from my parents only becomes clear as my experience of the world broadens enough to grasp all the gifts I have been given and the detractions I have not. The responsibility that they have encountered as salient and unavoidable is one of which I am only now beginning to perceive the dimmest outline.

Growth for me, at this moment, is seeing that the world is not nearly as complex as I had come to believe. Our personal aspirations and hopes demonstrate goals and beliefs common to all human beings. And though our methods and personally perceived motivations may seem to place us at odds, I think we can agree that each of us yearns for the same things – even if we don’t always agree who besides ourselves should have them.

We learn – with varying degrees of success – how far we are willing to extend our circle of acknowledged similarity. There are experiences and people that make us unwilling or unable to acknowledge that common ground because the manifestations of it in our own past have too deeply cut into our own lives and experience.

This returns me to the picture above. Passing through this world creates scars that cannot be sloughed off like old skin. The grief that a generation of Americans still feel for the oppressions and humiliations foisted up on them cannot be relieved by any single moment.

Barack Obama’s presidency is not the crowning victory of the Civil Right’s Movement, it is the death knell for that moment’s prominence in American identity. This next generation has a new and defining racial moment: one of unequivocal and popular success.

The lessons this moment provides – those already drawn and those that will be drawn in the future – are, of course, too simplistic. But the point is not the objective truth these generational touchstones provide, but the anchor they create in popular culture and social identity.

What I had not considered before is how necessary death is to the progress of our society. Some wounds cannot be healed by those who bear them and the only way to move on is to forget. The world is naturally ceded to those softer, more innocent souls so that they can approach problems without the blinders of past resentment and judgment. As I become an adult, I see the things we have in common and with it the corollary responsibility that that mutualism demands I acknowledge and embrace, but I also see that there will come a time when my definitions will be too narrow, too rigid for progress. And for the future to be embraced, my pain must also be forgotten.

Lessons we possess are not truths, but perspectives that form reality as much as they describe it. Solving deep and reoccurring problems is usually a function of redefining the terms that articulate it as one in the first place. It’s forgetting old distinctions that allows the world to appear anew and for the very possibility that the old problem sought to create to come into being.