History, memory and the shaping of a diasporic people
By Michael O’Loughlin ’09 M.A.R.
Anthony Reddie’s mother, who left Jamaica with her family to help rebuild England following the Second World War, kept a chest full of relics and personal treasures that she hoped to bring back to her life in Jamaica if she were ever to return. She called that chest her “life spare” chest, and it contained everything she hoped to remember if her life was spared. Whenever Reddie saw his mother looking at those items in the chest, he says that time and space collapsed around her.
“Her engagement with the trunk connected her to a past with her ancestors and enslaved forbears in Jamaica,” Reddie recalled.
This was just one of many stories delivered Saturday, April 5, at a panel entitled “How does history and memory shape us as a diasporic people?” as part of the Middle Passage Conversations Conference at Yale. The panel session was held at Saint Thomas More Chapel & Center at Yale, which serves the University’s Roman Catholic community.
Reddie, research fellow and consultant in Black theological studies for the Methodist Church and The Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham, England, said that he came from a classic diaspora family, where his parents recreated Jamaica in their English home. By the time he was 16, Reddie said that he felt he already knew Jamaica.
Another panelist, Dianne M. Stewart, said that memory is a term without much clarity, especially in the academic world.
“I asked myself whose memory is being shaped? Whose memory, the slave ships, or the Israelites? Whose memory, my non-Christian great-grandmother or my Christian mother? National and ecclesial histories weigh heavily on what we academics remember and do not remember,” said Stewart, associate professor of religion at Emory University.
Stewart noted that one of her projects is remembering the role African religion played in the shaping of the black memory, and not coating it all with the false belief that all Africans quickly embraced Christianity.
“The community of ancestors is very important to the work that I do. Christianity spread very slowly among enslaved peoples in America and the Caribbean. I was not willing to Christianize those African religious movements that existed in the United States. The liberation struggles were in the African religions,” she said.
The biggest name on the panel, which was moderated by YDS Assistant Professor Yolanda Smith, was public intellectual Cornel West of Princeton University.
West compared the trauma that African Americans have faced to a long wave of deadly terrorism.
|“For black people, history begins with a series of catastrophes and adds wreckage upon wreckage."|
“For black people, history begins with a series of catastrophes and adds wreckage upon wreckage. What does it mean to live in close proximity to terrorism for 400 yeas and then live in a nation that believes the history of terrorism began on 911?” he asked.
West threw himself into the ongoing controversy surrounding remarks made by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. West claimed that, while Obama’s speech on race—delivered in response to Wright’s comments—was profound, it was not entirely truthful.
Regarding the Obama speech, West said, “From the vantage point of political expediency, profoundly masterful. From the vantage point of truth, profoundly disappointing. He couldn’t tell the truth of slavery.”
Continued West, “America was a corporation before it was a country. Profits and pure expansion. Get the story right. Talk about the generosity and decency of the American people, and I know you gotta say that my brother, but when did the decency start kicking in? When is that decency gonna kick in all the way down and not just in vanilla suburbs? Let’s be honest about it!”
“The memory is traumatic,” said West. “How do you live with the trauma, and still have elegance?”