The Arlie Hochschild book that I have been pondering this summer includes passages about the Areno family, whose formerly lovely and ecologically rich land—which sustained them both with beauty and food—was turned into a poisoned wasteland by industrial pollution. They talk of their role as “rememberers,” or witnesses to how it used to be.
Interestingly, they do this in relation to their end-times Pentecostal imagination. As I discussed earlier on this blog, this did not stop them from becoming green activists. When they speak of heaven they imagine living again among “beautiful trees” that used to surround and sustain them. However they feel that such imagery, however resonant, is not strong enough to carry their full weight of grief. They say that only the mind of God, as opposed to their human capacity, is wide and strong enough to cope with the degree and complexity of the suffering. Thus God’s mind includes a sort of half-condemnatory and half-redemptive bank of memory. The Arenos also sense that only a brutal and bloody imagery of apocalypse and tribulation is strong enough to articulate their situation, at least in a way commensurate to the pain and evil involved.
I have argued here that some of the Coen brothers’ best films take a related approach. Perhaps I will return to this point.
What do we remember? How do we remember? What good does it do? I started this post while the news media were pushing the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing as their daily dose of infotainment. By now they have moved to Woodstock, and soon I suppose it will be Kent State, when the National Guard shot antiwar protestors—or perhaps Watergate, when there were still a few Republican senators with enough integrity to stand up to a criminal President.
But let’s stay with Apollo. Here’s how Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem about it, “Whitey on the Moon,” began and ended.
A rat done bit my sister Nell (with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arm began to swell (but Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill (of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills…(to Whitey on the moon)
Remembering this makes me note that Scott-Heron died when he was only 62—the age I turned in July—and that I wrote about him at the time. Since I am consolidating some of my pieces here as they become relevant, here is the link. It includes a longer version of “Whitey on the Moon” and some other things that might be worth recalling.
Do young people remember “Whitey on the Moon,” or other Scott-Heron songs—part of the foundation of early hip-hop—like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or “Winter in America?” Increasingly, at 62, I am shocked to discover how many things I take for granted as baseline cultural competence—as much a part of my common sense and my toolkit of allusions to drop into conversations as the words to “Happy Birthday”—have fallen down a memory hole. Recently I was amazed to learn that my brightest Ph.D. student did not know James McMurtry’s classic songs like “Choctaw Bingo,” “Ruby and Carlos,” or “Out Here in the Middle,” even though she writes on Southern literature and music. Whoever cannot sing along with that last one—“out here in the middle, where the buffalo roam, we’re putting up towers for your cell phones”—is flat out culturally deprived. And I would say the same about “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Anyway, I am old enough to have personal memories of the moon landing and Scott-Heron’s response. And I can remember things with more cachet, like how it felt to live through hip-hop coming into existence. Students today have never lived in a time when hip-hop wasn’t longstanding musical common sense—so that songs that sound like third or fourth wave hip-hop to me sound like pre-history to them. At times this gives me useful perspectives.
I also remember when most white and many black working-class people could support a small family with reasonable economic and health care security on one 40-hour-a-week paycheck.
And I can remember when attending college included far more discretionary time to explore extracurricular interests and did not entail taking on huge debts, even if one worked relatively little. During college I (a fairly poor white kid) did not worry much about simply following my intellectual interests, because a kid like me could reasonably expect to muddle toward an acceptable quality of life. The undermining of such expectations has gutted what “the college experience” means in practice, especially for non-elite students. Universities are still reeling from these changes, trying to find our bearings.
Much of this world was destroyed by the “Winter in America” that Reaganism ratcheted upward in the 1980s—before my current students were born. I try to remember how I felt when I was 20 and my professors talked about life when they were young. The gap back to 1940 seemed like traveling to ancient history—but they were talking about a gap smaller than from the present to 1990. Luckily I picked up some great teachers before I wrote off the study of history—which had been my least favorite subject—and found out how illuminating it is to understand what was going on during these gaps.
In the case of Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America,” his refrain says “nobody’s fighting because nobody knows what to save.” Although this song is not exactly “apocalyptic,” it does share with the Arenos a sort of despair about the ruins of the present, informed by memories of what came before. It also reminds us that if we cannot remember what could be—perhaps how 1970s students like myself could inhabit a different world largely free of worry about debt or climate apocalypse, or how my cousins who are Swedish citizens are free from worry about health care as they decide today how to launch their careers—we will not have a measuring stick to grasp how far we have fallen. We will lack some of the resources we need to imagine something better, and to articulate it with words and sounds that are commensurate with the ruins of our time.