In this chapter, Glaude thinks through the distorting effects of trauma on memory, using Baldwin as a way of translating trauma from individual experience to national experience.
The famous photograph above was taken by Don Sturkey in 1957. It shows Dorothy (Dot) Counts making her way into what had been an all-white high school in North Carolina amid a spitting, jeering, trash-pelting mob of white boys.
In No Name in the Street (1972), Baldwin remembers being in Paris for the International Conference of Black Writers and Artists at the time Sturkey’s photograph hit the stands:
“Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaded boulevard, were photographs of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina. There was unutterable pride, tension, and anguish in that girl’s face. . . . It made me furious, it filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her! I dawdled in Europe for nearly yet another year, held by my private life and my attempt to finish a novel, but it was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France” (Glaude, 31).
Actually, says Glaude, Baldwin is misremembering things a bit. The conference took place a year before the events in Charlotte. And in Baldwin’s writings afterwards, no mention of Charlotte is made in connection with his departure from France.
But we’re talking about memory here. In particular, we’re talking about a memory, says Glaude, traumatized to extents difficult to imagine. Baldwin himself understood as much:
“The mind is a strange and terrible vehicle . . . and my own mind, after I had left Atlanta, began to move backward in time, to places, people, and events I thought I had forgotten. Sorrow drove it there . . . and a certain kind of bewilderment” (Glaude, 33).
The rest of the chapter talks about Baldwin’s abusive stepfather, the loss of a lover, a journey through a terrifying South, and the tormenting and ever-present insistence of his mind toward suicide in the face of America’s unrelenting horrors. Is it any wonder that the mind, out of self-protection, would take certain, involuntary precautions against further suffering? Like erasing timelines, obscuring people and places, blocking access to the histories of one’s own works and days?
“Terror cannot be remembered,” he writes. “One blots it out. The organism—the human being—blots it out. One invents or creates, a personality or a persona. Beneath this accumulation (rock of ages!) sleeps or hopes to sleep, that terror which the memory repudiates” (Glaude, 45).
But something remains from that blotting. And that remainder, even if sometimes factually inaccurate, often distills and focuses a greater truth. And that’s what Glaude gets at in this chapter. What sticks with me in my reading is just how inextricably linked the personal and the social memory is. In America’s ongoing struggle to discuss racial injustice, you often hear someone say, “But that happened so long ago . . .” Trauma doesn’t play by the rules of “so long ago.” It doesn’t have a twenty-four-hour cycle. It knows nothing about a 365-day year.
The physics of trauma are cultural. It has a residual presence that time, in the abstract, can never have. I mean a physical residual presence. Time welcomes us at the entrance and says goodbye at the exit. But culture is physically present in the sense that it can touch us. Move us. And it does this from the cultural body of our art, our literature, our songs, our language, and our homes—generation to generation.
I teach a class on the personal essay. And when we get to the “memoir” as a subgenre of the personal essay, the debate surrounding fact and truth can get heated. People usually feel strongly that things ought to be represented factually or not at all. Otherwise, you’d be misleading the reader, or something worse. But what’s a fact when it comes to human memory? Especially, let’s say, for someone traumatized, physically, emotionally, both? Gregory Cowles wrote a great review of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir that gets to some of the important questions surrounding this tricky brain of ours.
Reading this chapter also gets me thinking about photography and the ethics of documenting tragedy, suffering, and oppression. I’m reading a brilliant, absolutely brilliant book on this very topic called The Cruel Radiance by Susie Linfield. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, look for my previous and upcoming posts!