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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Who’s Sorry Now is Like the Corners of My Mind (or, Connie Francis meets Gladys Knight and Mashes-up Public Memory)

A New York Times headline recently trumpeted that Virginia Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had telephoned law professor Anita Hill at her faculty office and left a message. You can read about it here. Odd behavior, to say the least. And by odd behavior, I don’t mean the fact that Professor Hill reported the call to campus security or that her university reported it to the FBI. Under the circumstances, I consider the call vexing and harassing. The proffer of an “olive branch” is usually used to symbolize peace, not to figuratively re-assault the victim.

I teach the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill matter in my Race & Racism class and in a class called Law in Literature and Film (we do non-fiction as well as fictional depictions of law in film in the latter class. I spend quite a bit of time discussing, though, whether even televised hearings are truly non-fiction, unvarnished “truth”, given issues of editing, staging, camera angles, etc.). I am always astounded to find that so many students are not at all aware of what had occurred during the Thomas confirmation hearings until we study it. (“Oh,” one student said in a recent class after understanding what had occurred, “Is that why Justice Thomas is always so quiet?” I have no answer for that, really.) My eldest children were very young (younger than some of my students) at the time of the hearings, and yet my children have a very clear memory of the events and a good understanding of what went on based on what they learned as they got older. Given the disparities in shared knowledge about this event, such knowledge (and such memories) begin to feel personal and narrowly cultural rather than public and broadly social. They seem to depend on the particular focus of ones home or educational community.

Public memory can be tricky, as I've determined from exploring it in other work. It is often viewed as static and unchanging, and is typically concerned with forging a collective sense of what to remember and how to remember it, and is often a significant component in forging identities both individual and collective. But public memory, as one scholar writes, is subject to the “history, hierarchies, and aspirations” of a particular community, and is therefore often anything but static. At its core it is both contested and contingent, and the contest is frequently between the “official culture”—that which exercises hegemony, and the “vernacular culture”—informal, unofficial, subsidiary cultures.

In my classes we talk about how the Clarence Thomas hearings started off asking questions about fitness to serve, and ended up as a he said-she said assessment of “truth.” There was no resolution of the truth question, unless you count confirmation as vindication, and I’m not sure that you can. Time has passed, and memories fade or are reshaped altogether, especially where somebody (but who?) should be sorry.

I have to agree with the scholar who wrote: "Memory is more likely to be activated by contestation, and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation."

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