Resurrecting History: Reflections on Digital Memory and Christian Ethics

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Matthew 25:51-53

Elks-Arch-night-side-1-e1425244199539Behind the walls of the DeGolyer Library Special Collections of Southern Methodist University I am drawing my breath in suddenly, sharply. In front of me is a real photographic postcard that is 105 years old, the scene it depicts so familiar to me that I can draw most of its features from memory. But not from this angle, not with the crowd arrayed like this. I become conscious of my ears ringing.

I have been searching for images related to a white mob’s 1910 spectacle lynching of Allen Brooks in downtown Dallas off and on for five years. What I am seeing now, what is an actual surprise after all this time, is something new: a photograph of the scene two hours after the lynching, a still-huge crowd milling amiably about Main Street in the afternoon sun. Because I am building an online exhibit out of these materials, the curator of photographs wanted to make sure I saw this; she has pulled it out from among the windfall of materials just donated by a dedicated collector of Dallas ephemera. I have been spending time already in the part of the archive where it is being sorted, the cool room about the size and density of a cluttered garage: bottles from apothecaries and soda shops, box after box of postcards and photographs, wide, thin boxes of maps and architectural plans, the corners and mismatched bricks of miscellaneous destroyed buildings. It has the feeling of a rescue operation, a ferocious sort of forensic energy precisely opposite to the Dallas compulsion for erasure.

There are boxes here named after now-decimated black and Latino/a neighborhoods, folders with disappeared street names, family photo albums saved hours before developers demolished shotgun houses. In archives all over the city it is the same. Between the Dallas Public Library’s acres of metal shelves and archival boxes; at the tables of the Dallas Historical Society’s reading room in the seasonally dormant, ersatz city of Fair Park; at the Municipal Archive’s little microfiche viewer inside the enormous brutalist monolith of Dallas City Hall: everywhere librarians and archivists have led me to the volatile material memories they know are waiting, idle and uninterpreted within their collections. Lynching photographs, racist cartoon postcards, Klan photos, two inches of a lynch mob’s rope, framed. These rare, grim items lurk alongside more subtly tragic materials: photographs of the businesses that anchored black neighborhoods prior to the 1940s, the floods that destroyed West Dallas in 1908, black women and their impeccably dressed children standing with pride on their porches and in their front yards in the 1920s. People of color in Dallas have organized, consolidated political power, and successfully fought for official recognition of their contribution to Dallas history for generations, all while creating a rich strata of informal tradition and instruction. Still, some of these images are the only echoes, the only traces left of the buildings, the views, the habits that once articulated black life in North Dallas, Latino/a life in La Bajada. This is the detritus of white violence, both structural and episodic. This is a haunted house story in reverse: instead of building on a graveyard, the remains have come here, and they are restless.

By contrast, today there is a park at the intersection where Allen Brooks was hung. Inside “Pegasus Plaza” is an artificial stream, a symbolic nod to the blood of the Pegasus from which the Nine Muses sprang in Greek mythology. A plaque on the south wall reminds passersby of the spirit of overcoming that is a part of Dallasite identity, whereby the city comes together to weather the storms of bloodshed and economic hardship. Like most sites of lynching violence in the United States, there is no visible recognition of the lynching that occurred less than fifty yards away. The Equal Justice Initiative’s recent report on lynching in the United States deplores such collective forgetting and argues for a memorial at this intersection, at all spaces of similar social violence. In what sense would memorial spaces furnish the opportunity for engagement, hearing, recognition, and remembering the EJI prizes? 1 What would such things even look like, realized in concrete or marble?

Historical markers identifying lynching sites have been raised in Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and in a major public memorial in Minnesota. This is not to mention John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which confronts the 1920 destruction of Greenwood, or the mapping of the Trail of Tears by the National Park Service. In every case these are complicated, costly, and politically fraught efforts. Commemorative language at these sites trends somber-but-reassuring in tone, frequently making tenuous connections between the suffering in question and the passage of civil rights legislation. Thus the EJI proposal is a powerful one, but given limited political capital and resources, it leaves me with some concerns. Like many other forms of human rights memory work, it aims to do justice to memory by establishing a stable public record. Such an operation sounds like a criminal trial writ large: open the case, assemble the evidence, inscribe the verdict. There is much to be praised in this. Yet, all public spaces are not courtrooms. Confusing the two tempts us to elevate one sort of episodic reckoning to the status of collective psychological closure. Neither collective trauma nor public policy function that way, and public memory is cultural work that is heavily entangled in both. What we need is a mode of public memorialization that does not finally lay the past to rest, but that makes it come alive again for the rest of us.

In her essay “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison places her literary corpus in the same nexus of thematic concerns as slave narratives. These autobiographies, she suggests, contain both a condemnation of slavery and a testimony to the author’s trustworthiness. This performance requires a restrained retelling, leading the narrators to excise accounts of their interior lives with a rhetorical wave of the hand: “proceedings too terrible to relate,” they say. By deepening the texture of the affective imagination of the historical world of black women and men, by increasing the store of imaginative facts of the black past, Morrison aims not just to enrich, but to enable a collective memory. How she does this, Katherine McCittrick argues in her book Demonic Grounds, is in large part through a reimagination of place, from “Frederick Douglass’s childhood cabin” to “the hell of the Middle Passage.” Morrison, that is to say, creates the inner life of her characters in part through the production of geographical signs. As Morrison has said recently, her work populates the emotional landscapes of ordinary black people, explicating the everyday violence and tenderness by which people make their lives away from the white gaze. Crucially, it is not the bare fact of naming suffering that enables the return of subjectivity, the empowerment of dispossessed people. It is the sort of stories these spaces enable us to tell—the sort of “us” that is created by our acts of collective memory. Little wonder, then, that the trouble at No. 124 in Beloved is ghostly. We need to be haunted.

The photograph we uncovered last summer is now on display in the digital exhibit I produced on the 105th anniversary of Brooks’s killing. The online exhibit draws images and documents from archives that otherwise would be too expensive to print, too costly to reproduce, or capable of being displayed only at great effort and expense. Taken together, though, the dozens of pictures link the casual exploitation of black labor and the acute violence of the lynching to a century and a half of gentrification and displacement. What is more, it brings these documents and images out from behind the institutional fortifications, necessary protections that also make them inaccessible to the communities whose difficult histories they relate. Their online presence potentially makes more, richer arguments possible, juxtaposing the degrading gaze of lynching souvenirs with black women and men’s depictions of their own lives.

In addition to the more traditional forms of spatial designation that the EJI proposal suggests, then, I am persuaded that the emerging tools of digital storytelling have a key role to play in this ongoing moral challenge to transform, to suitably trouble the public imagination. Investing in the capacity to tell complex stories with multiple digital materials and tools is, potentially, a way of opening the archives. We know this in part from the great projects on the ground trying to get it right, from the Low Country Digital Library (Charleston, SC), the Mary Turner Project (Valdosta, GA), the Duluth Lynching Resource (Duluth, MN), the Save Wiyabi Project, and the Tiziano Project’s “Surviving Assimilation.” These tools have the potential to leverage limited political capital and funding to make public engagement with difficult history possible in fresh ways. Linking the preservation goals of the archive with the need for a more collaborative, more democratic public history could potentially build on both local, non-academic stores of knowledge and the research strengths of existing institutions.

As the EJI report itself notes, whatever sort of cultural work we put into recognizing sites of violence will need to go beyond just acknowledging wrongdoing, because the injustice of the truth’s obscuration constitutes more than a lack of attention. It is a deprivation of sovereignty, an enervation of space. The analogy is less a testimony that must be unsealed to make a more cogent final verdict, and more like the repatriation of remains to American Indian tribal nations. From this perspective, the Christian promise of resurrection takes on a startling cast, as we begin to imagine what ledgers the resurrected saints might wish to open, should they find themselves awakened in our cities. That is to say: the erasure of sites of violence from our collective memory is less a matter of record keeping and more a matter of power over memory’s material cues. Resurrection may not be forthcoming. But our call is, I think, to restore measures of sovereignty over materials of memory, such that the seeming solidity and separateness of the archive becomes a wall thin enough for passing ghosts.

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  1. Public acknowledgment and commemoration of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization. Formalizing a space for memory, reflection, and grieving can help victims “move beyond anger and a sense of powerlessness.” Suffering must be engaged, heard, recognized, and remembered before a society can recover from mass violence. Equal Justice Initiative, “Summary of Lynching in America Report,” 2015, p. 23
Christopher J. Dowdy

About Christopher J. Dowdy

Dr. Christopher J. Dowdy earned his PhD in Christian Ethics from the Southern Methodist University.

Christopher J. Dowdy

Christopher J. Dowdy

Dr. Christopher J. Dowdy earned his PhD in Christian Ethics from the Southern Methodist University.

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