Local and International Perspectives on Memory–Kadri Naanu

[The author of this third essay, Kadri Naanu, brings the fascinating perspective of an advanced comparative literature student from Estonia. Kadri is working toward a PhD dissertation comparing narratives of slavery in the United States with narratives of slavery in Estonia, where the slave-owning class was ethnically but not racially distinct from those enslaved, and where in any case the former slave-owners no longer reside in Estonia. As an outsider with a particularly acute eye for the way in which sites of former slavery have been commercialized as sites of leisure–luxury even–Kadri asks a really probing question: whether the stakes in the commercialized omission of the slave past in Estonia and in the South are the same.  SKL]

Local and International Perspectives on Memory

3 May 2014, from 10:29 am until 1.03 pm

While remembering his second journey from freedom back to enslavement, the protagonist of Caryl Philips’s novel Cambridge utters: “The horrors of this second illegal journey I have chosen to forget, although this unnatural and painful murdering of the memory has caused me distress at least as great as that suffered whilst enduring the voyage” (156). This quotation refers to both the pain of remembering, as well as to that of forgetting. The pain and discomfort Phillips is referring to, appears connected to the historic or national amnesia regarding slavery that is evident in Charleston.

The city of Charleston presents its visitors a proud picture of all of its various historical attractions as long as it omits the part of slavery. What was once a main entryway for chattel slaves to the United States is now a glamorous tourist destination with a historic colonial style downtown with odd cobble stone back streets where horse carriages stroll and gaslights flicker on the sides of houses.The tourist and an average international student are both presented a picture of an idyllic town where the past of slavery is hardly ever mentioned at all. In fact, the past of slavery is something that from an international distance is mainly connected to the rural Gone With the Wind type of plantations in the American South, and towns factor in only as far as places of escape in the North. But even for someone interested in the past heritage of slavery, finding evidence of its existence outside academia appears quite a conundrum. Plantations that offer tours advertize their beautiful architecture and new functions as hotels and restaurants and parks, but none of the mainstream information materials consulted before arriving in Charleston mention the painful and, therefore, guilt-provoking past of the town.

However, the commercialized omission of the slave past (turning old plantations into spas and hotels) is a phenomenon not limited to the American South. Many old manor houses in Estonia have been converted into hotels, restaurants, and spas. The manor stables that usually witnessed the horrific scenes of beatings are similarly renovated and brought to use as concert areas or guest houses. The information plaques on the sides of these buildings hardly ever mention the supplemental use of these buildings as the arena for the physical punishment of the enslaved.

Therefore, one is to wonder—if the past of slavery is similarly omitted from the physical or architectural world in these two different countries, are the stakes of remembering this past similar as well? This question, however, is one that results in a negative answer. The racial make up of the American society, whichis clearly connected to the slave past and which even post Civil Rights Movement determines the social status of many Americans, does not find its mirror image in Estonia’s racially non-diverse society. In Estonia the indigenous population have been able to empower themselves and claim ownership of their land and their country, when in the United States and especially in the predominantly white College of Charleston the racial divide is disturbingly noticeable in the everyday functioning of the school (this becomes evident if one were to look at the blue-collar positions on campus).

The texts that deal with the past of slavery, therefore, have a different function as well as different poetics regarding this function. The texts from the Estonian tradition that deal with slavery are usually written in a rather simplistic manner where the slave is glorified and presented as morally superior, and the master is demonized and presented as a one-dimensional evil. As the Estonian historian Marek Tamm has argued, these texts function mostly as tools for building our national consciousness and presenting the national historic myth as a continuous struggle with foreign powers towards liberation. What enables such a function is the fact that Estonians do not need to build a functioning society that needs to accommodate both the historic victims and the historic perpetrators (because the Baltic German population mostly left the country in the midst of World Wars). In the United States, however, the texts that have slavery as their central subject matter need to deal with the legacy of slavery in a way that honors the authenticity of memory and provides an arena for some kind of consolation.

That is why the questions of memory are central to the texts we read from the African American tradition. However, the centrality of memory and forgetting in most of the texts with such an international background attests to the fact that the question of remembering the past connected to slavery and the slave trade are more universal than specific to the American South in nature. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge, and Marie Nourbese Phillips’s Zong! all tackle the ghost of slavery and the painful memory of the past. Out of these three texts the creation of historic amnesia is best exemplified in Phillips’s work that presents the ways in which historic documents silence the voice and, omit the experience of the enslaved. The cruel work of remembering is thematized in Beloved and the problems of recreating the authenticity of that lost voice is best touched upon in the graphic poetry collection Zong!. All of these texts, as well as others read throughout this course, made an effort to cancel the historic amnesia written into the tourism sites of Charleston and the international sites of the slave trade in order to deal with the hard work that is connected to “beating back the past”.

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