Dedicated to my Mar y Sol.
After one text message, three emails and several irate minute-and-a-half long messages left on my sister’s phone, we both decided it was time to hash out our differences face to face. We met at a mid-town bar, two thirty-something year old women trying to renegotiate a relationship that started in early childhood. A glass of wine and half way down a mojito later, I got up to go because frankly, I couldn’t get past the countless interruptions and eye rolling that told me that perhaps there was never going to be real dialogue. She glared at me and demanded to know where I was going. I replied that I was exhausted and that there was really no sense. And then she said something that in its bare simplicity and wisdom known only to the youngest in a family got me to stop and rethink. It was something like this: After all this time, we are finally talking face to face and you are going to walk away? Sit down, relax, make yourself comfortable because apparently we’re going to be here a while. I meekly replied that I couldn’t possibly take one more second of her dismissing my voice, not listening to the injustice I faced, knowing that no matter how much we talked we would never, ever see things the same! Then she innocently explained that eye rolling was not equivalent to not listening. Really? I cried. Really! She lied. And what about you arguing about every point I’ve made? How is it possible that we have two completely different memories? OH! She giggled and began to explain how she was exactly like Dori. Dori? Yes, Dori of Finding Nemo. My memory is just same!
Needless to say my sister and I did stay and we continued on hashing through our differences. While it took us several hours, it basically boiled down to one premise. She wanted to move on and look at the new and I needed to put to rest some of the old. The problem was we couldn’t agree on what really happened in the past and so moving on felt impossible for me. How can I move on to the future without making peace with the past and how can we make peace with the past when both of us seem to have experienced things differently? In fact, our perspectives were so different that we both began to wonder about the faults and follies of memory itself! If a person is a victim of injustice, do they have to consider the possibility that it was just a perceived injustice in order to engage in a dialogue? Simply: Does one have to consider the possibility that “it” really didn’t happen in order to make peace?
Alexander Cockburn criticizes Obama for being too careful by quoting an excerpt from his landmark speech on race in America. In excluding Wright from the national conversation, Obama said: The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know what is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam (Cockburn, The Nation, 4/14/2008). Cockburn argues that a “perceived injustice” isn’t really injustice at all. It’s a figment of paranoid black imagination. The delicate balance that Obama has had to maintain through out his campaign between being just a “worthy candidate” and being the “candidate of race” is faulty, if not impossible to obtain. However, Cockburn makes a salient point that underscores the complexities of dialogue, diplomacy and the resulting displays of war and peace. Is Obama suggesting that blacks did not face injustice? Does linking the word perceived to injustice negate the possibility that there is in fact a part of our history that is indeed fact and unjust and therefore indisputable? Or, does linking the word perceived to injustice suggest that perceptions of history, both past and present are malleable, controversial and subjective and that true dialogue is to open a critical inquiry into the nature of these? Is Israel stalwart? Is the siege of Gaza a perceived injustice? Do the victims of injustice have to consider the possibility that injustice did not occur in order to engage in a dialogue?
While my sister wanted to move on to a better and brighter future, I needed to make peace with a not so bright past. Like the many African American and Latino students in my graduate course on Social Identity and Literacy at Manhattanville College last summer, I couldn’t move on unless I heard acknowledgement that my anger and pain was not a result of a figment of my imagination but was a result of real events that happened – that my voice needed to be heard and listened to in order for real healing to begin. And like many of the white students attending my class, my sister was tired of focusing on the past or as Obama suggests – elevating what is wrong above all that we know is right.
Perspective taking is about recognizing multiple points of view — each as being valuable, each as being essential to making sense of the whole. However, how can we encourage perspective taking while not losing the facts? How can we piece together a collective memory inclusive of all of our voices without forgetting the purpose of one voice, one story that in itself has the power to change the world? And while my sister admitted with so much courage (and pizzazz) that her memory is often just like Dori’s, I couldn’t help wonder why people sometimes need to forget in order to move on.