How long are people supposed to be mourned? On our field trip to St. Sabina's Catholic Church and subsequently the Oak Woods Cemetery, I kept thinking, there's something weird about "remembering" people you don't personally remember. The thought first occurred to me as we were walking outside St. Sabina's, and saw a memorial the congregation had made to the victims of gun violence.
The mourned, our age or younger, mostly children, were not only from the St. Sabina congregation but were predominantly local. The memorial is doubly tragic, serving both as a reminder of lost futures for the deceased and the loss experienced by those who live on without them. As the memorial says, they are not forgotten, so the loss is ongoing. There was also a playground behind the memorial, which served as a haunting contrast.
I was still musing on that image, the faces of the recently dead displayed in front of a playground, when we got to the Oak Woods Cemetery. In this cemetery where Ida B. Wells, Jesse Owens and Harold Washington, among other notable black Americans are buried, there is also a jarringly grandiose Confederate soldier monument. We had to walk a bit off the path to get to it, but the monument is still pretty hard to miss.
When I expressed discomfort at the idea of such a memorial still standing, one of my classmates pointed out that all the names on the monument were real people's children who died, our age or younger. And I get that, and certainly that war must have seemed as senseless to some of those fighting in it as gang warfare seems to those affected by it today. But the names on that monument don't move me. Everyone dies eventually. The tragedy of these individuals who were Confederate soldiers seems expired now, because the Confederacy is shorthand for racism now, and the monument feels to me, in the context it currently exists in, like an homage to racial intolerance. I guess I feel like the individuals have ceased to exist, because by now time would have taken them away anyway. So this monument isn't really for the individuals, it's for what remains of their stories. And their stories are heavily connoted with the systemic racism felt all over the U.S. today.
Studying history in this program, and studying theater-making in my time at UChicago has given me a lot of complicated feelings about the purpose of remembering and the power of storytelling. The feeling that pervaded this field trip for me most is that people are erased by Historical Storytelling. The telling of a historical story does almost always get rid of the character of a person in the story, the way they get ready for bed and the things their face does when they get excited. For people who died a long time ago, it's both sad and hard to feel sad about. But recent loss is a deeper sadness. A sadness that comes from the unavoidable humanity of those still remembered. It's a sadness for those doing the remembering too, and I wonder how one can possibly grapple with Historical Storytelling interloping on personal narratives and loss.
By: Elisabeth del Toro
May 22, 2016