On Sunday, September 11, 2016 the country collectively reflected and remembered the day fifteen years ago that changed our nation forever.
I spent a large part of my professional life studying remembering…and forgetting. My dissertation focused on memory and migration in narratives by Black women writers. I remain fascinated with the way these writers explore the nature of memory in our culture and the many ways in which it shapes our past, present and future. For one writer, there is the amnesia that plagues modern society, contributing to a loss of identity or feeling of rootlessness. For another “disremembering” is a mode of survival – a willful and deliberate act that allows her to imagine a liberating future by intentionally forgetting an oppressive past. And for a third, “rememory” provides historical continuity; it is the way we pass culture from one generation to the next.
As I participated in a local memorial on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I thought of the words of Pierre Nora from his famous essay Between Memory and History, “Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present. It nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred.” Nora’s thoughts on memory provide a valuable way for me to process the experience of “bearing witness” to the pain the remembrance of this day brings to us as we share the collective grief of those who loss loved ones, as well as what some have called a “loss of innocence” the entire country experienced.
The 9/11 memorial, presented by 88impact Foundation and AT&T, is now an annual ceremony in recognition of our local first responders. The foundation, founded by the Dhiman Family, was created to build a bridge connecting the community and law enforcement. This year the foundation honored some of my very favorite people in the world of public safety: Sheriff Stan Sniff, Chief of Police Sergio Diaz, and Fire Chief Michael Moore. Chief Dave Austin, the leader of the California Task Force 6 Urban Search & Rescue team that was one of the 28 FEMA task forces activated that day, delivered the featured 9/11 testimonial. Under his leadership, the group of 70 highly trained members including firefighters, medical professionals, canine/handler teams and emergency management personnel with special expertise in search and rescue operations, left March Air Reserve Base in one of the only aircraft allowed to fly over America that day.
Chief Austin shared the story of their work at Ground Zero for 12 hours a day during their 12-day activation. He said for those few days amidst all the carnage, destruction and despair, they were still able to witness the kindness of the human spirit. One example of that spirit was that every night for a week people lined the streets waving flags and cheering them on as they left base camp to work in the incinerated debris of the towers.
Since childhood, I have always felt a connection to the living memory of our nation. My family visited important monuments in our nation’s capital, our parents believed we should visit our national parks and learn about the history they preserve, and our family vacations were spent touring our nation’s iconic structures including the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and yes, even the World Trade Center towers which were at the time the tallest buildings in the world. Professor Nora says that “memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects." That is why we remember the 2996 lives lost, including those first responders whose jobs led them toward the danger not away from it. We recall and we remember not simply because of what we lost but because of what we gained. In the memory of that tragedy we learned the true nature of our humanity through the unbelievable acts of selflessness and sacrifice…of love…and of courage we witnessed.