The Kiddy Pool: Remembering September 11
Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
It’s the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and my social media world is, understandably, flooded with the hashtag #neverforget. I remember waking up on the morning of September 11, 2001 to find my college roommates seated around the television in our common area, watching the news unfold. I watched throughout the day as my schedule allowed, hearing news speculations and questions arise as more footage and more information emerged. I remember reporting to the professor who supervised my work-study and explaining the situation; he’d been in his office all morning without looking at a news report, and I’m sure, given the time of day, that the information I had to share was not quite correct.
All of those memories (and I could recall more from that day and that week) are filtered now through the past thirteen years, interpreted and reinterpreted through the changing contexts. Even the most basic facts, initially, were unknown, and there are still to this day human lives presumed lost without physical evidence to verify their status. 9/11 casts a long shadow in our memories—both individual and collective—and it serves as a turning point in our history where our nation will probably never feel quite so safe again. I remember flying before 9/11, where my dad would walk right up to the terminal with me, to keep me company as he dropped me off. My children will never know that kind of freedom of movement in an airport, and I can only recognize it as a freedom from the vantage point of history. At the time, it just seemed normal.
Normal is, of course, context-based. And as I sit in my office on my university campus, reflecting on my own experience of 9/11, it’s part of my context for my thoughts to turn to Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-American writer. Following the hurricanes of 2004 and 2008 and the earthquake of 2010, Danticat published the text Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Danticat reads and writes through her own context, her own personal and (inter)national history as an immigrant from Haiti, with all the colonial and imperial entanglements that connect the U.S. with her nation of origin. Reflecting on her position as an immigrant artist, Danticat writes “while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere. Survivors are living in makeshift tent cities and refugee camps somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military ‘aid’ helicopters. And still, many are reading, and writing, quietly, quietly.” She asserts both the privilege and the responsibility of not just remembering, but testifying: memory as witness.
we define ourselves and our cultures by what we choose to rememberIt is a mark of my privilege that I had to look up the dates of the Haitian hurricanes and earthquake, events that though different in kind from the terrorist attack of 9/11 still also influence people’s daily lives and governments’ policies. There are many things that I get to forget, that feel like they happened far away from my home and my life, that fail to sear my memory. Not so with 9/11, and I pair the two events here not to compare sufferings but to ask the larger question about the way that memory does, and should, function in our lives as individuals and (global) citizens. What is memory for?
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag asserts “Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself.” It’s important to note that remembering here is active, that we define ourselves and our cultures by what we choose to remember, what we intentionally set apart as definitive. When I take my children to the New York State Museum, we always wander through the fire truck exhibit, an historical display surrounded by footage and items that make up a 9/11 collection. A few feet away, there’s a mockup of Sesame Street, complete with classic playlist rolling and life-size Oscar. These exhibits work together to form and frame the identity my children, as New Yorkers, inherit. And I explain the half-burned fire truck in age-appropriate description along with the rest of the museum, as part of an active remembering of what it means to come of age in a post-9/11 New York.
September 11, 2001 functions in our secular culture much the way that the Eucharist does for me on Sunday mornings, a signal of someone else’s sacrifice, someone else’s loss that marks me forever. I can take the bread and wine thoughtlessly, without contemplating the meaning or the words, without considering the weight those small items lift from my spirit. Or I can choose to remember, to testify. We curate our memories, and they, in turn, define us and show us how to move forward. We imbue the sacrifices with meaning when we choose to remember, and today we bear witness to the lives lost on 9/11, losses that change forever our history, our sense of national identity, and for some, their personal stories. We must live as if we never forget.