One of my most salient goals as an academic and a writer, as a person, is perhaps directly related to one of my greatest fears: forgetting home, and thus, losing home. While many of our technologies and actions today reflect globalization and the sharing of ideas, cultural practices, and artifacts, it is often driven by dominant groups in power. For example, in the case of gentrification, neighborhoods and communities often change when those with financial resources and social power enter previously “undesirable” areas. The community often receives a lot more attention and access to quality resources, but the costs include systemic removal—driven by capitalism. When people of a community (are re)move(d), often the cultural practices and spaces of a community also (are re)move(d).
Thus, my project is about rememory of self and s/place. We’re socialized through various institutions as well as our communities; however, when Western schooling works as a tool for assimilation and community is being attacked, sustaining cultural practices and embodied knowledges can be quite difficult. My interests somehow guided me organically to my proposed project. I was confused with out to balance the theoretical with the practice–with the importance of digital humanities being in conversation with questions of access. What would it mean to create something that was accessible, and more than that, reflected my pedagogical orientations in a way that continued to challenge me.
As in most situations when I am perplexed and overwhelmed, I called my mother. When I told her about my project, centered on mapping sites of educational memory in New Orleans, her first response was, “but no one has anything left.” She was alluding to Hurricane Katrina and the loss of our peoples (through passing and removal) and artifacts. In our own home, we loss not only loved ones, but many of our physical artifacts. For my mother who archived joy, sadness, about community, this was particularly difficult. Now, many New Orleanians approach their own loss with reluctant acceptance. The problem, she meant, was, “That’s going to be difficult. Who would you ask? What could they bring?”
While this may seem unimportant for some, for many, material cultural artifacts appear divorced from the people. This is often an ideology that justifies stolen cultural memory and the lack of willingness to return. Take Tarita Alarcón Rapu, the governor of Easter Island, and the indigenous Rapanui people who are asking the British Museum to return Hoa Hakananai’a (“lost or stolen friend”), ancient sculpture featuring the Rapa Nui’s famed stone faces. The British Museum has displayed it in London for the past 150 years. The U.K.’s Royal Navy stole it from the indigenous Rapanui people in 1868. What the delegation who traveled to London want to get across, is that Hoa Hakananai’a is not simply a rock, a statue. As Anakena Manutomatoma told The Guardian, “We want the museum to understand that the moai are our family, not just rocks. For us [the statue] is a brother; but for them it is a souvenir or an attraction,” (as cited by Herreria, 2018).
While I knew many of the personal cultural artifacts would be unavailable, I considered visiting archives and knew that I would have to make more of an effort to reach out to New Orleanians. Two days later, my mother called to say, “I got a few people you can talk to. They’re excited. You’re going to get a lot of stories.” While the artifacts I am in search for are not as sacred as Hoa Hakananai’a, these memories occurred in sacred s/places. For me, this was the most important aspect of the work. It’s bringing attention to what people consider is not sacred, to what some believe is forgotten.
I take this work up while drawing upon various scholars, but an important one is Leigh Patel (2015) who argues that settler colonialism works to replace and erase Native peoples. Erasing the histories of People of Color is a part of this project. Restricting access to one’s histories and ancestors is a part of the settler colonialist project as well. I see digital tools as part of the praxis of decolonization. This leads to another aspect that I continue to cycle back to: what does it mean to share the stories of others and how does the world of the digital humanities play a role in this?
Patel, L. (2015). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge.