The Black Writer's Use of Memory
This essay centers on my interest in the way geographic locations such as the American South and Africa have become important sites of memory in the construction of a viable African-American culture. In this connection, it is very significant that Pierre Nora's conception of memory-generating experiences rests on his assessment of major differences, if not stark ruptures, between history and memory. 1
Nora sees history as static and memory as dynamic. He defines history loosely as "how our hopelessly forgetful modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past." He defines memory as an actual phenomenon, "open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting" (p. 8). Where history, for Nora, is the reconstruction of what no longer exists, memory is life itself, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of our time, nourishing recollection, yet responsive to trends, including censorship. Whereas history calls for analysis and criticism, memory is almost sacred, absolute, concretely rooted in "spaces, gestures, images, objects" (p. 9). Here Nora appears to echo Joseph Campbell on the power of myth and Carl Jung on the prevalence of dream symbols and the power of the collective unconscious.
Although Nora emphasizes the analytic characteristic of history and the psychological aspects of memory, which interests those of us who, as writers, become critics of culture, he betrays something of a Eurocentric bias in favor of recorded historical analysis when he considers non-Europeans. He argues (much too disparagingly, for my taste) that "among the new nations, independence has swept into history societies newly awakened from their ethnological slumbers by colonial violation. Similarly, a process of interior decolonization has affected ethnic minorities, families and groups that until now have possessed reserves of memory but little or no historical capital" (p. 7).
Using Nora's own criteria for the recovery of the past, I intend to show that the presence in our culture of significant fieux de mémoire establishes the value of cultural memory and the very kind of history or historiography that is not dependent on written analysis or criticism but rather achieves an alternative record of critical discussion through the exercise of memory. Memory