May 29, 2024

Rowe Lectures On Memory And Racial Relations

Nick Rowe. Courtesy of Gordon website.

By Collin Hall ’21

Nicholas Rowe, the Dean of Student Engagement at Gordon, spoke on “Trauma, Memory and History,” and on how those three themes relate to people groups in pain.  He used these themes to speak on the divides within America itself.

These three themes are indeed present everyday in American society.  Rowe said, “within the American context we have not dealt with our trauma.  We simply haven’t.”  

Rowe returned to Gordon in 2016 from St. Augustine College in South Africa; he has a deep interest in diversity and multicultural relations. Rowe described himself as an “advocate for peace-keeping, for justice and for making things right.”  

Communication arts professor, Grace Chiou, who opened for Rowe, stressed that “we all need his wisdom.”

Rowe began by saying that a clear distinction between history and memory must be made in order to properly understand how the past relates to the present.  

“History is when the professionals appropriate the past… they attack it with a critical method based on evidence, the narrative of which we present for public engagement as well as for other colleagues in the field.  As opposed to memory, which is how popular culture chooses to appropriate the past.”

“People remember, it is part of being a human being … We statute who we are, we situate our identities based on memories of the past.  Without those, we are without an anchor.”  Yet Rowe said we do it with a bias; societies remember the things they consider important and discard that which is deemed irrelevant.  

For many people groups, trauma is a key aspect of this anchoring.  He continued to say that people-groups around the world often center themselves around traumatic events in their pasts, “trauma becomes a very important rallying point around which a group can orient itself.”

“What do we as a society choose to commemorate? What do we choose to remember?”  These are the questions Dr. Rowe was made to ask as he returned to America.

He showed images of Confederate flags, monuments, rallies and statues.  When his family returned from South Africa, the country was discussing the weight of symbols and their place in  this country.  

These statues, flags, etc, are enshrinements, Rowe said.  They serve as a locus for memory. By keeping these statues and monuments up, we are saying that these are events worth commemorating.    

Rowe says that this brings to mind a French historian, Piotr Kosnicki’s, notion of “aggressor-victim memory.”   

According to Kosnicki’s theory, there is always an aggressor and there is always a victim.  One group justifies itself as having to take drastic or divisive action because they were once victims.  This notion flips around and repeats; both sides see them themselves as “victims” and as such there is never reconciliation.  

Groups find themselves in a “locked up memory in which both groups see themselves as victims and therefore both groups can justify action against the other,” Rowe said. There is a collective memory working between the two groups that has them “locked into a dance to which there is no end.”

Rowe used this to say that our own country needs reconciliation.  He said that “we within the US fit right into the aggressor-victim process unless something intervenes to disrupt us.”

He did not paint a picture of hopelessness; he stressed that above all else, America needs “shalom.”  There is no one size fits all for reconciliation; there can be no national reconciliation project.  Reconciliation must be local, and it must be relational.  

If there is going to be any restorative process, we need to take into account the notion that “human beings are fully human beings in relationships.”  Yet Rowe said “there have been very few, if any, processes to deal with the racial past in the Unites State.”  

America, perhaps more than ever, needs Shalom.  Shalom, according to Rowe, is

“Not just a peace in which no bullets are flying around..”  Shalom is where “all persons are flourishing fully as human beings.”  

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