Remembering the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre
Why do we remember? Why recall anything, even if it made us feel good and especially if it made us feel bad?
In 2014, researchers at the Harvard -affiliated McLean Hospital discovered a way to erase traumatizing memories using xenon gas. This new treatment, if ever approved for human trials, would be especially beneficial to individuals who suffer from PTSD and other disorders that may have been induced by traumatic events. When presented with the stimuli causing their disorder, they would simply have no memory of being afraid of it. While I agree that this development is a positive step in the right direction towards providing relief for millions of people suffering from PTSD, I question what the ability to erase traumatic memories could mean for human intelligence and our ability to simulate and shape the future.
In 2017, I was asked to help guide a research project for the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Student honor society. It was the centennial anniversary of the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots; later we renamed it the East St. Louis Massacre. Upon reading articles and the congressional testimonies recounting the horrors of the event, students began to ask, “why would anyone want to remember this?” Indeed, stories of families being burned alive in their homes, children being mutilated, and men being dragged to their deaths, were truly disturbing. Their question was the purpose of the commemoration and it deserved a worthy answer.
When I was in sixth grade, I had a math teacher who, frustrated with hearing, “why do we need to know this,” told us a story about crows. He said they were among the most intelligent birds in the world because of their ability to learn from events and recall important information. A group of crows had been observed circling a dead one that lay on a set of train tracks. “They circled and circled for hours,” he said. ” People thought it was so strange because it looked like they were mourning.” He finished the story by telling us that the crows were never spotted sitting on or near that spot after they finished circling. Seemingly they had learned to associate it with danger. This new behavior, not sitting on the train tracks in that spot, would help future generations of crows avoid being killed by trains. I told the students that we remember what happened to Mineola McGee, a girl who was brutally shot and maimed by a mob which included members of the local police and Illinois National Guard, because the memory reminds us of where and who we have been. From an event more than 100 years in the past, we can learn how to avoid going there again. We can learn how and why we should fight against the racial, ethnic, religious, economic, and gender based violence of today.
What is the harm in forgetting? In his book, The Future of the Mind, author Michio Kaku references a horror film called the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He does not call it horror film but I do. The premise of the film is that after a particularly bad breakup, a couple decides to have the memory of each other erased. Because they had no memory of each other, they ended up getting back together again. While seemingly innocuous at the individual level, it is disturbing to think about on a macro scale. Imagine a world where we kept repeating the violence and depravity of the 1917 massacre over and over again because we didn’t remember it happening in the first place. We would never get to the point where we could ask why it happened or start thinking intelligently about how to prevent it from happening again.
We remember because it is impossible to imagine or simulate a future that is free of our current or past mistakes without reverence to the fear, pain, and trauma that came with them.
The end result of my work with the PTK students was this video presentation we created and screened at the centennial commemoration hosted by the 1917 East St. Louis Centennial Commission.
Kaku, M. (2014). The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind 1st Edition. New York: Doubleday.
O’Brien, S. (n.d.). Health and Medicine. Retrieved May 30, 2019, from The Harvard Gazette: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/08/erasing-traumatic-memories/