Wu (Felicia) Chen is a current OHMA student. In this post, she asks, what can oral history do in the face of collective amnesia?
The Texas Rangers are a symbol of Texas nationalism, and are popular in the television shows like The Lone Ranger and Walker, Texas Ranger. However, Professor Monica Muñoz Martinez discovered the dark side of the Texas Rangers. In her speech the Oral History and Public Dialogue Workshop series at Columbia University, she drew our attention to a violent period of Texas history. During the early 1900s, Texas Rangers and local law enforcement killed thousands of Texas Mexicans along the border, in a little-known story of state sanctioned violence. The racialized violence continued in the following 100 years of school segregation, marriage restriction, lynching of Mexicans, loss of land ownership and displacement of Native Americans. The violence was never mentioned in Texas history books. This piece from the website Latino USA tells one story from Blood and Betrayal in the Southwest.
But some people still remembered it. Monica told the story of Norma Rodriguez, whose family suffered in the period of anti-Mexican violence and who used the idea of “inherited loss” to articulate her family’s intimate connection to that untold history. Rodriguez got access to her own buried pain and unearthed nearly forgotten generational memories. In regard to how her children are influenced by trans-generational trauma, she reflected, “It’s always there. It’s a part of their life I think. It’s an injustice. It never leaves you. It’s inherited loss.” It is experienced by relatives that are generations removed from the event itself. Despite never directly knowing her murdered relatives, the injustice of their deaths remains with her and her children four generations later.
Their narratives remind me of the history of Chinese Muslims, a marginalized ethnic minority in China. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Muslims suffered from ideological oppression. Almost all the mosques were destroyed, and their lands were confiscated. They had to receive Marxist education. Chinese troops even launched attacks in several Muslim villages. In recent years, with centralized state education and a series of policies of assimilation, Muslim culture faces new forms of erosion. Classes taught in local language are forbidden in universities. Meanwhile, traditional literature, poetry and music are marginalized. The history is being rewritten based on Chinese nationalism. Thousands of people are sent to the detention center every year for illegal religious activity. I met a young Chinese Muslim woman who told me that the young generation of Chinese Muslims is struggling to seek their identity while their history is intentionally distorted. Specifically, Sinocentrism is dominant in their education system, ethnic minority views are repressed. Thus amnesia trumps memory; lies surpass the truth. Meanwhile, the trauma in the past can carry forward to the younger generation, and the silence plays a main role in maintaining the unspeakable past, harboring subliminal dread and fear.
As an oral history student, I believe that oral history plays an important role in exploring meaning, identity and post-memory. Specifically, what can oral history do in the face of collective amnesia? Tony Morrison talks about the fusion of memory; telling one’s story, she writes: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory.” In this sense, older generations speak out about their interior life and testify about their world to make meaning of it. People take charge of and construct their own history. Mainstream history no longer makes them; they make it. In this process, generational memory could be actively maintained; giving voice to memory motivates participation in the fight against repression. In addition, oral history is a means to construct personal and collective identity, since the foundations of identity include family history and its intersection with collective history. Through transferring the silence to expression, the grief could be released and post-trauma growth is possible. For the younger generation, the ability to listen and remember is the foundation of the collective identity, as Elie Wiesel said, “For a moral society must remember, if we stop remembering, we stop being.”
 T. Morrrison, “The site of memory’, in Ferguson etal., p. 30