Some types of silences help us remember. Like moments of silence. We make the request, ask others to join, and in total silence, remember. Moments of silence are full of purpose, full of intent, full of participation, and full of thought. Those that repeat themselves annually, are full of power. In stillness of mind and power, even time is stilled to strongly engage in remembrance. And we remember because we hear. We remember because we see. Our collective experience, becomes the cornerstone of memory, ushering reverence even in the absence of narrative. The dead of September 11 exemplifies these moments. At the exact hour the two twin towers were struck, those who remember, reflect on that day and join in silence to remember.
Some types of silence have no frame, no moments, no memory, no stillness. These types of silence are hidden, often without speech, without words, without witness, without thought. Even if witnesses for example existed, they may grow old or pass away with time. Even if memory, preserved time or space, amnesia is still inevitable, when the past was intentionally muted. This kind of total silence is thunderous, rooted in a desire to forget, and forgetting is pervasive. What happened to black populations during the pandemic of 1918 exemplifies this total silence. Even the collective memories of the pandemic, effectively silenced and muted black experiences. Names were left out and silenced, sidelined, ignored, and forgotten.
One example buried deep in the archives of the 1918 pandemic is a picture of a ‘colored man’ his two daughters and three Red cross nurses. The historical records say the nurses names are ‘Mrs. Ralph Van Landingham, Mrs. Camson Morrison, Miss Julia Baxter Scott.’ Historical records also etched the agenda of the nurses with their attempts at bringing food to the family, wearing mask while doing so, all to commemorate their empathy even in times of pandemics. But the individuals in need of sympathy, a father with his two daughters and their dead mother, now free, remained forgotten. Empathy is given for the kind act performed by the nurses and but not sympathy to the living or the dead. Our collective memories as with this image is a reflection of what we choose to value, choose to remember, choose to silence, choose to forget.
These unspoken, silenced aspects of the pandemic, with their absent narratives, for example of this family, has etched priorities for me around memories. What happens when we remember? What are the necessary details we should keep so that even in the stillness of time, memories of the moment lingers on, years after witnesses are long gone? Can there be survival even in silence. Perhaps, moments of silence being an example. And so how can we intentionally cultivate moments of silence so we never forget this covid19 pandemic. For where there is silence even with the dead, there can be survival for the living and future pandemics, when we choose to intentionally remember. And I choose to remember.
A dad in his dark pants, with a bright white shirt. His two daughters are dressed in white too. Crispy white dresses adorned their bodies. We were not told their names. Not their first, nor their last, or other names they probably had. Their mother had just died. Even in death, they forgot to say her name. And so we will never know who they are, what the did, and how they lived. For I imagined they lived. Even though we will never know her name, I imagine their mother fought vigorously to live. I imagine the pain in her eyes knowing her fight would be in vain. I imagine this pain in the eyes of her daughters, two of them who must now live without her. I also imagine the toll of her death on their dad. The sorrow he must feel with losing his partner, his wife and the mother of his children. Even with all the sorrow, I imagine freedom for the mother. Like birds flying high in the sky, I imagine white doves raised in the air to signal her freedom. Slavery, racism or whatever may have triggered the absence of their names during these times, tried to erase her existence, tried to make us forget. But I imagine her free now, all of them free, from the duress of these times.
But of all the things that stood out to me with this image (sympathy for their loss being the greatest), three other things keep haunting my imagination; house, food, and masks. Who owned the house? Why bring them food? Why didn’t they wear masks? These missing accounts of this black family, alongside lack of information on who they are or what they loved is the central metaphor of what happens when we forget pandemics. Even key characters are silenced. They call the 1918 influenza pandemic, a forgotten pandemic for numerous reasons, including a shockingly sparse account of what happened to black families, black populations. It is critical to repeat that buried deep in the archives are the names of the Red Cross nurses that carried food to the family. But not of the family or their dead mother. This glaring omission is central to why we must not forget pandemics. If forgetting is easy, then remembering has to intentionally become hard. If silencing the living was the intent, then voicing their stories has to be purposeful, like with moments of silence. If erasing their meaningful place in history was willful, then ensuring we never forget their presence becomes critical. For we have been here before.
We have been erased, whether unintentional or not from pandemics though our presence and our loss was seething long enough for us to deserve nourishment. Their willful oblivion of our names, our stories, our lives, kept us unprepared and continues to keep us unprepared for pandemics not just of the body, but of the mind and it’s intent to keep us permanently locked in duress. Though they tried to keep our place in history immobile, static, even at the depths of our sorrow, the eyes of the dad and his daughters tell a story of a moment when someone will rise and eloquently write back to demand their place in history. That day has arrived.
It may have taken 100 years, but we write back to history to never forget this family. It may have taken another pandemic, still we write back to include our story. They may have failed to prolong their gaze, so we extend it as a moment of silence. They may have failed to even touch, see, or hear their pain, their sorrow, so we see it for ourselves. Through their eyes, we see our eyes. Through their pain, we know ours. Through their posture, we know where we stand. Through words unspoken, we know the power, and deeper meaning of their lives. The absence of their presence is instructive. But even today, we bow our heads down, in a moment of silence to extend our deepest condolences for the loss of their mother. It may have taken over 100 years and another pandemic, but for this family, keep moments of silence in mind so we never forget.