Say you’re researching your ancestry, and you hit a dead end: the genealogical trail goes cold. Is it really a dead end? Or might this open up new ways of understanding who we are and how we came to be? In other words: What do we mean when we say something exists in our historical memory? Can we actually remember historical events that you were not alive to see?
On this week’s episode of “What Is X?,” Justin E. H. Smith talks to writer and critic Julian Lucas about memory, and historical memory in particular. Justin asks, what is the relationship between memory and the historical record? Julian defines "memory" as a presentist, personal relationship to the past, one that is mediated by places, objects, and ritual practices—it is an approach to history that brings it into conversation with the lives we lead today. Over the course of an hour, Julian and Justin discuss the uses and misuses of history (cf. corporate appropriations of MLK), occasional bad vibes of historical reenactments, the poetry of Derek Walcott, and what African diaspora memory practices can teach us about the contingencies of history. Most pressingly, they try to uncover the root of Justin’s childhood conviction that his grandfather was George Washington.
Justin E.H. Smith [00:21]
Hello, and welcome to the “What Is X?” podcast. I'm your host, Justin E. H. Smith. Delighted to have you here; I'm going to explain the rules of the game. As I've described to a number of people already, this podcast is a sort of hybrid between a Socratic dialogue and The Price Is Right. There's a bit of a game show vibe to it. But our ultimate goal is to get at the truth unlike Bob Barker's venue where the goal is to win prizes. So basically, on each episode, I have a guest on and we pursue a question of the classic Socratic dialectical form, "What is X," and by the end of the podcast, we hope to arrive at a shared definition. We might not arrive at a shared definition, it's not entirely up to us whether we agree or not, we might end up in disagreement. And we might also end up in what is called in the literature on Plato aporia—that is, neither of us after the end of our discussion has any idea how to define the X in question. So today, we're going to be pursuing the question: What is memory? And my guest with whom I will be pursuing this question is Julian Lucas, a writer and critic, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and an author who is mostly interested but not exclusively interested in art and literature that grapple in various ways with the legacy—legacies in the plural—of the African diaspora. And I thought of Julian in particular, when I was thinking about this particular episode, because I was so struck by a piece of his that came out about a year ago—or maybe exactly a year ago, pretty close—in the New Yorker on reenactments of resistance to slavery in Louisiana. And on the question, whether such reenactments, whether this—I take it—new cultural practice, can have a beneficial effect in the processing of history. So we're going to be talking about that, and many other things besides, for the next 37 minutes or so. Welcome, Julian.
Julian Lucas [03:18]
Thank you so much, Justin. I'm so excited to be here. And in that essay, I look at really two phenomena. One of them was this practice of the Underground Railroad reenactment, which began in Minnesota in the 1980s, and usually would be a group of young people who would be reenacting escapes north, from enslavement. And this was sort of a way to incorporate this history of resistance as a kind of educational tool primarily for black youth in the Twin Cities. And then the second project that I looked at was the artist Dread Scott's slave-rebellion reenactment, which was a reenactment of an 1811 uprising in Louisiana, which was defeated, but was the largest uprising of enslaved people in the United States. So those two are a pretty good representative of what I'm interested in, which is, if I could hazard a kind of beginning to answering this question about what is memory and particularly what is historical memory: I would say it's a personal relationship to the past, which is mediated by places, objects, ritual practices, and I think what really distinguishes it from history proper is that it's kind of inescapably presentist and personal as well. It forces you to orient yourself personally, and look at what that history means for present circumstances.
Justin E.H. Smith [05:03]
That's so interesting. I wanted to come back to the presentism of it. Do you want to tell me about some other projects, your other writing projects you've been doing that are also focused on this theme, because I'm mostly familiar with your New Yorker piece.
Julian Lucas [05:23]
Absolutely. So this interest really began for me when I was very young, and I was interested in genealogical research. And I reached a kind of dead end when I was investigating my father's family, when I came to my great-great-great-grandfather, with the kind of improbable but I swear it's true name of Moses Lucas. And Moses Lucas was a Union soldier who had escaped from a plantation—he may have briefly been conscripted into the Confederate Army, and then escaped and became a soldier in the Union Army. And as soon as I learned about him, I became totally fascinated by him. And I reached a point where there was no more information to learn about him because he had been enslaved. And so the most I could find were some possible areas where people named Lucas had enslaved workers. And I remember this both horrified and fascinated me, because just after all of this experience of learning about my heritage—you know, not just my African American heritage, but also my mother's family from Germany and Ireland—I came to a point where there was an aporia and there was kind of a dead end, can go not further. And although that was horrifying because of the circumstances, it really sparked in me a kind of imaginative reckoning, because when you don't know, you're forced to imagine to a certain extent, and you're forced to face how much of history has not been recorded for various reasons. So that kind of inquiry continued for me in college, particularly. I studied Comparative Literature and African and African American Studies. And I began reading the work of the poet Derek Walcott.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:26]
Julian Lucas [07:26]
And so one of his works that I was very moved by is a short poem called “The Sea is History.” And he deals with the old charge that the Caribbean does not have a history, that Africa does not have a history that was traditionally made in Western thought. And so at the beginning of this poem, he says, "Where are your battles, your monuments, martyrs? Where is your tribal memory"—sort of this challenging voice from the Western tradition that is asking, do you even have a history? Are you even a people? And the answer is the sea. And the poem is a kind of extended meditation on viewing the Caribbean landscape itself as an equivalent for the cathedrals and libraries, et cetera, and monuments of Europe. And so that really moved me a great deal. And it got me on the track of thinking about the ways in which writers and artists in the African diaspora face the same dead end that I had reached in my genealogical research, and how that had opened them to new ways of conceptualizing the past, new forms of historiography, and new practices of memory. And then the final step I'll get to is I ended up writing a thesis on Walcott. And I became interested in the way that his poetry deals with embodied memory. So his longest poem, is this epic called Omeros. And it takes place in the St. Lucia of the late twentieth century, in a contemporary St. Lucia, where there are tourists and fishermen and retired British colonels and whatnot. But flashes of this more longue-durée history keep emerging, and they happen just in moments of the lives of the characters. There's a fisherman who's out on the ocean, open ocean, and he has an experience of sunstroke, and he ends up in a kind of dream reverie of, you know, returning to the Africa of his ancestors, and walking across the bottom of the ocean, to the Caribbean for three hundred years. And so all of these characters have these kinds of physically embodied experiences of the past, which are kind of alternatives to having more traditionally Western concrete representations of what we would call collective memory. And I learned that Derek Walcott was drawing on various Afro-diasporic religious traditions, particularly Haitian Vodoun. Where there's a sort of theology of direct physical encounter with the past, and maybe I'll stop there in case you have questions. I feel like I've said a lot.
Justin E.H. Smith [10:53]
Oh I'm just enjoying listening to this, you know, I thought I knew whence you spring fairly well, but I realized now I never knew before you were a Walcott scholar.
Julian Lucas [11:07]
Oh, yes, totally obsessed.
Justin E.H. Smith [11:10]
I'd heard you mention him before. But I didn't know that this was a subject of a long-term focused study. That's really cool. We'll get back to what you've been saying. And in fact, I wanted to rewind a bit. And this elides with some of my own current reflections on, let's say, broadly speaking, history and method. You said that memory is distinct from history, to the extent that it is inescapably presentist. And you also said that it is something that necessarily enlists the imagination, the faculty of the imagination, and that this is something that is particularly needed for certain kinds of engagement with the past, such as the engagement that is typical of a member of the African diaspora, for whom historical records don't exist, necessarily, or you reach a kind of limit in how far back you can draw on birth certificates and other vital statistics and things like that. And this makes me think to ask whether the difference between history proper and memory as you're describing it is necessarily so clear. I mean, for one thing, any honest historian will acknowledge that he or she must cultivate the historical imagination, right? And ability not just to rely on documentary sources, but also to bring them to life, in a difficult balance that is both not just making stuff up, but also not just conveying what's there in the documents, right? And finding that balance is what the goal of any responsible historian ought to be, right? So that's one consideration. And another is that historical methods are becoming rather sophisticated at retrieving insights from voices and actors who, fifty or even thirty or forty years ago, would have been considered unrecoverable, right? That is, people who because of their position in society, or maybe just people who were around so long ago that there were no records being kept or records that could be preserved long enough—all sorts of people who we thought their voices were unrecoverable, people are finding extremely creative and extremely convincing ways of recovering these voices. And maybe just to give you one example of this, there's been some interesting research trying to correlate what we know of climate history in pre-contact Australia, with Aboriginal Australian oral tales about distant historical events. And it's been pretty well documented that you didn't need historical records in the European archival sense in order to preserve the knowledge that there was a flood even several thousand years ago. So all of this is interesting to me, because both of these points from both of these angles, both the fact that the history of nineteenth-century bureaucrats in Prague or whatever, on the one hand, and on the other hand, coming from the other direction, the history of pre-contact Australia, both of these are kind of converging in a way that it seems to me challenges the distinction you want to make between memory and history. Does that make sense?
Julian Lucas [15:35]
It totally does make sense. And I want to clarify that I don't necessarily think that history cannot grapple with certain factors incapable of adapting to new types of sources. I think what it really comes down to is a difference in purpose. I think the whole reason that we need a word like "historical memory," rather than just history, is that historical memory is present-oriented, and it's supposed to be useful to a certain extent, and I think there are sometimes practices within what we call historical memory that then go back and inform what scholarly historians do and vice versa. But I really think it's not necessarily a difference in capability, as in, like, you know, the kind of "musty old historians aren't capable of understanding x or y" and I think it's more a difference in purpose and in orientation, and—yeah, go ahead.
Justin E.H. Smith [16:42]
Yeah, that's the presentism you brought up, and that's super interesting to me to think about, I think—shortly before we left New York last August, I think I was in a taxi or something, and the driver... I forget—I know this was in New York, I forget the circumstances. But someone, just a random conversation with some guy, asks me, "What do you do?" I lied, like I sometimes do. I'm actually a philosopher. Sometimes I claim to be a historian; it makes things a little bit easier. And so I tell this guy in New York, let's say it was a taxi driver, that I'm a historian, and he's like, "Oh, yeah, that's really important today." And for a second there I'm like, "What do you mean, are you being sarcastic?" But of course, what he means is the idea that filters out into the widespread public attitudes now, which is: that's important today because of our pressing social and political issues. In my gusty, oblivious way, I said it kind of in order to shut the conversation down, whereas for him, under the circumstances in the United States in the summer of 2020, it rather enlivens the conversation.
Julian Lucas [18:04]
Justin E.H. Smith [18:04]
This is, I think, the kind of difference that you're speaking to between living history and dusty history, you might call it
Julian Lucas [18:13]
Right, though I would—like you were saying, you know, I think if you read contemporary historians, there's nothing dusty about a lot of the work that they're doing, like a book that I thought of is Vincent Brown's "Tacky's Revolt," which is this account of a large late-eighteenth-century slave rebellion in Jamaica. And, you know, there are records of the troop movements and the British strategy. But what Brown does kind of within the limits of scholarly history—he's still speculating about the political objectives of this army of enslaved people on the basis of military movements that are recorded, because we don't have what they said they were planning to do, but by looking at the fact that they were moving toward the coast and trying to establish a position here where they might be able to communicate with the Spanish colonies to get aid... So absolutely, I think historians can do so much in that vein. To your point about the kind of 2020ish interest in history is just something that, you know, great, we can use it, it enlivens... You know, I actually think that often, one of the best things about the fact that history is not interested in what people need is that you can never really predict what history is going to be necessary to people. So even though it might seem like there's an opposition between the presentism of historical memory and the fidelity to just the scholarly work of looking at the past of history, often, those who are making use of the past are drawing on the scholarship of people who were working before that past was seen as particularly relevant.
Justin E.H. Smith [20:09]
One more concern about presentism, and then maybe we can move on to other issues, is that one fears that this opens up the possibility of misuse of history to people in ways that we would want to prevent. The example that comes to mind for me recently is the way in which Martin Luther King has been adapted and distorted and squeezed into every purpose imaginable, every Martin Luther King Day, including seasonal sales at stores, as well as an opportunity for the GOP to claim his legacy for themselves, and even for the FBI to send out a tweet saying, let's honor MLK's legacy.
Julian Lucas [21:05]
A great Twitter moment.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:07]
Right. [laughter] In a way you might fear that any one of those parties, the GOP or Macy's or the FBI, could come back to you and say, "Hey, I'm just living in the present, man, I'm just using MLK for our new present purposes."
Julian Lucas [21:27]
Justin E.H. Smith [21:27]
And there's some kind of worry there, isn't there, that if you allow a historical memory to be kind of present and shaped by your own present concerns, then other people are going to be doing it too, right. And you want to be able to point to the facts about the past and say, But those are the facts.
Julian Lucas [21:52]
Absolutely. And so this is where the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot—this great book, Silencing the Past, I think, has really been a guide for me. So he discusses what he calls the "silences of the archive." And there are kind of four levels, there's the moment when historical facts are recorded, and some are and some are not. There's the moment when they're archived, and you know, some are made available easily and some are not. Then there's the moment when they're narrativized. And then there's the moment when their significance is determined. And basically, what he lays out in this book is, it's necessary to historicize the way that people are using history—because I don't think it's something you can stop people from doing. I think public memory is something that is—someone is going to be making use of it, whether it's the state or corporations or, you know, private individuals, somebody is going to be turning history to their purposes. So, I guess my answer to that is just: there does need to be funding and protection of the traditional historical enterprise. And there needs to be attention paid to how that enterprise is adapted by those who have other purposes.
Justin E.H. Smith [23:19]
That's a perfectly commonsensical answer to my perhaps needless problematizing.
Julian Lucas [23:27]
No, no, I don't think it's needless at all. I mean, you know, a less reasonable way to put it might be just that, I think—the war over history is ongoing, and will not end, and I think to pretend that it's possible to not engage on the level of the public reception of history and the public and political making use of history is—that kind of work has to be done. It's just that I think the traditional historical work also has to be protected.
Justin E.H. Smith [24:02]
Right, right. I'm wondering if we can gain some insight about the uses and potentials of historical memory by talking in a bit more detail about slavery-revolt reenactment? You know, I think about different kinds of historical reenactment. And a long time ago when I was a kid, I was surrounded by people who were involved in, I think it's called the Society for Creative Anachronism, people who do medieval reenactments. And as I recall, I could be misremembering, but I think their slogan was "the past the way it should have been, not the way it was," which was kind of aggressively saying, we're doing something different here, that, you know, kind of bled into the world of like Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy, in ways that were always pretty unseemly to me. But then I was also long familiar with Civil War reenactment. And I always got a different sort of bad vibe from those guys, right? With the sense that well, first of all, who would want to play a Confederate, right? And you need people to play both sides. But there's got to be something wrong with at least one of the sides. But then, you know, I only learned about the different, the varieties of reenactment of the sort you described in your piece, when I read this piece. I had no idea that was going on before. And that seems to me to raise all sorts of other questions. And maybe I can just ask you bluntly a two-part question.
Julian Lucas [25:49]
Justin E.H. Smith [25:50]
What are they trying to get out of this when they do this? First of all. And second of all, is this morally salutary? Do you believe that this does people good?
Julian Lucas [26:02]
Mmhmm. So I would have to—I can't make a blanket statement about all kinds of practices of reenactment, if they're morally salutary. For example, the Underground Railroad reenactments I looked at, one of the things that was fascinating to me about them is that they had been used for purposes that I agreed with and that I did not agree with. So there was this beautiful sense of recovering the spirit of resistance of enslaved people and using that both to inspire black youth and to make youth from other backgrounds feel as though they understood that history and were part of that history of struggle. But at the same time, I found a pretty dark aspect of it, where it was being used by fairly conservative forces in the black community in the Twin Cities as a kind of scared-straight program, as in, you know, We're going to take you out into the woods and terrify you, and make you feel what your ancestors went through, so that you will be law-abiding, so you will not do anything that risks your freedom, by committing crimes, by getting in trouble with the law. And so that's a kind of troubling use of this historical trauma, really almost as an instrument of social control. So I just want to start by saying I think there's no easy way to just pass judgment on all of these as one. But to go back to your first question, which is, what do you think this kind of reenactment is trying to get at? So one of the things that really attracted me to the slave-rebellion reenactment is that most commemorations return to moments that did have a major effect on the historical timeline, you know: this is when we won our independence, this is when we defeated the rebels, this is when we walked on the moon, whatever it is. This was returning to a moment that really had no obvious sequel, had no obvious effect on—because the rebellion was crushed, and the ringleaders were executed, others were sold away, or just returned to their condition of enslavement. And in fact, the record of or news of the rebellion was really suppressed even at the time, because Louisiana had just become a territory of United States. And there was actually some fear among planters in Louisiana that this would delay their accession as a full state into the Union, if it seemed as though there was so much civil unrest there. And so what attracted me to returning to a moment like this, that was not part of a kind of chain of events that we recognize as leading to the present, is that it emphasizes the role of contingency in history, it emphasizes that if this had gone differently, we might be living in a different country. If this rebellion had been successful, perhaps the southeastern United States might not have been what it was, perhaps slavery would have been abolished in that area, and the whole course of the history of the country could have been different. And I think the important thing for the artist was getting people to imagine a way beyond the status quo in the present. So if these enslaved people who, the entire society they lived in was systematized and oriented towards extraction and domination, and yet they were able to imagine overthrowing this system, we should be able to look at things that seem immutable in our own political circumstances and imagine a way through them. Last point about this: so I think this was made particularly powerful by a direct parallel that the rebellion reenactment created between the 1811 landscape of Louisiana, where there were sugar plantations all along the Mississippi River, and the contemporary landscape, which as I saw as a participant in this reenactment, is covered with industrial facilities, oil refineries, chemical plants. It's actually known—the area is known as Cancer Alley. And there's actually a long history both of these oil companies purchasing these former plantations and often exploiting the descendants of enslaved people who lived in these areas, and of lawsuits from black communities in these areas against these oil companies, which in many cases are ongoing. And so that was another aspect of the reenactment, is that Dread Scott was very consciously juxtaposing this rebellion against the plantation economy and against the domination of slavery, with the struggle against, you know, the carbon economy, and the environmental racism that continues in Louisiana today. And you know, this point was made so simply just by the fact that, following the route of the original uprising, took us through this landscape where that's happening now.
Justin E.H. Smith [31:41]
Right. Right, right. So it's mobilizing well-documented events from the past to frame and expose a current crisis. Is that how you would understand it?
Julian Lucas [31:59]
Exactly, exactly. And I think of, you know, Walter Benjamin speaking about the past, you know, rising up in a moment and kind of forming a constellation with events in the present as something that that form of reenactment tries to evoke. You mentioned Civil War reenactments, and one of the things that's interested me most about the reenactments I've looked at, dealing with resistance to slavery, are that they don't try to create a reality effect of the past in the same way. With Civil War reenactments, it gets so intense that I've read that people will, they'll actually, like, pee on their buttons for their jackets, so they have the right kind of patina. And it's all about the visual spectacle of looking like you're from back then. But for these Underground Railroad reenactments, kids would be doing these in sweatpants. And the reality effect was supposed to be internal rather than spectatorial. And Dread Scott's reenactment, it did involve costumes. It did involve, you know, carrying rifles and having flags. But it also made no attempt to disguise the present surroundings that we marched through. Part of the point was this disjuncture, which I think is very—it both makes the past's inflection of the present more powerful, and I think it also deals with some of that concern you were talking about, where historical memory can try to warp the past. Making it very clear that there is a seam between these two, I think, can help address that concern that an illusion is being created by keeping people aware of the fact that this is a ritual, this is not like trying to pass for the past.
Justin E.H. Smith [34:04]
One thing that strikes me—and again, we are trying to zero in on a definition of memory here, right. And, of course, there are all sorts of levels of memory or connotations of the term that we're not even addressing, for example the Proustian memory of distant autobiographical experience, we're not talking about the neuroscience of memory, and the role of the hippocampus versus the neocortex, and all of that stuff in the storage of long-term memories and so on. But I still feel like if we want a definition of memory in the sense that preoccupies you, and about which you're a sort of expert, it is worthwhile to consider all of the different senses of the term. And one of the ways to do that that I've been thinking about is—it's a weird question to ask. But is there any sense in which you can say you remember the slave rebellion of which they're doing historical reenactments. Now, I'll just expand a little bit so that you don't think I'm talking about past lives or anything wild like that. There's a sense in which history is subjective for all of us. And I think about hearing my grandmother's Arkansas accent when I was five years old, and not yet knowing anything about Dust Bowl migrations and other things, you know, not knowing any facts about the world at all. And nonetheless, sensing something that later, once I started to learn about the world, fills out these pre-erudite basic experiences of the people around me and my earliest memory. So there's a strange—and I, you know, I could adduce other examples, I can remember kind of somehow sincerely thinking that my own grandfather was George Washington. Maybe not exactly George Washington himself, but some kind of like avatar of George Washington, right?
Julian Lucas [36:33]
He at least had a wig and a big horse.
Justin E.H. Smith [36:36]
Right. [Laughter] And then, you know, so there's a sense in which memory and history are intertwined, because what history actually is, is a kind of later accretion of facts over basic and very intimately subjective experiences. Does that make sense?
Julian Lucas [37:00]
It absolutely does, which is why I think historical memory has a sort of parasitic relationship—not in the negative sense, but it depends on the apparatus of the other forms of memory. So if you really are going to feel a personal connection to the past, and you're going to try to construct an experience where, you know, something you didn't live through somehow becomes part of your own personal experience, you're going to have to draw on the senses, you're going to have to draw on the affection and feelings of kinship that you have for particular real people and places. And it's almost as though the effort to create a historical memory piggybacks off of those more organic forms of memory and tries to create a link between them. This is one thing that I thought is so brilliant about Derek Walcott's poetry is that he really, he takes the question of history and he makes it a question of landscape. And a quote of his that always sticks with me is "the light has never had epics." And I think the simple idea that people in the past were in a very real sense looking at the same ocean, they were walking by the same river, they felt the same breeze—as simple as that sounds, I think it's the keystone of why these these experiences of reenactment and ritual really work, because they attempt to create sensory experiences that you just, you are feeling, you really are there, and say to you: There may be a lot that people in the past were feeling and thinking that you can never experience, but if you can draw together a kind of a gathering of sensory experience that you did share, that kind of spark can leap between past and present. I thought about this a lot when I was traveling in Benin and Senegal and kind of looking at the the heritage tourism industry there. One of the most interesting forms of commemorative monument I think in the world is the Door of No Return, of which there are several. And the most famous is on Goree Island off the coast of Dakar in Senegal. And it's a French colonial house that was once a departure point for the slave trade—less so than the tourist industry there likes to pretend, but it was involved. And at this kind of mini-dock attached to this house, you walk through a room and there's just a kind of empty doorframe that looks out at the Atlantic Ocean. It's undeniably just powerful to stand in a dark room, in an old house, and just look out at the Atlantic Ocean. And I think, particularly if you have a kind of experience of—if you are a black person in the Americas, and you know that you're descended from that experience, it's impossible not to feel something. But I think all of these experiences of commemoration draw on the natural environment almost as an alternative to the built environment, which has been so much the representative of historical memory in Europe. And so another example I think of is, with these Underground Railroad reenactments, it's the experience of being disoriented in the dark at night. And that this is an experience that you can share with those who ran away from slavery in the New Orleans reenactment, or the 1811 rebellion reenactment. You know, it was literally following in their footsteps. This is the same landscape. And in fact, you know, it's a landscape that it may look different than it did then. But you could make an argument that it's shaped by the same forces of expansionist extractive capitalism, just a new generation of that same. So I think nature and landscape are a very important part of drawing that connection.
Justin E.H. Smith [41:35]
One last question that can help us zero in on conclusions, though I'm already predicting, we're going to have looser conclusions than Socrates would have hoped for in terms of definitions, but that's just the nature of the topic, I think. I recall something that really impressed me in a book by David Abulafia. And I'm forgetting the title, but something about a history of the Atlantic world that starts circa 1300. So very intentionally well before Columbus, and when, you know, in the early chapters of this book, kind of necessarily, he's not looking at ship records, or the travels or experiences of individual people. And he's drawing on some scholarship, I would have to look this up, kind of trying to probabilistically speculate on the likelihood of West African fishing vessels being pulled out to sea and going all the way across to the Americas as a result of ocean currents, and therefore, pre-Columbian African-American contacts, right? And the conclusion is that it's pretty like—there's nothing, there's nothing definitive about this, and there's no smoking gun. This gets us to an interesting question that we seem to have been orbiting around, where there's no smoking gun, and where there are no documents, we rely on probabilistic speculation, and we rely on our imaginations. But one thing that falls out of the picture is that particular West African fisherman who got sucked out to sea, and we have to just either make him up or stay in the realm of abstraction, you know, some West African fisherman or other. And there then the question becomes: Whose experience are we reconstructing or speculating about when we're limited to that kind of history? Right? And one is possibly just saying it's humanity in general. One is saying it's the experiences of a particular community, particular region of the world... Is it when the individuals fall out? As in the example I gave when the individuals are inaccessible, or even—we could talk about this—Moses Lucas, your ancestor, when we move beyond him, and we find that there are no more accessible individuals? Is that where the thing you're calling memory kicks in?
Julian Lucas [44:32]
That's a really interesting question. And this is why I'm fascinated by the work of writers like Saidiya Hartman and John Keene. So Saidiya Hartman is probably the most famous practitioner of this and she has this idea of critical fabulation. But there are many black writers who are engaged in this kind of work, and it's kind of dealing in specifics, taking archival material, taking facts that are known, and particular individuals, and then speculating in such a way that you're not contradicting any of the known facts even as you're moving beyond them. So one of my favorite stories in John Keene's book Counternarratives is, it's called "Mannahatta." And it's about this man, Juan Dominguez, who was a black Portuguese sailor who became the first permanent settler who was not from Manhattan Island in Manhattan Island. He married into the local Algonquin peoples. And so very little is known about him except that he defected from the ship where he was a sailor, and then he was a trader and had married a local bride, but Keene turns this into, you know, imagining what he might have felt making this decision. And kind of presenting this as, you know, an alternative origin story to the experiment of the Americas. So I think there's something very powerful that can be done by attending to those specifics, and moving beyond them very carefully, that writers like Hartman, and Keene have shown the way. But there is of course a moment where there are no longer individuals. And I think that's where these, you know, specific places and environments and forms of, you know, physically reenacting certain experience become a substitute for that knowledge of individuals. If you can go to this, you may not know the names of people who, you know, marched from the inland city of Abomey to Ouidah, who were then shipped across the Atlantic, but you can go to those places, you can see what the land looks like, you can feel how it felt to make that walk to the shore. And that becomes a kind of starting point for feeling a connection to that history, and then hopefully, using that to orient yourself in the present. Something that I wanted to mention is that all of this inquiry that I've done about memory in the African diaspora has really been guided by the theology of Haitian Vodoun. And one of the most interesting things to me about this religious tradition is that the deities are not kind of transcendent entities that stand outside of time. They are spirits that actually are accumulations of the spirits of human beings who have really lived. And, you know, there are particular archetypes, families of spirits, and and when you die, your spirit may join one of those families of spirits. So it's a fascinating kind of reconciliation of the need to have an individual representative of the past, but also recognizing that there are many multitudes who are not—could not—be named. And to get back to the presentism question, these deities in Vodoun really only manifest through the experience of ritual possession. And so that fact of presentism is very—it's almost a theology, a theology of historical memory that incorporates the fact that you need to have a physical experience, and that history has meaning when it comes into present circumstances and are molded by them. And I just want to give some credit where credit is due, but there's an excellent book by the scholar Colin Dayan called Haiti, History, and the Gods.
Justin E.H. Smith [48:53]
Yeah, I think I've seen that before. Yeah. Okay. Now, this is an excellent recommendation.
Julian Lucas [48:58]
It's just a brilliant consideration of the way that Haitian history has been encoded into practices, very physically active practices, of belief. In my own work, I've tried to establish a connection between reenactment practices in the United States and Afro-diasporic religious practices of embodied historical memory.
Justin E.H. Smith [49:27]
Right. It's pretty amazing. It's almost as if the challenge of the absence or the dearth of documentary sources—of what counts as historical source in the narrow sense—this challenge, when faced up to, actually gives you a much richer access to the thing you're after. The thing that falls away is the individuals with their birth certificates and their vital records and their diaries, and whatever else a historian might value. What comes into clearer relief is the lived experience of many different people whose names we do not know.
Julian Lucas [50:18]
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think there's some particular ways in which the practices of memory in the African diaspora can change the way we look at history more broadly. One of those is I think there's something intrinsically anti-nationalist about looking at those memory practices, because, you know, you have to contend—you know, you said you believed your grandfather was George Washington when you were a kid.
Justin E.H. Smith [50:46]
In a weird way I still believe it, which is—I mean, I know he's not but again, he is, right? It's weird. [Laughter]
Julian Lucas [50:54]
Maybe you need an exorcism. [Laughter] But I think there's, you know, when you have to look at histories where people lost their national identity, lost their languages, it becomes impossible to kind of do this matryoshka-doll projection back in time and like, ah, you know, as they teach in French schools, like "our ancestors, the Gauls" because you're made aware of something which is true of all human societies, but which is particularly pronounced in the history of African diaspora which is that people are always being ripped out of nations or leaving them, nations cease to exist. And they they join with each other. And so if you want to imagine yourself in the past and have a visceral connection with the past, the question of people like me in the past has to be much more complicated and much broader. Then I think also, I think the practices of memory I've looked at really emphasize contingency, and things that almost happened or might have happened, rather than commemorating what brought us up to this point.
Justin E.H. Smith [52:04]
Right. Thought about this George Washington thing a lot recently. Oh man, I don't have any time to go into this, but I had a long correspondence with Henry Louis Gates about genealogy recently, and he had an ancestry test sent to me, to encourage me to take it. I told him, "I'm against this in principle," and he was like, "Well, maybe I can change your mind. Here's a DNA test." And so I took the test, and then I didn't learn anything more from that—there were some little surprises, not much. I knew who I was genetically, but it did compel me to think and to try to articulate reasons why I have mixed feelings about this. But one thing that I was thinking in connection with this is, it is indeed a very particular kind of historical and ideological implantation in the world, to be able to think my grandfather is George Washington. To be able to have that thought, when you're like four years old, both presumes that, you know, in my case, that I thought my grandfather was just, you know, a trustworthy, paternal figure who had been around a long time. And I also thought the mythical founder of my country was a trustworthy paternal figure.
Julian Lucas [53:38]
Justin E.H. Smith [53:39]
And that presumes so much, and there's so much to tease out of all of that. And again, you know, I joked about actually believing it, but the way that gets implanted is again, you know, something that so to speak prior to history that we experience as memory and then history gets layered over it. And everyone's experience, whether it's diasporic like the one you're describing or not diasporic like the one I'm describing, where you are confident that you know where you come from—whether it's true or not is another question, whether you're justified in this belief is another question. But there's so much imaginative power that goes into this before we start filling it out with facts. In a way, what you're doing and your interest in reconstruction and historical memory is taking that imaginative experience seriously, alongside the facts, right, is that a good way to put it?
Julian Lucas [54:51]
That's absolutely a good way to put it. Just I have to mention, I just think it's so funny. So when I first met Professor Gates as an undergraduate, he also gave me a coupon for an ancestry test. So something we have in common. Actually the first thing he said to me was that I looked like Prince. And then he handed me a coupon for 23andMe. But I share your skepticism about the the genetic, genealogical, not least because I've watched my own percentage of African ancestry fluctuate over the years, so it's like, well, you know, one day I'm a quadroon, you know, where is it gonna land? But you know, I am fascinated by it, even though of course, it means that governments around the world could clone me, or whatever, but I'm very skeptical of the genetic taking the place of this more humanistic work of figuring out how you fit in the past.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:00]
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen, I don't know if we've arrived at a definition, today just wasn't one of those days. But I feel like whatever it is, it's agreement. [Laughter] I hear some church bells chiming.
Julian Lucas [56:23]
There we go.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:26]
Yeah, no, it's it's funny, isn't it? If we can do just a few minutes of postgame wrap-up, I realized a few minutes in that first of all, this was just the most fascinating conversation I've had in or out of a podcast in a long time.
Julian Lucas [56:42]
Oh, I'm glad.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:43]
But second of all, the definition just really isn't the point.
Julian Lucas [56:49]
I know, I'm sorry. I feel like I've resisted the format. [Laughter]
Justin E.H. Smith [56:52]
No, no, that's that's all the better. I mean, in a way, it might reveal to us the limitedness of the Socratic model as a form of intellectual pursuit. And if we could go back in time to the agora and talk to Socrates, we might well want to say, Who cares what the necessary and sufficient conditions are?
Julian Lucas [57:18]
I mentioned Walcott's poem, “The Sea is History" begins Socratically—"where are your battles, monuments, martyrs?" So I think even arriving at some of these practices of memory has happened in a kind of Socratic response to, you know, the cathedrals and chronicles and all of that.
Justin E.H. Smith [57:40]
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So anyhow, we are in agreement to the extent that I don't think we've disagreed on anything. But that's still probably technically aporia. Right? Because because we don't have a definition. So like, relative to the rules of the game on this podcast, we're in aporia. Okay, I admit it. But kind of relative to the spirit of this conversation, we're in agreement. Does that sound good?
Julian Lucas [58:12]
The price, the price is undefined, right? Divide by zero.
Justin E.H. Smith [58:19]
So just to wrap up, and then we'll call it a night, you have been listening to the "What Is X?" podcast. I'm your host, Justin E. H. Smith, and with me today has been Julian Lucas, writer and critic based in Brooklyn, who is an expert and very serious thinker on the legacies of the African diaspora. So thank you so much for being with me here today, Julian.
Julian Lucas [58:52]
Thank you, Justin. This has been such a pleasure.