Rooted in the conceptual and received notion that personal histories are necessarily imbricated in larger historical, social, and political narratives, “My History of History” is a performance forum that engages individual and collective responses to pivotal historical moments. Each of the ten auto/historical performances featured here seeks the liminal space between the personal and the political to ask and answer the following questions: How do we feel, shape, remember, and embody socio-political-historical narratives? In times of adversity, debate, upheaval, loss, etc., how do we give voice to and trace a particular moment in history? How does this history linger in our selves, our bodies, and our stories?
My President was also Black
This is hardly the day or time. It is my husband's birthday. And it is mid-afternoon on the eve of Christmas 2016. Dinner needs to be cooked. Instead, I am lounging on an armchair in our living room, lost in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates's most recent essay, “My President Was Black,” in The Atlantic Monthly; a piece of writing that I predict will become one of the greatest essays about race and politics in the history of American letters.1 When the magazine arrived earlier in the week, I was afraid to read it. Like many liberals and progressives in the United States—but one who is a recent immigrant, a new citizen, and a woman of color—I have been lost in the collective trauma and disgust unleashed by the unlikely presidential win of celebrity businessman Donald Trump. After all, Barack Obama was the first American president I voted for, a black president. And when he won, I thought the gates were wide open for the first female presidency in the United States. We know now that this remains a dream deferred. But, let me not digress.
As I read Coates's essay, I expected a requiem, a kind of tender long goodbye to our one and only black president, by one of the most influential black writers of the past decade. Very soon, I realized I was reading history, not just the history of a black presidency, but the history of a black man, a writer, an American citizen, who was telling us “his” story of the first black American presidency. I mourned along with him in these lines that I have read and re-read:
This would not happen again, and everyone knew it. It was not just that there might never be another African American president of the United States. It was the feeling that this particular black family, the Obamas, represented the best of black people, the ultimate credit to the race, incomparable in elegance and bearing.2
As I continued reading, I wondered, how would I write my history of my black president? Yes, my president was also black. What would I say? What would my experience and story, as a new immigrant of South Asian descent, bring to the story of America's first black presidency? Would I write about marveling at junior senator Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which occurred around the same period I was getting ready to defend my doctoral dissertation in the small town of West Lafayette, IN? I was not yet a citizen. Would I write about his May 2004 profile in The New Yorker entitled “The Candidate,”3 which became the central topic of the first phone conversation I had with a man from Chicago, IL, a man I would marry the following year? We were both not yet citizens. Would I talk about the moment in the 2008 primary when I watched Obama's famous race speech in Pennsylvania from my condominium in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was teaching for a semester; a speech that elicited shouts of pure joy, a speech that clinched the democratic nomination (in my eyes) for him? Would I address the intense conflict I felt as a woman of color forced to choose between a black male and a white female candidate, because loyalty to one felt like such a disavowal of the other? I was (still) not yet a citizen. Would I write about both the intense joy and sorrow I felt in taking US citizenship in 2011? Joy, because I could now participate fully in this democracy, and because Obama would run for a second term and I would add my vote/voice to history. Sorrow, because taking US citizenship meant renouncing my Indian citizenship, in a sense rejecting the country where I was born, rejecting home. Or would I write about that moment in October 2012, when my black president came to my campus to campaign for his re-election? And a month later, I would vote for Obama. Would telling my story matter?
Does My Story Matter?
This last question, “would telling my story matter?” has been the simple, yet profound impetus for this performance forum entitled “My History of History.”4 The idea for this forum originated a few years before the 2016 election. It was inspired wholly by this thoughtful stanza from Matthew Goulish's 39 Microlectures:
How do we understand something? We understand something by approaching it. How do we approach something? We approach it from any direction. We approach it using our eyes, our ears, our noses, our intellects, our imaginations. We approach it with silence. We approach it with childhood. We use pain or embarrassment. We use history. We take a safe route or a dangerous one. We discover our approach and we follow it.5
My interest in these lines, indeed my gentle obsession with them, dovetailed with my intellectual and personal interest in how we human beings, tell, sense, and live along with historical events. What do such personal accounts of history contribute to our collective sense as historical subjects? What do live audiences and readers learn from such accounts? Oral historians have long believed that individual and collective responses to pivotal historical moments show us how personal histories are always imbricated in larger historical, social, and political narratives. Speaking to the power of testimony in oral history performance, Della Pollock writes:
History cannot be held privately. No one person “owns” a story. Any one story is embedded in layers of remembering and storying. Remembering is necessarily a public act whose politics are bound up with the refusal to be isolated, insulated, inoculated against both complicity with and contest over claims to ownership.6
The performances that you experience in this forum are public enactments of private experiences. As a first conceptual move, they merge Goulish's approach to “understanding” with a performance-based approach to both oral history and autobiography. At the same time, the performances enact another conceptual move, one that addresses the sensory. They embody “affective atmospheres,” what Ben Anderson describes as entities that
are a kind of indeterminate affective “excess” through which intensive space–times can be created…. They are indeterminate with regard to the distinction between subjective and objective…. they are impersonal in that they belong to collective situations and yet can be felt as intensely personal.7
These performative and affective moves were encouraged by a set of memory triggers given to the participants, also taken from Goulish:
They were asked to choose a specific incident from their past
They had to find a historical event that occurred approximately at that time
They created a performative environment, in text and performance, that expressed the feeling of the memory in relation to that historical event
They drew out, mapped, wrote, and performed, a confluence of moments that were linked (or not) with each other8
In order to coalesce the sensory, the affective, and the performative, the performers asked themselves the following questions:
How do I feel, shape, remember, and embody socio-political-historical narratives?
In times of adversity, debate, upheaval, loss, how do I give voice, emotion, and form to a particular moment in history?
How does this history linger in my identity, my body, and my story?
In short, I was asking the performers to “show”—affectively, performatively, autobiographically—why their telling of their story mattered.
The performances range in breadth and depth from personal memories of 9/11, the Iraq war, and military tattoos, to the armed conflict in Colombia, the death of newsrooms, the death of Michael Jackson, and the controversial trial of O. J. Simpson. In a hair-raising performance about love and hate, Lisa Trocchia-Baļķīts enacts her experience of the 9/11 attacks from Crete, Greece, where, on that day in 2001 she became engaged to her partner. In protest and grief, but also in solidarity and joy, in “Be Hair Now,” Lisa shows how her dreadlocked hair became her “peace witness” and her opportunity to experience the intersections of privilege, knowing, and knowledge. Remembering his village, thousands of miles away in Mauritania, Africa, Sidi Becar Meyara enacts memories of teenage years spent listening to the radio with his father. The news of the twin towers also reaches them via this same radio. Meyara's performance, “A Muslim's Experience in Post-9/11 America,” intersects those earlier moments of radio-listening with his arrival in the United States and the haunting influence of the twin-tower attacks on his life here as a Muslim student. In “Repeat,” Stevie M.Munz performs a story about the military, sibling love, and family by showing how she re-experienced family military deployments and displacements in her sister's decision to enlist in the army during the Iraq war. Sean Gleason's “Freedom's Call” centers on the custom of a military tattoo and examines the climate and atmosphere of a mid-western city post-9/11. Gleason's inventory of ordinary affects examines the ways in which violence, fear, and boredom mark the post-9/11 American military psyche.
From 9/11 to popular culture, in “O. J., Dad, and Me,” Steve Granelli puts forth a riveting performance about his relationship with his father filtered through the family's friendship with O. J. Simpson and his infamous and publicized 1994 murder trail. Following this, Alane Presswood's “Death of an Idol” explores themes of youth, loss, and independence during the last summer she spent in her childhood home in Philadelphia, PA. Presswood's memories intersect with the of death of pop-cultural icon Michael Jackson, an idol she inherited from her mother. In “My Life in Newsrooms,” Christy Zempter mourns the death of traditional newsrooms where she worked as a journalist from the early 1990s to mid-2000s. Linked with the shift from print to digital is the death of a beloved colleague whose loss cannot be separated from the end of journalism as Zempter lived it.
The next two performance scripts engage personal stories of US state and general elections. Justin J. Rudnick traces his personal experiences surrounding a proposed state-wide ban on same-sex marriage in 2006 to show how one simple, single vote created a space of possibility for him to create a queer identity. Rudnick approaches “hindsight” as a performative that can help disentangle one significant storyline from the history of his identity. From here we move to the 2012 US general election and Kristen E. Okamoto who was living in Germany at the time. In “Whose Election Is It?” Okamoto performs a story that shows how Obama's re-election became significant because of its insignificance in her life as an expatriate. Okamoto's cobbled together autobiographical reflections show how North, South, German, American, Democrat, or Republican intersected to enact the arbitrariness of borders and boundaries.
We end as we began: with another hair-raising, suspense-filled, and poignant performance. Camilo Perez's story takes place amidst the 1990s violence in Colombia. The characters in “The Gold Medal” are three objects—a gold medal, a gun, and a steak—that illuminate how an ordinary citizen lived one frightening personal moment in his country's recent violent history. Perez's performance urges us to ask simultaneously: What would I have done in his place? Have I ever experienced this fear? Is this what violence can do?
Autobiographical Performances Are/As Generative Encounters
The performances in this forum illuminate the generative nature of autobiographical performance, an idea that is steeped in Victor Turner's notion of “performative reflexivity,” which he described as “a condition in which a socio-cultural group, or its most perceptive members, acting representatively turn, bend, or reflect back about themselves.”9 Each performer and every performance doubly enacts such a performative reflexivity: first when performers create their own performances by accessing personal memories linked with historical events; second when “we” audience these autobiographical performances. We/the audience engage in a reflexive turn, what Bryant Keith Alexander considers the “critical move of making sense of lived experience triggered by a performance of bending the critical eye inward.”10 As the participants in this panel recall, remember, and recollect to perform, they draw out, cajole, and invite audience members into a reflexive loop with the hope of triggering new autobiographical performances that engage civic life. Ultimately, for me, as an organizer and an audience member, they generate “encounters with the unforeseen… not merely the prefigured.”11
For instance, when Granelli performs his story about O. J. Simpson, his father, and himself, I find myself recalling that I watched the trial on television from my parents’ bedroom in New Delhi, India, and was astonished, even confused by the American racial landscape. I was twenty years old and in my final year of college. When Meyara performs “A Muslim's Experience in Post-9/11 America,” I find myself returning to my international graduate student self on that warm fall Tuesday in West Lafayette, IN, where, overnight, all of us non-whites re-experienced our foreignness in new, more oppressive ways.
Performance scholars Craig Gingrich-Philbrook and Amber Johnson illustrate the critic's reflexivity in their responses to the performances. Gingrich-Philbrook argues that these autoethnographic scripts, which are read rather than performed, “do things with experience that go beyond merely citing it,” they forge a “we” and “they speak alone, but listen together, and that, as ever, is the point of performance.” Johnson provides her response as a witness and a live audience member who was there as the stories were publicly staged. Johnson's response here is alive and enacts a poignant critical reflexivity whereby she “becomes” another one of the performers in her moving generative response. In her own words, she shows how, “within the critical performance space, we all become vulnerable to reinvention.”
This forum illustrates how history is lived and performed by both the “I” and the “we”—in the everyday, by our senses, by our bodies, and in our stories. In remembering, storying, and performing, the participants show how everyday actions and affective enactments of history (broadly defined) are integral to understanding how we make meaning of critical events in our lives. We hope that each performance is an invitation to the readers and audience members to consider that telling, showing, and performing history is at once a public, but also a most private, act.