A recent piece in The Root on World War II-generation African Americans got me thinking about memory.
When people die they take their memories with them. Their memories become inaccessible forever. Our understanding of events that shaped our world can be lost with the death of one woman, man, or child.
When memories have contemporary political valence, this can be dangerous. Allesandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out: History, Memory, and the Meaning of a Nazi Massacre in Rome (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) illustrates this point well. Portelli shows how nationalist Italians have purposefully misremembered the circumstances of a Nazi massacre sixty-five years ago for present political purposes. In 1945, anti-fascist Italian partisans attacked a column of German soldiers in Nazi-occupied Rome. The Nazis retaliated less than 24 hours later by massacring more than 300 Italians. Pro-fascist Italians at the time concocted a counter-narrative that blamed the partisans, not the Nazis, for the massacre, alleging that the partisans ought to have turned themselves in to forestall the murders. The documentary record demonstrates that this was never possible, but the counter-narrative is persistent, even among young right-leaning Italians today. Portelli's work rescues the truth, but only in the nick of time—the citizens of Rome who remember what really happened are now elderly. Many have already passed away.
Granted, most cases of memory are not so politically and morally fraught. But the fact remains that the loss of memory accompanying a person's death is also tragic for the historical record. Since the inception of large-scale oral history projects in the 1940s like the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers Project—and the cultural turn in the humanities since the 1960s—academic historians in America have increasingly considered this. This is a good thing; memory enriches the documentary record.
The next step is to understand that generational memory loss is no longer as inevitable as it once was, thanks to technology, which has made democratized/amateur oral history a reality. If you have a laptop, or even a smart phone, you can conduct an oral history. StoryCorps has an excellent Do-It-Yourself guide to oral histories; the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress is another good place to start.