The National Moment

Writer: 
November 30, 2002
Holloway: putting voice, and memory, to the losses

Holloway: putting voice, and memory, to the losses. Chris Hildreth.

In September 11, 2002, time seemed to stand still, even to double back on itself. On television were images of the World Trade Center, the attacks, and the aftermath. On the radio were interviews with people describing where they were a year before, what they had seen. At occasional, surreal moments, it was as if it were September 11, 2001.

But this day of replay was a ritual of grief and mourning, of remembrance and healing. Rather, this was a day of many rituals--from the reading of the names in New York to the military solemnities at the Pentagon to the appearance of the president in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at the site of the crash of United Flight 93. Symphonies around the world joined in Mozart's Requiem. In churches across the country, people gathered for services. At Duke, six trees were planted by the Duke Alumni Association in memory of lost alumni Rob Lenoir '84, Peter Ortale '87, Todd Pitman '93, Todd Rancke '81, Frederick Rimmele M.D. '94, and Michael Taylor '81.

Grief underlay the events of the day, grief and a connection to the grim events of the year before. That connection is felt whether an actual, intimate connection to the attacks exists, says Karla Holloway, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English, dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, and author of Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, who spoke on the anniversary as a guest on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation.

" We discover that we have a space in a narrative that we might not have assumed an intimacy with," Holloway says. "We are all citizens. So when a moment like this happens, our identification with mourning and grief is not because we knew this particular person, but because we, too, are citizens."

Even if we did not personally know someone who perished, she says, we identify with the larger national grief--the momentousness of memory, which allows us to feel connected with strangers and which brings distant events home to us.

" I think the moment was constructed for us out of the event itself and then out of the consequences of the event," she says. Through video images or radio clips, through the telling of story after story, "we found ourselves involved. Our choice is to stand before these images, to receive them. And the visual is a human visual--you've got mothers and sisters and sons and daughters, and each one of us is one of these things, if not more. Seeing that intense, personal kinship, as well as that national kinship, there is a compassion that you have as human beings."

In Passed On, Holloway examines African-American rituals of grief and mourning, telling the difficult story of the death of her own son, and describing the "hard work" of grief. Such telling--of Holloway's story, of the stories of the victims, of such survivors as Karen Preziosi and Owen May--can be difficult.

" I think it makes [grief] harder," Holloway says. "That doesn't mean it's not necessary. The 'telling' is always another embodiment, another giving body to the dead. And that body--putting voice to it, memory to it--is another way to miss somebody, to lose somebody, because the only things you have left are the words."

In the face of this remaining grief, Holloway says, other parts of our loss become clear. On NPR, she spoke of the "opportunity for compassion," the "discovery of a compassionate attention within those of us who have otherwise been emptied by grief."

" Had I had more time on that subject on NPR," she says later, "I would have said that we have lost this moment of national compassion, national reflection--the national sense that we can do better. There's a sermon at the end of my book, which says, 'We've got to be better than the world.' This was the moment when we were going to go there or not, and I think that all of the furor of the past weeks and probably the months to come tend to show that we are not going to be what we can be as a nation and a people. The embodiment of our country's values is what we had the opportunity to sustain, to nurture, and I think that is one more loss."

Nonetheless, Holloway says, the moment has not been completely lost. She recalls teaching a freshman FOCUS seminar last fall, a class in which several students were from New York City, and the "reflective, considerate thinking about where our place is" in which those students engaged. "As a campus community," she says, "where we bring together the national and the political and the social and the global, I think this moment also urged us to consider the personal--the nearness of our own responses and relationships to the world. To have that opportunity to be better in the world."