This week's field trips were all about nostalgia, the perfect way to start marking what is (I hope) the slow transition from summer to fall. It's a zillion degrees outside, but the ladyfriend swears she can smell a change in the weather, and in a sense of hope and solidarity, I say I can, too. I'm already nostalgic for summer, even though it isn't over yet, remembering fondly the start of it when the season lay out in front of us, full of promises for trips to the beach—we never made it there—and long bike rides—they were surprisingly short this time around. Ah, beginnings, when everybody's batting 1.000 and we're all tied in the race for the pennant. Miss you already.
First up on the nostalgia train was a surprise trip to Harrisburg, PA with the ladyfriend. She didn't tell me where we were going or why, but once we passed York, PA on I-83, I started to get suspicious that she was taking me to a state capitol to visit the heart of Pennsylvania's democracy. Little did I know, Harrisburg also boasts the National Civil War Museum, which is basically a big building meant to summon nostalgia for a time period most of us know little about and to which few of us can claim any real ties but that shapes us all deeply, whether we know it or not. Civil War nostalgia veers from the ugly Lost Cause stories of the South to Northern fantasies of ending slavery.
I love the Civil War for its position as a fulcrum in the struggle for emancipation, because we aren't there yet. It interests me for the way people do history about it, the way the stories North and South tell have the effect if uniting the nation in a story of white armed struggle, as if the war wasn't always and forever about slavery.
Harrisburg's story of the Civil War turned out to be about the Fighting Men of North and South, what one of my favorite historians, David Blight, might call a reconciliation narrative. Each part of the museum represented North and South as two similarly situated fighting forces, both with their own struggles as they each fought for their beliefs. The exhibit ends with a very short story of Reconstruction, claiming that it failed partly due to Federal overreach. Well, that's one way to look at it, but here we are, 2016, and we still need "Federal overreach" to get Baltimore to seriously look at its racist and sexist policing practices. The Department of Justice was founded during Reconstruction to give the Feds more ways to litigate civil rights violations, and I would not be the first to argue that it was the lack of Federal overreach that led to the failure of Reconstruction, and this same lack risks leaving Baltimore's response to the recent DOJ report nothing but window dressing.
But I digress. The museum's exhibit ends with a sign carrying a few words from Frederick Douglass in 1871: "We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation's life, and those who strove to save it—those who fought for slaver and those who fought for liberty and justice." That's it. I was like, um, it's pretty obvious he said something after that, like about how that's a terrible demand? He did. The rest of the quotation is: "I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict." That makes a lot more sense. Douglass reminds us, just six years out from the war, that our memory of it cannot forget that these were two different sides, and one was fighting for slavery. The museum's nostalgia renders it unable to hear the rest of Douglass' words, and for me, that helped me understand the rest of the place, and its dangerous history.
This was one kind of nostalgia—as cerebral as it was affective, a series of arguments even as it hit me in the gut. But then there's the nostalgia that's purely personal, about which one cannot really be intellectual at all. And that's what I felt when my friend Brian took me to an Ani DiFranco show in Annapolis last week.
Here is how I remember Ani DiFranco: I first saw her in the student center of Barnard College, shortly after I realized that the feelings I had about that one girl on campus might mean something. I hadn't kissed a girl—or anyone, if we're being honest—but I was pretty sure I was a lesbian. But I was pretty sure none of the lesbians would believe me, they'd see right through me, know I was just trying to be cool and failing miserably. And then I was listening to Ani DiFranco on repeat on my boombox as I chain smoked Camel Lights, dumping the butts in an old spaghetti sauce jar as Ani's songs 'Untouchable Face' spoke my whole romantic life and 'Not a Pretty Girl' spoke to the angry feminist I was just starting to see emerge. I'd been a feminist forever, but Ani really helped me tap into the angry part.
I hadn't heard a lot of her songs in 20 years, but that night I still remembered all the lyrics, felt all the feelings of unrequited love, longing, desire, that exquisite pain of finally seeing what you want and not being able to get quite close enough to it, and oh my goodness, that was a nostalgic night. Time passes, it turns out, and we change, but we are still who we were then. We best not forget, though, how we are shaped by our, and a collective, past.