How to Remember in America

This essay appears as part of the series for Reflections on Jefferson Pinder's Ghost Light.


Is the past ever truly apart from us? Or is it more like a haint - a spectre hanging in the air vying for us to attend matters left unsettled?

It cannot be argued that for the better part of the 242-year lifespan of this country, only that which has upheld Whiteness’ stranglehold on American society has been affirmed. Accordingly, an ahistorical, racist and cognitively dissonant worldview has prevailed; often pitching decency and logic just outside of our collective view. The same fight has been waged countless times with varying degrees of success because the ideals etched into our Constitution have not been offered to all of us with the same fidelity. It seems America has become a place where one comes to forget that which is inconvenient? Perhaps, it always was. At this moment in the United States, in particular, one could argue that the past - distant and recent - has taken a wraith-like form. If you can see, it is undeniable. It looms large beckoning us away from what is certainly impending oblivion, pushing back against our continued foolhardy ways. The truth is, we can no longer afford not to remember. We must remember our humanity, the errors of the past, we must re-member the pathways to the promise of true equity for the disparate American citizenries huddled and buckling beneath the weight of centuries of disenfranchisement. Remembering begs questions; least of which: what could it look like? how can success be measured? and what are the costs - existential or otherwise?

Visual and performance artist Jefferson Pinder found himself faced with these very questions when the Figge Museum in Davenport, Iowa invited him to create an interventionary project inviting the community to interact with the institution to break down the perceptions of the museum as an environment that was only for some. After researching the history of the Quad Cities region wherein Davenport, Iowa lies, the artist chose to concentrate on the recent histories of the Black communities in the four cities that comprise the area to develop what ultimately became Ghost Light. Ghost light, as a theatre tradition, is said to alternately appease or ward off lingering spirits and hold space for all of the lives and stories that have ever graced the stage. Jefferson Pinder: Ghost Light was, as the Figge described it, “a site-specific and performance-based installation exploring race and conditioning in the Midwest, that “actively” invited “members of the community ‘into the fold’ of the art-making practice.” The exhibition featured sculptures informed by Pinder‘s research, fabricated from found objects and video projections. In addition to the sculptures, Ghost Light featured three performances conceived by Pinder and carried out by four local residents. The performances, Token, Joe’s Barbershop, and Soule Bowl, each delved into stories of family, representation, decades-old racial discrimination and unrest in education and in business. Before and after all of the performances, a single spotlight, or ghost light, illuminated a section of the stage. Through the duration of the exhibition, documentation, additional sculptures and ephemera from the three performances were installed. The performances demonstrated the larger Davenport community’s relationship with race and the ways it has undergirded, or alternatively undermined, the strength of its social fabric - locally and perhaps ultimately as a symptom of a larger national pandemic.

Soule Bowl, the final of the three performances, explored the October 1972 racially-motivated riots involving students and police officers at Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Illinois and United Township High School in East Moline, IL, the confusion that persists about what exactly precipitated and incited the worst of the incidents (resulting in arrests and hospitalizations of Black students), the inaction of the local leadership, as well as the fact that there is barely any record of it having occurred at all. Two local women, Gaye Shannon-Burnett and Cheryl Lafferty, were the only denizens willing to come forward to speak publicly about the matter. In fact, Cheryl Lafferty joined the performance just two days before it happened. After exhaustive research leading to very little information, Pinder found a resource in long-time community organizer and journalist Vince Thomas, who in 1972 was a reporter for the now-defunct Black newspaper, New Times. Thomas’ accounts are one of few primary source documents detailing the events before and after the riot, some which featured an eye-witness account from the then-teenaged Gaye Shannon-Burnett. Pinder directed a scripted 70-minute performance based on Mr. Thomas’ reporting, other scant accounts found in books, as well as Ms. Shannon-Burnett’s and Ms. Lafferty’s memories of the time. After the performance, several members of the audience shared their memories of the racial tensions at the school, the riots, and the aftermath. All of them were Black Quad Cities residents. In a conversation I had with the artist about the performance, he said “I don’t know where all the white people were” or more specifically, “the ones who were interested in remembering the past.” It is an excellent and perennially relevant line of questioning.

In this country, it seems non-white people are often left to visioning and exorcising the ghosts of the past, implicating and excoriating white violence in the form of out right physical harm and complicity through silence. James Baldwin, in his prolific examination of Western society, may have best elucidated it, “It comes as a great shock to discover that the country, which is your birth place, and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality involved any place for you.”  At what point does blindness and silence come to an end? Like many of the projects that have come to represent the work of countless contemporary artists, through Ghost Light, Jefferson Pinder took on the role of intercessor-cum-historian. Ghost Light, in addition to its function as a placeholder for the spirits and histories lesser known and unseen, shone a light, and held up a mirror for Quad Cities to take a long, hard look at itself. Interestingly, although the artist was invited to engage with the community, it would seem the community was not truly ready to fully engage with and remember itself. With any hope, the rest of the country will eventually fare better.