Maurice Norman ‘20, Marquia Humphries ‘22, Michaela Gibbons ‘22
An elder once said, “Sometimes the lesson is being the witness.” Here, we will share a bit about what we’ve seen. In spreading the word of untold stories about Davidson College, read closely. We know the press moves quickly in and out of people’s attention. We hope you take time to digest the content, return again to the online edition of this article to explore the hyperlinks, and attend future engagements.
First, we will share a bit about who we are, what we’ve done, and where we’re going. We exist to further the work of the Justice, Equality, and Community initiative and the Commission on Race and Slavery by supplying grant funding and developmental support for projects that transform spaces into sites for engagement. Spaces, broadly construed, could be physical (galleries, books, tour routes), virtual (digital archives, websites), or temporal (classes, gatherings, speakers). In the past year we have grown into a decentralized body of projects, each grappling with some aspect of race, racism, and accountability on campus, and commenting on how we re-member the past.
We’ve had a strong presence in certain sub-communities in the college. In other spaces we’ve been relatively behind the scenes. Of the 15 grant recipients last year, six have been for curricular development, helping professors with their coursework and semester-long class projects. Even though a good bit of our work has been in the classroom, we actually have four types of projects:
1. Course projects that took us to places including the Beaver Dam plantation or new analyses of photographs in the Davidson College Archives.
2. Student projects in conversation with alumni who have shared stories about their experiences.
4. Partnerships in which we collaborated with pre-existing projects such as the Davidson Microaggressions Project.
In our recent Town Hall on September 22nd, 2021, student, recent graduate, and grant recipient Cathy Xu’ 21 spoke about her project The Imaginary and Love: Women and Non-Binary BIPOC Futures. She created the project to challenge dominant narratives that reduce BIPOC experiences at Davidson College to “solely stories of oppression.” Her comments about “the power and potential of imagination, fantasy, love as political, and joy-making for marginalized groups’’ provide us a valuable reminder: we must first imagine our desired future, then work towards it.
Collective memory, simply defined, is the understanding that there’s an individual and communal body of memory that is informed generation after next by agents—including the artifacts and absences in our archives, the messages codified on the website or orientation, and the individual experiences of those living and working here.
For example, every year, at your family reunion, your grandfather tells that story about how fast he was in high school. Every year, when you hear the story, you notice he gets a little bit faster. You sit there eating your potato salad thinking, “Mhmm…he didn’t tell it like that last time,” but you let it slide because that’s your old man and memory changes. Those who hear that story for the first time will think, “Wow, grandpops was an Olympian at 19! how’d he pull that off?” While you have a different individual perspective.
In the context of Davidson College, we have many stories and voices texturing the (im)material of the Davidson fabric, what we might call a “Davidson experience.” Our collective memory changes, even thins, every generation with the evolution of our campus community. In seeking comprehensive narratives, that which a new student or employee must hear, we cannot allow the previous generation’s stories to grow dormant or be confined to a single space, such as a classroom.
Memory must remain in motion, which requires us to be consistent in our storytelling. We cannot be attentive to Davidson College’s social issues one year and not the next.
The social contract formed when we share stories requires us to think about the sustainability of the work. Sometimes the work can feel ephemeral, like trying to hold a breeze. The work may feel like a “one-off interview here, one-off research project there;” or individuals—faculty and their students, student leaders on campus, staff across every division—contributing labor to a project we may not see a year from now.
We have seen storytelling restore a sense of community between alumni and the college. Individuals, many elders, who have never been asked about their experience before, appreciated the space to share and be heard. As we continue, we recognize that there’s always more to be done, heard—another side of the story to be shared, another buried fact to be undercovered. The conversations that cannot happen without space cannot be sustained without support.
The Monuments Lab, a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, recently released a groundbreaking study called the National Monument Audit. After thousands of site visits and conversations about monuments, they identified common themes in our national commemorative landscape, and broadly defined monuments as “public displays of power and presence.” We especially appreciated the insights that monuments will never be the sum of the represented history, but a gateway into the material; furthermore, monuments have always been and must always remain in motion.
Similarly, if we were to assess the public displays of presence and power at Davidson College (Who’s on the buildings and walls? Whose labor is shown? Who has been deemed worthy of remembrance?) would we see the entirety of the rich Davidson fabric represented? What might need to change for a more representative landscape? So, in our second and final year, we will prioritize answering these questions and creating physical sites that house collective memory, like touchstones for future generations. Sites that amplify or revitalize the stories gathered in the projects, encourage participation from onlookers, and preserve for the future.
We will discuss the sustainability plan for the work in future press releases, but for now we will state our desire to end cycles of dormancy, with continued funding and staffing as an institutional priority.
Maurice Norman ‘20 (he/him) is Digital Projects Fellow at Davidson College, where he majored in English and Africana Studies. Maurice can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marquia Humphries ‘22 (she/her) is Digital Projects Exhibition Intern for the initiative and majors in Studio Art. She can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
Michaela Gibbons ‘22 (she/her) is Digital Projects Archives Intern for the initiative and majors in Economics and Gender & Sexuality Studies. She can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.