Who Reproduces Cultural Memory? Who Remembers?

In the Afterword of I Remember, Ron Padgett quotes Michael Lally’s review of the book in The Village Voice (this quote is also featured on the book’s back cover), “Joe Brainard’s memories of growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s have universal appeal. He catalogues the past in terms of fashion and fads, public events and private fantasies, with such honesty and accuracy and in such abundance that, sooner or later, his history coincides with ours and we are hooked” (170). Coincidentally, I read Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World right before reading I Remember, and Salesses discusses how fiction, specifically how fiction is workshopped and by whom fiction is workshopped influences the reproduction and transmission of cultural norms. After finishing I Remember, I saw a post from the Instagram account @impact called “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s,” which pointed out that these were times of oppression for women and people of color, particularly black Americans. All of these texts coming together immediately raised red flags at the notion that I Remember could have “universal appeal” given the period Lally identifies as his and Brainard’s youth. For white men like Lally and Brainard, their experiences of childhood in the 1940s and 1950s would be drastically different than those of children of color in the United States experiencing the social turbulence of World War II and its ripple effects, including but not limited to Japanese internment, lack of federal funding for services on Indian reservations, the Zoot Suit riots, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In the text, Brainard periodically makes unflattering remarks about “Negroes” and “Orientals” which consistently snapped me out of whatever rhythm I fell into while reading. Early in the book, I was shocked by, “I remember my father in black-face. As an end man in a minstrel show” (33). It is one thing to internalize racist ideas that are insidiously embedded in American culture and to reproduce it (perhaps unknowingly), but it is another to remember – and in the words of its collaborators and initial reviewers, I Remember is an honest accounting of Brainard’s memory – how one’s father actively participated in the reproduction and transmission of racist ideas. Later, I was again more shocked by, “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly” (Brainard 133). While the point of the book is not to reflect on the memories and to critique or address the writer’s upbringing or challenge the beliefs of the younger self, I have found through browsing casual book reviews that the focus is largely on the craft of I Remember, and not the content of the remembrances so neither the writer nor the reader is engaging in the work of examining exactly what kinds of things Brainard remembers and why it’s these memories that he chose to immortalize in published writing.

Thinking of Salesses and the way homogenous groups of writers continue to perpetuate the same cultural ideas in fiction until it is the norm, I really have to question Lally’s claim of I Remember’s “universal appeal,” that goes unchallenged even in Padgett’s 2001 Afterword, and if what Lally really means to say is that the book’s appeal is for white readers only. I think the craft of the book distracts readers from questioning what kinds of cultural memories are reproduced within, and that this book too contributes to the rosy view of American history that obscures the truth and prevents white Americans from coming to terms with the reality of America. When the people doing the remembering and immortalizing the remembrances are not remembering the realities of prejudice and oppression, they are producing cultural memory that continues to obscure the truth of history.

 

Works Cited

Brainard, Joe. I Remember. 1975. Granary Books, 2001.

Impact. “Stop Romanticizing the 1920’s-1950’s.” Instagram, designed by Tania Velin, 14 October 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CVBVgW6B1NU/.

Padgett, Ron. Afterword. I Remember, by Joe Brainard, 2001, pp. 169-176.

Salesses, Matthew. Craft in the Real World. Catapult, 2021.

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3 thoughts on “Who Reproduces Cultural Memory? Who Remembers?

  1. Rebekah, your post captured exactly what I was feeling as I read. Your last sentence that reads, “When the people doing the remembering and immortalizing the remembrances are not remembering the realities of prejudice and oppression, they are producing cultural memory that continues to obscure the truth of history.” is especially striking because “I Remember” is so focused on the form that it is detached from the realities of prejudice and oppression as you said, but also lacks coherence and depth. When reading, it just felt like reading a list and it got old quickly. The list of felt void of any emotions or commentary in reference to the things being listed. While I assume this was to recall growing up in the 40s and 50s to a universal audience, It’s lack of acknowledgement of prejudicial and oppressive layers during this time makes it less applicable to a universal audience.

  2. Rebekah,
    I love how you extended the discussion of memory beyond the personal sphere to the cultural sphere. I appreciate the points you make about cultural space along with those who occupy it and those who are excluded from it.

    Cheyanne makes a great point in her response about the imbalance of form and content in Brainard’s I Remember: “…I Remember is so focused on the form that it is detached from the realities of prejudice and oppression…” In a similar vein, you remark on Brainard’s anaphora of “I remember,” “It is one thing to internalize racist ideas that are insidiously embedded in American culture and to reproduce it (perhaps unknowingly), but it is another to remember…” Thank you for bringing this up as it is so crucial to make this distinction between reproducing and remembering. In this context, reproduction is an internalized act, therefore we assume there is an influencing force external to self and thus, a sense of ignorance. Remembering, as seen through Brainard, involves deliberateness and intent. While reading, I thought of how there is a deliberateness in how Brainard chooses to comment on some memories versus others. This is done through parentheticals used to distinguish his present self during the recalling of these memories from the past. There are times when Brainard is deliberate in how much he discloses when “remembering.” This is problematic especially in the two lines you quoted where Brainard bluntly states: “I remember my father in black-face. As an end man in a minstrel show” (33) & “I remember feeling sorry for black people, not because I thought they were persecuted, but because I thought they were ugly” (133).

    When I think of reproduction, I think of the reproduction of language and how these “iconic” cultural references Brainard recalls also reaffirms a cultural space reserved for white consumers. If culture also functions as a space to enforce beauty standards, that is through the prioritization of eurocentric features, then the reproductions of this standard demand that anyone who is not white is not beautiful. This makes me think of Pecola’s desire for blue eyes in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, which was also published in the 70s. In the introduction of The Bluest Eye, Morrison includes a familiar reproduction of language, specifically, an entry to the English language for many American children through the stories of Dick and Jane. BIPOC are coerced to internalize a system that prioritizes a signification of whiteness, which is then reproduced in the education system and through many children’s entry to the English language. This reproduction of language also reaffirms a cultural sphere that manipulates how we remember history.

  3. Rebekah,
    The last line of your entry resonates strongly to this day and with the current events in America. “I Remember” is so focused on structure and form that it doesn’t exactly apply to the general audience nor does it acknowledge the oppressed and oppressive layers within the audience. Cheyanne also mentions that the reading was void of emotions and I couldn’t help but agree because it almost felt ignorant of the rest of the people and it wasn’t addressing everyone. It was shocking to read that Brainard remembers his father participating in racist ideas and wearing blackface and sounds like he doesn’t care for black- Americans and even called them “ugly” (133).

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