Dangerous Memory as Cultural Resistance


"Studio portrait of Man and Chief (Pi-ta-ne-sha- a-du), a Pawnee chief," albumen print, by the American photographer John H. Fitzgibbon, taken at St. Louis, Missouri, in approximately 1850. 18.8 cm x 13.5 cm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London.

Cultural invasion has been devastating:

By the time a century or two of exploitation has passed there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national culture…the poverty of the people, national oppression, inhibition of culture are one and the same.

~Franz Fanon,The Wretched of the Earth, 238


To correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty…you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.

~James Baldwin in Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, eds., Multicultural Literacy, 3

Can a people’s spirit be killed off? Eduardo Galeano says not as long as someone remembers. Remember who they are by knowing who they came from. Remember their people’s struggle. This is the danger of cultural memory. It contains spiritual visions and historical lessons which contest the vision of the dominator. Dangerous memory is a weapon of the colonized.

The reason African and Indian culture was dangerous to waves of conquistadors who came to the Americas is because it was the only weapon conquered people could conceal and wield into the future. “They carried in them mankind’s [sic] original memories. To have survived the savageries of slavery in the New World, to have retain essential elements of his African culture while at the same time quickly adjusting to and assimilating new ones—Amerindian, European, and in some instances Asian—remains a unique and miraculous achievement” (Carew, 76)

The memories endured. Slave and indigenous poets have scribbled lost words on reservation long-house doors, on the hulls of slaver ships, on prison and garrison walls, in books that were incinerated. The Ghost Dances were forbidden: Mayan art was thrown into bonfires; the bones of Indian ancestors dug from holy soil now lie naked and humiliated in museum display cases which instruct visitors: “These remains are sacred to Indians.” Still, memory endured. Each generation that remembered the people’s stories remembered who they were. Not slaves, but a people. Cultural memory, says Galeano, is a memory of fire. It is dangerous. Remembering is an act of resistance.

Here is such a story told after five hundred years of resistance—a long enough time to forget. Pedro Hernandez Corbas is one of a few thousand Indians who direct descendants of the Taino Arawaks who greeted Columbus on his first voyage to Cuba.  Cobas remembers the ancestors’ stories of those times.


I would say Columbus (Colon) and his people treated us in a bad manner. We suffered fright (susto). The treatment they gave us was pure whip. The conquistador lied about the Indian.  They said we were stupid, imbeciles. But I think the old Indians knew a lot.  I think that our ancestors were good, quiet people. They didn’t like to hurt anyone. But they ended up whole families jumping off cliffs to avoid slavery. Here our Indian people have been like a fish in a cooler, eyes open but not seeing. For many years nobody spoke about anything Indian, for a long, long time.

~Quoted in Jose Barreiro, “Toward an Indian Voice in 1992,” View From the Shore,5


In order to resist cultural death, slaves and Native Americans remembered the people’s communal life before the pale strangers who invaded their world arrived. What was the link to the life of tribes in Africa, in the Mayan or Andean highlands, the plains and plantations of North America? It was story—the people’s own version of their lives and culture.

It is a story that begins on the golden sands of the Caribbean, the foothills of the Sierra Madres and the peaks of Macchu Picchu, in the great temples of Teuctepec, on the shores of the Yucatan, above the thunderous falls of Iguazu, along the great rivers and plains of Africa, in the bush or Surinam, within the stinking holds of slave ships. This story has been dragged through fields, swamps, jungles, along a trail of tears, told in backwoods, back roads, back alleys, and back rooms.  It is a story of refusal to die—a story painted on canvas, bark, and leather in colors of sky, earth, and sun; a story woven into the wedding and death dress, festooned with feather, palm, pearl, and jade; a story sometimes moaned on the honey saxophone, chimed on a marimba, slammed on a bongo drum, wept on afluta, laughed on aguittara, danced before the sun; a story whispered, roared, chanted, testified, harmonized, and rapped.  In different languages, in different voices, the same chorus:  No to the white way; Yes to our beauty, art, and sacred ways.

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