Memory is More than a Closet
“Tom Wolfe was right. You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
— John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America
My hometown has had an emotional controversy about retiring an Indian mascot. It is a controversy that Twitter says should not exist in 2022, and I feel the same sense of embarrassed denial while writing about it that a man must feel when he gets into a public altercation. This cannot be happening to me, can it?
But it is, and I have the luxury of seeing it from a distance. I no longer live in the town where I spent most of my childhood. I have been to China and lived in different states for five years. One might think this distance would also grant me the luxury of a clear perspective from which I might do what a writer from the Washington Post claims to do: “distill observations of family, politics and culture into moments of clarity and insight.”
Whether or not she can, I cannot. Because even if my home only exists in my memory, it still exists in the same way that a part of me will always be walking on those cracked sidewalks long after they have been paved. This new Cambridge is one that I hear about from family and the Washington Post, and it disorients me. The racist baggage is something that I think I always knew was there, but like Neil Gifford, the CCSD board member, I agree that it's “not who we are.”
In fact most people I knew and now know in Cambridge are not racists or bigots. Whether or not that is because, like me before college, they never had the opportunity to be, I do not know. I thought I was colorblind until I left home, and had to confront diversity without a screen between me and the people that did not look like me. It hurt because I had to wrestle with those gut reactions implanted by years of unchallenged microaggressions. I had to pick apart my identity and discard the rotten parts, some of which were very close to my core. This is what Cambridge seems to be going through, and the school mascot is for many close to the core of the town.
I cannot understand this because I was never proud to be “an Indian.” I was proud to play sports for Cambridge, but I knew that a mascot was just a superficial symbol. The mascot itself was consumed by the significance of what it represented, which to me at the time was the school and the people on my team. My memories are evidence for why the Indian mascot is a failure.
Supporters say that the mascot honors Native Americans and prevents erasure of indigenous peoples from history, but it does the opposite. The mascot has no place in my memory because I cared more about what it represented than what it was supposed to represent. It prevented me from thinking below the surface of the history of Indigenous Peoples in Cambridge, and I believe it has done the same for the whole town. I was not taught a single thing about Indigenous Peoples beyond what was on the New York State Regents. There were no ceremonies. There was no unit in Social Studies about the families in Cambridge. There was no monument or plaque prominent enough for me to remember. I cannot tell you the indigenous name for the land under Cambridge, NY and this shames me.
It might have been different in the past that the supporters remember, but in the present the mascot is a failure. It failed because wearing a stock photo on a grass stained jersey is not real honor. It is an excuse that allows us to forget. A mascot freezes the image of the American Indian in time and makes them a caricature that existed right around John Wayne and died right around Andrew Jackson and makes invisible the Indigenous Peoples who trace their heritage back, not to find one twenty-fourth of a symbol for their imagined 'connection to the land,' but to find “signs that a man could love his fate, that winter in the blood is one sad thing.”*
Tom Wolfe was right, but he did not realize that memory is more than a closet. Memory makes us who we are. Memory convinces us to strive for more. Memory protects us and sometimes betrays us, but we can no more repudiate it than we can a parent. Cambridge to me is winning a game ball coated with that sweet dark red American dust-sand of the baseball field, and riding over quiet hills billowed by manure-sweet wind, and imagining myself the commander of Gondor's armies in my friend's backyard next to the library, and climbing the iron artillery cannon wishing that I could jump in the barrel and fire myself up into the sky.
That is the town I remember, but I have seen the PROTECT THE PRIDE EDUCATION RESPECT TRADITION signs and they embarrass me, but a sign cannot describe a town just as Myers and Briggs cannot fully describe a person. A person is full of dissenting and often ugly emotions that can rage out when their buttons are pushed — but it is not the whole of them. I wish I could condemn “the keepers” and feel that clean happiness that comes with believing one's ideology is standing on the righteous side of the picket line, but I cannot because I remember my town in more colors than black and orange.
It is a shame that I am only now attempting to fill in my memories of Cambridge with the history of the Indigenous Peoples who were there before because the school could have started me earlier. It would be an even greater shame if the adults forgot about the kids and continued to bicker over what to put on a T-Shirt, because the kids are more important. Their memories will be stained, and so will the memory of the people as old as the land whose tongue we refused to learn and whose memories we refused to listen to. In this country that careens toward the future like an alcoholic to the next bottle with no regard for the wake of broken people and glass in her wake, replacing the mascot should not be rejected as an infringement. It should be welcomed as an opportunity to remember lives instead of totems.
Cohen, Kate. “Opinion | a New York School District Confronts Hatred in Its Yearbook — If Not Its Mascot Name.” Washington Post, 16 June 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/16/cambridge-ny-yearbook-mascot-racism/.
*Welch, James. Riding the Earthboy 40. The World Publishing Company, 1971, p. 17. “In My Lifetime.”
Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley; in Search of America, Steinbeck Centennial Edition. Penguin Group, 2002 (1962). p. 157.
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