EFFORTS TO FORCE collective amnesia are as old as conquest. The Roman decree damnatio memoriae — ‘‘condemnation of memory’’ — punished individuals by destroying every trace of them from the city, down to chiseling faces off statues. It was considered a fate worse than execution. But there are subtler, everyday forms of banishing people from public life.
In December, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer,stood trial for sexually assaulting 12 black women and one teenager. He preyed on the vulnerable — the poor or drug-addicted or those with outstanding warrants — threatening them with arrest if they wouldn’t comply. Few people were following the case, however, until black women on social media began calling out the press for ignoring the story. Many reached for one word — ‘‘erasure’’ — for what they felt was happening. ‘‘Not covering the #Holtzclaw verdict is erasing black women’s lives from notice,’’ one woman tweeted. ‘‘ERASURE IS VIOLENCE.’’ Deborah Douglas, writing for Ebony magazine, argued that not reporting on the case ‘‘continues the erasure of black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety.’’
‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?
The casualties of ‘‘erasure’’ constitute familiar castes: women, minorities, the queer and the poor. In some cases, the process is so routine that it has a name; the suppression of women’s contributions to science, for example, is known as ‘‘the Matilda effect,’’ named for the 19th-century women’s-rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage. It refers to how female scientists have been left out of textbooks, and seen their research appropriated and their deserved Nobel Prizes given to male colleagues and supervisors.
But there has been resistance from these overlooked quarters, too. As with the Holtzclaw case, black female journalists and activists have been spotlighting how crimes against black women are met by silence and seeming unconcern — like the 19 transgender women of color murdered in 2015. The #SayHerName movement draws attention to black women believed to be victims of police brutality, like Alexia Christian and Meagan Hockaday, whose deaths received a small fraction of the attention given to Eric Garner or Michael Brown. In December, a group of activists organized a die-in at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State to protest that only five out of 107 participating artists in an exhibition called ‘‘Art AIDS America’’ were black. They publicized the event online with the hashtag #StopErasingBlackPeople and released a statement saying the exhibition ‘‘paints H.I.V. as an issue faced predominantly by white gay men, when in fact the most at-risk group are currently black trans women.’’
With the recent ubiquity of ‘‘erasure’’ has come a flurry of correction and confusion. There are attempts to create hierarchies of erasure among various minority groups as they try to square their particular histories — who has silenced whom? Who is now hoarding attention? Is asexual erasure more profound than bisexual erasure? Why was Daniel Holtzclaw described as white instead of half Asian-American during the trial? And what does it have to do with the race of the women he raped?
These internecine skirmishes can turn petty, but they also reveal that we’re part of ever-shifting power relationships. Our identities and our privileges are not static but deeply contextual. We who are silenced may yet silence others. This awareness is central to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘‘Hamilton.’’ In a play that’s so self-consciously an act of historical restoration, with its cast of mostly black and Hispanic actors playing America’s founding fathers, there is a twist. While burning letters from Alexander Hamilton, his wife, about whom little is known, sings, ‘‘I’m erasing myself from the narrative/Let future historians wonder/How Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.’’ It’s an acknowledgment of the stories this play cannot fully restore, and of a group — women — who are still left out of history.
Wherever it is found, erasure, as a practice, can be detected by its preference for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the single story — for easily legible narratives that reinforce the existing order. Take the furor around the film ‘‘Stonewall,’’ released last year. Purported to portray the historic three-day standoff between patrons of the West Village gay bar and the police in the summer of 1969, the film was instead regarded as an example of egregious whitewashing. Transgender women of color who famously participated in the uprising, including Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, as well as Stormé DeLarverie, a mixed-race butch lesbian and bouncer, were sidelined (and DeLarverie played by a white woman) in favor of a fictional male lead, a wholesome Midwestern type who instigates the riot. Rivera, Johnson and DeLarverie were central actors in their own liberation, but characters loosely based on them, among others, were reduced to playing supporting roles to a protagonist — white, conventionally masculine, Ivy League-bound — that the director seemed to have felt was more traditionally heroic than transgender women. Erasure keeps certain people at the center of the story and insulates them from guilt, or sometimes even the knowledge of the people they’ve displaced. Only last year, the Texas Board of Education issued new textbooks for some five million public-school students that omitted mentions of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan and made slavery a side issue in the Civil War.
There is such a thing as symbolic erasure, too, and this idea has been at the crux of #OscarsSoWhite, the criticism that for the second year in a row, no minority actors were nominated for an Academy Award. ‘‘The underlying issue of the Academy’s failure to recognize black artists is the presumption that baseline experience is white experience and that black life is a niche phenomenon,’’Richard Brody wrote at newyorker.com. ‘‘The result is that only narrow and fragmentary views of the lives of African-Americans ever make it to the screen.’’ (Of the seven black actresses to ever win an Academy Award, two played slaves, and one played a maid.) For white audiences to fully engage with black lives, Brody argues, they would have to encounter their own complicity in black suffering, in the past and the present.
But it’s more daunting than that. To engage with the lives of others, white audiences would have to encounter something far more frightening: their irrelevance. They would have to reckon with the fact that the work will not always speak to them, orient them, flatter them with tales of their munificence or infamy, or comfort them with stereotypes. If there is an opposite of erasure, it is allowing for full personhood in all its idiosyncrasies. It is affording artists the freedom not to pander or advocate. This is the theme of Percival Everett’s 2001 satirical novel, ‘‘Erasure,’’ in which a struggling black writer of ambitious, Greek-infused novels cynically publishes a novel called ‘‘My Pafology,’’ about a black man with four children by four different women. To his horror, he finds he has a critically acclaimed best seller on his hands.
What would it look like to emerge from erasure? There has been a blank around the lives of older women, who report feeling invisible as they age — which is, as it turns out, less feeling than fact. Much international data measuring health, assets and domestic violence studies only women from 15 to 49, generally viewed as the end of a woman’s childbearing years. Research into violence against women in conflict zones ends at that age, too. So does H.I.V.-prevalence data. Despite being one of the fastest-growing demographics in the world (there will be more than one billion women over the age of 60 by 2050), older women simply go missing. In literature, there are a few to be found in Agatha Christie and Alice Munro. There is ‘‘Olive Kitteridge,’’ Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a flinty retiree, and Muriel Spark’s retirement-home black comedy, ‘‘Memento Mori.’’ But there’s nothing to compare with the ranks of ‘‘Ravelstein,’’ ‘‘Rabbit at Rest,’’ ‘‘Le Père Goriot,’’ ‘‘Oblomov,’’ ‘‘King Lear,’’ the Book of Job, ‘‘Gilead,’’ ‘‘Death in Venice,’’ any number of Philip Roth’s later novels — a veritable library of what it’s like to age as a man, the evolution of the body, mind and ego.
Older women have fared just as poorly in film and television (The Washington Post reported that of the 100 top-grossing films of 2014, not one had a woman over 45 in a lead role), but there have been recent signs of change. Recently, we’ve seen new television shows like ‘‘Transparent,’’ ‘‘I Am Cait’’ and ‘‘Grace and Frankie.’’ In film, there have been ‘‘Grandma,’’ ‘‘The Lady in the Van,’’ ‘‘Ricki and the Flash,’’ ‘‘45 Years.’’ There is ample room for improvement — most of the older women featured are well-off and white. But we are starting to see a range of experiences of women aging: pique, acceptance, vanity, swagger, bewilderment and pain, aging being as singular as anything else we do in life. ‘‘No two loves are alike, no two deaths and no two losses,’’ the poet May Sarton wrote at the age of 66. One is no more precious than the rest.