Fighting ‘Erasure’

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Illustration by Javier Jaén

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2016

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. Continue reading