The Long Memory

By Casey Hoffman

“I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered would get them into serious trouble.” — Utah Phillips, oral historian, poet, and activist

Too much of journalism is focused on the “now.” Breaking news. News flash. Live at five. Top stories. Latest headlines. Tune in now. Now, now, now, NOW. But how much information are we really getting by limiting ourselves to “now”? When thousands of protesters were camping in Zuccotti Park as part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, my question was, “Why?” What fiscal policies of the past led to this discontent? Hundreds of students at UC Davis were pepper-sprayed and exposed to excessive police force. Why? What happened at Kent State in 1970? And why should that concern me personally, as a college student today?  In the song Bridges, Utah Phillips says that the “packaging of time is a journalistic convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas.” We have been conditioned to believe that if something isn’t happening now, it has no importance or relevance to us. The past is over. It’s a missed opportunity. Time to move on.  But what we need to understand is that someday, our “now” will be someone else’s “past.” I think that’s the biggest lesson this project has taught me. Throughout my journey, I often wondered what my “now” would look like to young journalists of the future. As I looked at the yellowed photographs and held the dusty artifacts in my hands, I knew that someday my life and my memories would look like that to some young kid. One hundred years ago, World War I and the events surrounding it consumed the headlines, radio waves, propaganda rags, posters – even poems. To the people who lived back then, that was their “now.” I tried to fathom that someday the biggest events of my life – 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraqi War – might only exist through faded relics in a quiet little museum.  I began to see how easy it is for generations to become so focused on their own timelines that they completely ignore previous ones. The further I delved into this timeline, the more I realized that it made my own make sense.


“It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” – Akan Proverb


When I first started working on this project, I had no idea what I was in for. I’d spent the last four years of my life training in the form of journalism that is obsessed with the present. But over the course of this project, I have, in my own way, become familiar with the concept of Sankofa. I’ve explored the catalogs at the Library of Congress. I’ve sorted through box after box of documents at the National Archives. I’ve spent countless hours in libraries and online. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to talk to people face-to-face and learn about their “nows.” I have done my very best “to go back and get it.” The Akan believe the past illuminates the present; to me, being a journalist only reporting on the “now” is like only telling half of the story.


“If I take the time to ask, if I take the time to seek, if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs.” – Utah Phillips

In Bridges, Phillips illustrates his own concept of Sankofa. He says that time is like a river, and by standing in it, he can take out what he needs from it. My work with this project immersed me in that river; like Phillips, I wanted to build my bridge to connect my timeline with those that came before it. It may seem strange, but Ada and Ethel Peters became like friends to me. Though there was no chance of us ever meeting, their words spoke to me like the tributaries of Phillip’s river. Like pen pals from the past. But both Phillips and the Akan people have left out something very important in their philosophies. They too have forgotten that someday, our “now” will be someone else’s “past.” We can’t be certain that future people will return for what they have left behind, so we need to help them lay the foundations for their own bridges. I’ve said that when I first joined this project, I didn’t understand how contributing to a museum constituted as “journalism.” I had been trained to package my storytelling into convenient little pieces of “now” and ignore the real, nonlinear way the truth actually reveals itself. But I came to realize that this new form of narrative is a better way to teach people about the world. A museum is, essentially, a “brick and mortar” version of a documentary film. Rather than simply showing your audience the past, you can have them interact with it. You can immerse them in the river of time and help them build their own bridges. I knew I had to keep the future in mind. I wanted to make Sankofa appealing to new generations. I wanted to use technology as a tool to connect with the past. Innovative thinkers have dubbed this idea “click and mortar” to suggest combining the new (online) and the old (artifacts). With this site, and with the touch table installed in the Kimball Memorial in McDowell County, West Virginia, I want visitors to interact with history at their fingertips, to explore and examine it, I want their experience to speak to them. I want them to return for what they have forgotten.  This project has changed the way I see the field of journalism, and how I see myself as a journalist. I’ve learned to incorporate the Griot’s art of storytelling with technology to escape the packaging of time. And yet, I am nowhere close to fully understanding the past. There are facts and dates I will never learn. There are faces and names I will never know. There are letters, and papers, and poems I will never read. But Phillips is right; the past didn’t go anywhere… I’m still just remembering it.