This week we in Central Florida marked the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub tragedy, which claimed the lives of forty-nine people, injured fifty-three, and traumatized countless others. Working with artifacts, collections, oral histories and drafting scripts for production that include context and argument leads to a kind of complicated clarity. My research and writing this week centered more on questions than anything else. How do we set expectations? How do we determine if content warnings are required? What would those warnings look like?
As I worked through readings from the theme study (from 2016) by the National Park Service on queer history in the United States, much of it site-specific, I find my scholarship complicated by the unreconciled living experiences in my surroundings. On the national stage, President Joe Biden released a statement addressing his action to declare the location of Pulse a national memorial site, though explicitly excluded from the National Park Service system. The bill, as of this writing, has not been formally signed by the President. [Edit: Bill HR 49 was signed on 25 June 2021.]
What we are asking now is, who tells the story? Who decides what is written into the narrative? Now, in 2021, the presence of community memorials in and around Orlando is greater than institutionalized monuments in regards to the Pulse tragedy. This network of smaller sites of memory resonates as these are embedded in the many communities that intersected overnight from June eleventh into the early hours of June twelfth. I argue that, while there are evident challenges involved, the concentrated efforts on official-izing these histories, memories, identities, experiences into one is, by definition, exclusive, harmful, and narrow.
It is also true that historians collected artifacts from the nightclub, as well as memorializing tributes, quite quickly. Again, more questions: how do historians respond in real time to tragedies? What problems do we need to face with our collection practices? Additionally raising questions about the historians ourselves, are careers and professional legacies going to be launched from this tragedy? Should they? What if they are?
The field of Anthropology has grappled with exploitative and racist practices of collecting. Perhaps this body of research from another discipline could also serve in these circumstances.
Another perspective on community history is offered by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, editors of 400 Souls: A Community History, in which “ninety brilliant writers, eighty of whom [each] take on a five-year period of that four-hundred-year span with ten lyrical interludes from poets…They approach history from various perspectives: through the eyes of towering historical icons or the untold stories of ordinary people; through places, laws, and objects.” (Kendi) Here, they openly spread the table for widely different voices to co-exist and create a kind of choral moment that possesses its own form of harmony even as it may fall short of resolution.
There is space for the commemoration of tragic events, though that is not the entirety of a community’s history. “Resistance” has become so buzzword-y as to have sloughed off much of its productive meaning — nevertheless, resisting the tendency to draw straight timelines, emphasize progressive, positivist narratives and establish a single perspective is necessary so as not to eliminate the presence of the people in history, in our present.
To practice public history is to work with threads and stories and objects that do not fit neatly together, jigsawed into clean alignment. Acknowledging the processes, the choices, the element of random chance — these are each relevant and significant. Working specifically with queer histories, which are so deeply personal and intimate, I am committed to maintaining multiple truths and aspiring to contribute to the healing and strengthening of our society as a whole. Academic scholarship that experiences a type of claiming without erasing is key to documenting a record that recognizes the argument within a curated collection. Responding to the question of what really happened is never neutral, even when we are addressing what really happened after, with the spaces, with the memorializing, with the legacy we build as sites of research.
“400 Souls, NY Times Bestseller.” https://www.ibramxkendi.com/400-souls. Accessed 18 June 2021.