FRSEMR 63L. Memory Wars: Cultural Trauma and the Power of Literature





Removal of Stonewall Jackson Statue in Richmond, Virginia





How do we respond to a traumatic event? Denial, acceptance, blame, reconciliation… there are many stances we can take toward a harmful act we have experienced or committed in the past. When entire populations have suffered or perpetrated crimes against humanity, the question of how to deal with this traumatic past can spark a full-blown memory war – such as the one currently raging in the U.S. over Confederate monuments. In this seminar, we explore how the catastrophic events of the Holocaust, slavery, and apartheid affect the way we think and act as individuals, groups and citizens today. What power do literature and the arts have in bringing peace to a society at war with its past? Materials include acclaimed American, German, and South African writers such as Toni Morrison, Paul Celan, and Sindiwe Magona; human rights philosopher Hannah Arendt; comedian Trevor Noah; and civil rights lawyer and Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson, who has been fighting racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system for the past three decades. Topics include literature about the Holocaust, slavery, and apartheid; Germany’s and South Africa’s recent “ethical turn” in memory culture; reconciliation and reparation; mass incarceration; punitive vs. restorative justice; social justice.

Course Notes: This seminar includes a movie night, an excursion to downtown Boston to visit the New England Holocaust Memorial and murals by Boston artist Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs, and a visit to the Harvard Art Museums (subject to Covid restrictions).