Professor Kara Miller
Critical Issue : senses, memory and culture
September 24, 2018
I choose to explore the critical issue of memory and the sense and what it means for my documentary project. Sarah Pink in Doing Sensory Ethnography brings focus to the important relationship between sensory perception and culture. She insists that there is a lack of validation in the significance of what knowledge can be produced through the senses, questioning beyond “how culture is ‘written’ to examine the sites of embodied knowing” (Pink pg 13), that we need to seek knowledge beyond the conventional ways of knowing. Sensory experiences become embedded and embodied in memory. These sites of knowledge connect deep into cultural and historical contexts. It connects into a deeper social memory that can spark associations with people from the past that trace family members, friends, the Chinese owner of the grocery store, the African American errand boy, separate drinking fountains, segregation, the riot… the list goes on.
How does memory perform and how is it transmitted and interpreted through the senses? And how does it connect us to culture? In my process of interviewing folks in Augusta who grew up during the segregated era, the strongest memories always revolved around food. What is interesting is that the different customers remembered similar things. They remembered foods like cookies and pickles. There was a clear recollection of the large jars of cookies and pickles on the counter, down to the type of cream filling in the cookies. Maybe it wasn’t so much the visual description, but the way it felt to crunch into those cookies and pickles that left a strong imprint onto their memory. Or maybe it was the sound of the cash register opening and dropping that 25 cent coin for a bag of cookies, or the smell of Chinese food being cooked in the back kitchen. Even as they were remembering the sweet taste of the cookie, they were connecting to a time in their life that embodied the era.
As a little girl going in the Chinese run neighborhood grocery store, Juanita remembers hearing the owner, Ida Wong speak Chinese to her husband. There must have been a comfort and familiarity in hearing the foreign language. By remembering buying cookies at the store, she remembered the friendly relationship her family and her black neighbors had with the Chinese store owners. Even if she did not have a direct relationship with the Chinese family, she was connected to them through her memory of the foods she bought at the at store, with the sounds of the foreign language, with the countless times she went in as a little girl craving her sweets. Her memory then becomes cultural. It also becomes social as the old neighbors share with each other their memories of buying foods. And with this collective sharing, a new knowledge is conceived. Having been brought together to talk about the Chinese community within their neighborhood, they realize how connected they are through their memories. The social interaction surrounding the interview process heightens the process of memory, drawing attention to the importance of the relationship between the participants and me, the interviewer.
As for the Chinese side, they seemed to remember the Chinese foods they ate practically every day. Frank Lum remembers how his Mother built a kiln to recreate the cooking methods she had back in China to roast duck and pork. For him, his memory was deeply attached to his Chinese culture. Having been brought up in America, he never knew the village life his mother grew up in. The memories then embody an entire culture that he never experienced directly. These memories of his mother then trigger memories of growing up within the grocery store among the black community, within a segregated world that might not have made sense at the time. Memory for Frank, like Juanita, embodied an entire historical period that affected the ways in which they lived. And the micro politics of the interview process is be best summed up by Della Pollock in her essay on Oral History, that “his/her story is or should be a reflexive account of tactical and sensuous dynamics that embody history working itself out in narrative interaction, on, through, and by interview participants .” (Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research p.147). One day I too will remember or imagine to remember the image of a kiln roasting some duck in my great grandmother’s back yard in Augusta. The interview transmits memory and culture down to me as I make effort to transmit this to others.