WARNING: This post contains a disturbing image: the image is a postcard showing telephone pole lynching.
“Nothing is innocent” (11). A text to your sister asking when she wants to meet for dinner, a filtered instagram post of your morning coffee, a tweet about a current event; nothing. The world is moving and changing quickly, sometimes it’s hard to remember history behind the objects we use. Thomas Edison called telephones objects that could bring “the human family in closer touch” (6). Is that intended use being put into action? If your iPhone vibrated in the middle of this sentence, would you glance away from this to check it? We give our attention to so many things in the present that we forget where our present moment derived from. Was there ever a moment when you looked at your cell phone and thought of the post card that used to share the most recent deaths of black men on a telephone pole?
The phone as an object, as Biss reminds us, enables us to overcome time and distance. The history of the phone also overcomes time. Very few of us remember the progress of the phone every time we look down at our lit up screen. Many of us didn’t hear of telephone pole lynching until Biss’ essay. An important part of the essay is to understand the power of time and its ability to make gruesome histories disappear or change forms. My concern after reading this essay was our understanding of history. Could we be overlooking parts of history that deserve to be remembered?
We learn most of our history in the classroom with textbooks. However, I think a more valuable version of history is the history told with art and writing, its intimate. History through creativity gives us the ability to remember the past, rather then pass it along like a lost message in a children’s game of telephone, as Biss describes. Biss starts her essay with what seems will become a mundane chronological history of the phone, but twists it into a story of horrific hangings that are forgotten and no longer affiliated with the telephone. In the second half of the essay, Biss breaks up her paragraphs by places and by cases. The paragraphs are short and not descriptive, but they don’t need to be. They are harsh and effective in evoking an emotion. Biss only describes the postcard yet I imaged exactly what it would look like before I even google searched a picture. At least for the rest of the day, Biss created a story and created a history that affected me.
Art works in the same way. It has the ability to bring out emotions. Interpreting horrific events through art makes uncomfortable events more comfortable and more memorable. September 11, 2001 is a difficult date for America to forget, but this artist Jason Powell captures time’s ability to cover up history. New York City has a changed skyline that has adapted into a new present. Overtime the city has been forced to become new things. It has to move on to function as a city. It has to move on because of time. Time changes the way we connect the past with our current moment.
The New York skyline and the image of the twin towers is a powerful image that most Americans recognize instantly, but his website is filled with similar images of less-known places affected by history and transformed into a new place, with a forgotten history to many. Another artist takes a similar approach to reminding the present of past events in less known places, such as a bus stop. More examples of less known historically effected places can be found here.
Time gives places and objects the power to overcome a history. PBS created an interactive timeline looking at technology overtime in an American household from 1900 to 2010. The point of the timeline is to notice the speed in which technology was developed. Users can scroll over objects and read brief descriptions that explain what each object is. However, the powerful history behind the objects is not described. For example, the Tupperware container appears above the refrigerator in 1945 and Tupperware Parties are mentioned in the short description of the object. Many think of Tupperware as a container that holds food, but the object also has a powerful history for women in business that is not mentioned in the description. After World War II women were expected to stop working and return to their feminine duties as a housewife. Tupperware parties allowed women to earn money while still caring for the household. Tupperware shifted the way women interact with businesses. Such a simple object contains a compelling history. Time has taken over the importance of Tupperware containers for women in business. In this case, it is possible we moved past the association of Tupperware parties and powerful women because women now use their power for more significant parts of our world. How then, do we explain our movement past the association of telephone poles and lynching?
We need to be conscious of how we arrived at our present. Objects and places are constantly interacting with the disputes and successes of our ever-changing world. It is impossible to remember the past of each object we encounter throughout the day. Biss did not start her essay about telephones with the intention of illustrating telephone pole lynching. She encountered the association between the two through her research, and her topic was taken over by her interest and the urgency of telephone pole lynching. Biss did not fail in describing the history of the telephone. Her investigations lead her down a different research path, but she was successful in informing her audience. Each of our in-class public issues has the potential to expand in a similar form. History has a powerful effect on the present. Through research, instead of looking past historical influences on our projects because they feel a little off-topic, we should embrace them. It is our responsibility to “write for the public”. The transformation of the telephone pole that we see through Biss’ writing can be included in our essays as well. There is nothing unproductive about sharing the past of the present, or sharing the crooked associations attached to our current topics. Because, remember, nothing is innocent.