Social Memory

A big part of what fascinates me about Homestead is how many stories there are to be told. People see history forming around them in such different ways, and the idea of perspective and how we perceive “what was” is something I’d like to explore. All that physically remains of the mill are the stacks and memorials that dot the parking lot of the new mall that has taken the mill’s place and the rough and worn hands of those that labored in that mill. But we have so many words, so many voices that speak in low timbres of what was there and what it meant for them. It sometimes seems incongruous to put those words against the stark blank stares of the plaques and memorials that sit along the waterfront where the mill once stood.

In his essay “Articulating the Values of Labor and Laboring,” James Catano considers the stories of Homestead and asks intriguing questions about identity, memorials, and social memory. He argues that “civic rhetoric establishes itself as a primary form of public memory and historical truth.”

There is not one fixed truth in a monument or in personal stories. How various personal stories interact and differ forms a vital but ever-changing part of the overall story of a place and of a time. It’s not just the people of Homestead’s stories but how they tell them (their civic rhetoric) that defines our heritage, our past, and our memories. Catano speaks of the “necessary fluidity of heritage,” and I think that’s a lovely way to describe it. History is that harsh line drawn in books, archives, copies, accounts, tales, and duplicates. But our heritage is more than what is found in any archive–it’s the way people tell their stories, it’s social memory. The facts are only monuments, but the stories themselves are social memory–that web of truth that lies below the surface of what can be studied, dissected and discussed in the history books.

At one point during my interview with the mayor of Homestead, Betty Esper, she reflected that “There’s just different variations. And everyone has their own interpretation of working in the mill. You know, my stories are my stories.” Social memory lies in these variations, the grey area between the solid black and white truths of history.

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