This post is from Anna Iglitzin on the Montgomery Spring Break trip, a sophomore feb at Middlebury College.
I want to start by saying that I am disastrously bad with names. When I meet new people, as I have been on this trip, I make it a point to tell people how bad I am at remembering names, so that they won’t feel offended when I inevitably avoid referring to them by name. As much as I pass off my forgetfulness in a joking manner, it actually deeply upsets me that I can care so much about my relationships with people but so easily forget the first thing that they say to me.
Sure, people’s names in no way encompass the true complexity of individuals, but in the absence of other information about someone, his/her name is a necessary component of connecting with them. Names are often deeply tied to people’s identity: they reflect roots, family, and often personal stories. Most importantly, names are what make us human.
Imagine if we were all known by social security numbers. In referring to one another, we would harken back not to personal stories about our grandmothers or a favorite literary character of our parents’, but to the order in which we were registered into a system.
This is what happened to inmates of concentration camps during the Holocaust. As part of the process of dehumanization, the Nazis referred to inmates by numbers in place of names. Although this may seem to be one of the less viscerally abhorrent ways that Nazis treated Jews and other minorities, assigning numbers to people in lieu of names deliberately took away an element of the inmates’ humanity.
Walking through the Civil Rights Memorial Center this morning, I was re-reminded about the power of names as I reflected on the similarities between the memorial and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Both memorials seek to commemorate individuals who lost their lives and are very focused on the power of names and faces in allowing people to engage tangibly with history.
The Hall of Names, which is the final room at Yad Vashem, displays what the museum has collected about the individuals who perished during the Holocaust, including parts of personal biographies as well as images. This is not at all unlike the first room of the Civil Rights Memorial Center where images and plaques describe victims of racism and bigotry. There are spaces on the walls in the Hall of Names that are still blank, leaving room for more personal stories to be revealed, which I see as a very similar style to the space Maya Lin left between the dates on the memorial she erected outside the center.
What most significantly unifies these two memorials in my mind is all the names that I can’t remember, even as they are clearly the most important, and heart-wrenching element of both memorials. When all other records of a person are gone, a name can serve as the entryway into discovering more. Knowing a name signifies one’s intention to know a story. So if I don’t remember any of the names of the martyrs that the Civil Rights Memorial Center chose to commemorate, how can I engage with those individual stories?
But maybe it’s not always about engaging with individual stories. I prefaced my reflections by mentioning that I am particularly bad with names, but I have never been accused of not feeling things deeply enough. So yes, I do not remember most names of people who died during the Holocaust or during the fight for civil rights. I did, however, walk out of both memorials with a feeling of the terrifying scale of atrocity. I feel sorrow, frustration, a deeper understanding of what so many people in this country fought for fifty years ago and continue to fight for today, and, most importantly, the drive to continue learning.
Even as there is a power in names, there is also just as important a power in a continued persistence in learning. As long as I keep asking people for their names, no matter how many times I ask and how embarrassed I am, I am continuing to engage, to think, and to process, in the same way that I was empowered to begin thinking today by the Civil Rights Memorial Center, in a way that I will hopefully exercise for the rest of this trip and beyond.