In Charleston it is easy to feel like we inherit history, rather than make it. I think that this is a misreading of history.
When you think of making history you think of an instant, perhaps captured in a photograph or a painting, of a hero quickly stepping forward. As we look around Memminger Auditorium tonight, the history of this place tells us a different story.
In 1909 a young woman graduated from Memminger High and Normal School. Memminger was an all-girls school that trained teachers. Her name was Mabel Pollitzer. She was a very good student and had earned a place at Columbia University in New York. In the year she graduated the Principal, a Mister William Knox Tate, told Mabel that he would hold open a job for her at Memminger. He asked only that she return to Charleston to teach here. Mabel did return and taught science. Science had not been taught at Memminger High and Normal School before Mabel taught it. She taught Botany for first year students, Zoology for second year students, and Physiology for the Senior class. But she did more. In 1913 she formed the National Woman’s Party and fought for universal suffrage. She fought to allow women to vote. In the time a commentator wrote that “Men and women work as one. He is the one.” Think of the enormity of the task of convincing the nation to allow women to vote.
Looking back on this history where is the instant that captures Mabel’s history? At what instant was history made? Was it her graduation from Memminger High and Normal School? Was it the job offer by Mr. Tate? Was it Mabel turning down the job offer in Philadelphia to return to Charleston? Was it the founding of the National Womens Party? It was none of those things.
The French philosopher Henri Bergan identified two types of memory. Everything I have told you about Mabel is what Henri would call “intentional memory.” Intentional memory is facts and figures. It is things that you can memorize. The other type of memory is spontaneous memory or visceral memory. For me the smell of crayons is a visceral memory. Whenever I smell crayons I think of the third grade and my teacher Miss Montgomery. I cannot help myself. I think of the big box of crayons. Sixty-four crayons in all.
When I ask my parents about Hugo they tell me how hot and still is was the day before Hugo. Today, when there is a still day my father-in-law says “It feels like the day before Hugo.” The day after Hugo there were no birds, no squirrels, on days without a songbird my father-in-law is reminded of Hugo. It is a visceral memory. He cannot help it.
Visceral memories spontaneously generate thoughts and feelings. When we talk of Mabel today we have none of these spontaneous memories. No one is alive who knows how she laughed or what it was like to fight for the vote. Because we are missing those spontaneous, visceral memories what we do know seems much more heroic. Lacking feelings for the context it seems that each action was quick and courageous.
Tonight we have before you 41 leaders from different organizations, each with their own stories about their organization. These stories are powerful. The stories allow all of them to create strong emotional reactions in us. Those spontaneous memories help them to create change.
I read a story before a group of students at the Freedom School at Carolina Youth Development Center. They rose to their feet and started chanting a song whose words I could not follow because the first words were so powerful. They sang to me “You are so awesome. You are awesome…” and something else but by that time I could no longer hear as the emotions washed over me. It is a viseral memory now. It made me realize how important self-esteem is for young people and how infrequently we provide it.
I visited Paul Stoney at the Cannon Street Y. He told me a story of a woman who wanted to join the dance program. Now, Paul is an absolute gentleman and I do not remember how he told me but somehow I got the distinct impression that this woman was fat…actually obese. Now rather than deny her the opportunity to dance they let her in the program and they turned her into a prima dona. Not have her dance off to the side…they made her the center of the dance. Think of what that did for her self-esteem. For the first time in ages she was made to feel awesome. I have seen the same esteem-building in Wings for Kids and Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding. My spontaneous memory of the waves of emotion are now are linked to each of those programs.
At Biedler Forest I saw the migration of Prothonatary Warblers. These little yellow birds are very cute with black eyes and bill. They are everywhere in Biedler Forest. You are drawn closer when you see them. You want to get close. Seeing them and understanding how important the forest is for their survival is now a spontaneous visceral memory. I saw the same at a sea turtle release by the Aquarium. Two thousand people crowded a beach to see and get close to a turtle being released into the surf. The release of the sea turtle released powerful emotions. We can use that power.
Tonight my role is to take you through Past, Present, and Future. Mabel is the past. When we think of her we think of heroic acts because all we have are intentional memories and the facts and figures of her life. Today, in the Present, we have both intentional memories and these spontaneous memories, spontaneous like my memories of crayons. The emotions spontaneous memories unleash are very powerful and can help us to change our community.
When we think of the major challenges facing our community today in the areas of education, conservation of our environment, poverty, and others, it is clear that all of us will need to work together to address these challenges. Before you tonight are 40-some organizations that are addressing those needs.
The largest challenge, not community but a global challenge, is global climate change. It will take all of us to address this challenge. If I drive a little less, ride my bike more, it is not going to make much of a difference. We need everyone to be aware and everyone to do what they can do.
On accepting the Nobel Prize for his work on global climate change, Al Gore spoke of an African proverb. It does not matter which way you feel about Al Gore, good or bad, the proverb he cited has special meaning tonight. He said there is an African proverb that goes like this: If you want to go quickly, go alone. To me that is our heroic thinking about Mabel and other historical figures we know only from intentional memories. The full proverb goes like this: If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Tonight we go together because we have so far to go. We will get there.
Tonight I want to thank all 41 of these organizations represented by the people here. Together we will go far. I also want to thank the members of the committee that made the funding decisions that resulted in the checks being handed out tonight. They recognize that we need to fund all of these organizations because we a
ll go together.
Thank you for coming tonight. Together we will go far.