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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Eight

The slave pit, known as the "African American Burial Ground," in New Paltz, NY, is marked only with a sign on the private property of the house next door. Epidemics of yellow fever, cholera and smallpox must have spread like wild fire in the below ground slave dwellings of the now historic stone houses.
 
                                     photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021

 

In a Slow Moving Year

  

 

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

 

-Marshall McLuhan

  

 

In other words, the medium becomes the message and/or the medium is the message. When I first read McLuhan in graduate school, I pondered this statement for a long time. In truth, I didn't get it. I do now, more so since we have become still more dependent on media technology in our pandemic world. We say we are grateful, we enthuse about platforms and apps, the collapse of time zones—the  collapse of time itself—in  a slow moving year. I have students this term across three time zones in the United States and another who just returned to New York from Bogota but had been zooming in from there. And that is grand, consoling, and stimulating, an unexpected benefit of Zoom. But as I walk along Huguenot St. wearing through a second pair of hiking shoes since the pandemic began, and I pass the pit where enslaved men, women and children are buried, or where they were thrown, if their cadavers were not taken for medical dissection, I visualize the killing fields at Auschwitz centuries later, another genocide, where so many in my family were executed, and it is as if no time has passed. I snap a photograph of the wintry expanse of lawn, breathe fresh mountain air, and write to a friend in Singapore, so far away, to tell him about the sensation of collapsed space and time. I wonder: when will I next see him in person? Will I ever? Will our lives continue in tandem—as I am so much older—or will our life spans diverge? Have they already? Is the answer in the questions? Do our time zones overlap or is time a mobius loop, Planet Earth floating unattended in space? Is email communication enough to satisfy a deep, long friendship? Can we continue to sustain friendship through media alone? Are social media platforms portals or labyrinths in which we'll ultimately become lost to others and to ourselves?

 

If we consider all the media at our disposal to stay connected in a disconnected year, anything that amplifies the human voice is the warmest, McLuhan probably  would say: Facetime, Zoom, a writer's voice in an email or  book. And sound bite text is the coldest, without intonation, devoid of nuance even with the enhancement of emojis which are one-dimensional, barren of real feeling, shortcuts, the same for everyone. Yet, among the generations upcoming, long before COVID-19, text and emojis had become the conduit of incessant "conversation," beyond emergencies or simply confirming plans, and that has only intensified. Do texters realize they are not talking? Or do we insert the person's voice in our brain as we are reading? Can you hear my voice as you read my words here? Because I am talking to you, dear reader, and when I hear your voice, your voice warms me.

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Getting the Story Right

The presentation of the flag of the Mohican Nation to Historic Huguenot Street on September 20, 2019. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman

 

 

 

Listen to us and the great good spirit will reward your goodness. If you should finally shut your ears may that great spirit forgive you.

 

Hendrik Aupaumut in a letter to the New York State Legislature, 1790

 

 

We were sitting under a big white tent on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY on land that many still believe belongs to the descendants of the indigenous people who settled here more than 7,000 years before the Europeans arrived. It was an historic occasion, and an emotional one. Henrick Aupaumut's letter had been presented to the historic site as a gift, and it tells a complicated story within and between it's formal, diplomatic words. Written after the American Revolution, it argues for the restoration of land stolen by the Dutch, British, and French Huguenot colonists from the indigenous inhabitants of upstate New York and beyond. Hendrik Aupaumut  had fought on the American side during the war; he expected to be heard.
 
So vast and diverse was the land on which the indigenous population once roamed, that historians can define swaths of settlements, but no clear borders. Nomadic, intermarried, culturally and linguistically connected, the suvivors of war, disease and even enslavement, migrations and diplomatic councils were constant, more so after the Europeans arrived. Once eracinated and dispossesed, there was little hope of return to sacred land, a concept the tribes still hold dear. Their rich history is still not properly taught in our schools. 
 
Mary Etta Schneider, President and Board Chair of Historic Huguenot Street, and a French Huguenot descendant herself, got up to speak. I have heard her speak before, but never with so much feeling. "We are on a journey," she said. "We are learning. And we want to get the story right."  The audience went silent. Perhaps they were expecting a sterile academic lecture and nothing more. Indeed, there was a lecture, eventually—and a fascinating one—by  scholar Lisa Brooks, but first there was a ceremony. Two councilmen from the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation were in attendance—they had traveled from Wisconsin—as well as the tribe's Preservation Officer, Bonney Hartley, who sits on the HHS Board.
 
As in times of old, Algonquin was spoken and translated by the speakers themselves, which in itself was startling, that this language is still extant and used.

 

Mary Etta Schneider's hand went over her heart as she returned to her seat after the gifts were exchanged. This is a continuing and permanent partnership, she had promised. The flag of the Munsee-Stockbridge Band will now fly on a pole on Huguenot Street.
 
It was an important gathering—truth and reconciliation—and one I will remember for a long time. I congratulate Historic Huguenot Street for their continuing efforts at re-interpretation of the fault lines in our history that haunt our historic sites, and this particular site in the town I now call home.

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