Can I Get A Witness
We, as Americans, have not been witness to many joyous occasions in the last ten years. It’s been a decade racked with tragedy, scandal, depressions, and disasters. I can say that even in my own entire lifetime (a mere, but sometimes long, 29 years) my national and international memory is not exactly something to celebrate. We have not had the opportunity to witness a particularly positive history. I don’t mean to insinuate that it has been bleak in its entirety, but it has been rather difficult for me to recall more than a few historic moments I could celebrate, rather than mourn.
History is a difficult thing to define. Linguistically, the Random House Unabridged dictionary has 8 different contextual meanings. These for the most part are uninteresting to me. They seem too limited in scope, arresting, rather than freeing. Language is, I think, inherently arresting, it requires us to categorize, paraphrase, and summarize our thoughts. This is often difficult for us to recognize, because spoken language becomes such a dominant form of communication that we believe that even our thoughts are regulated by it. So formal, institutionalized definitions should be approached with a recognition of their limits. We must be able to see their constructions, accept them, and then try to move beyond them if it so required of us.
Today is such a day. Today is a day in which we must move beyond history, which in a sense takes us backwards to the present. In order to do this we must first recognize the origins. We must know where we came from in order to know whether we have moved beyond those borders. And so I begin with the etymology of the word ‘history,’ which is a history in itself. Our ‘history’ is born of the Greek word ‘historía,’ learning or knowing by inquiry. This is in turn derived from the Greek word ‘hístōr,’ one who knows or sees. If we can examine this etymology from a chronological standpoint, we can see that history first requires one to see, then know, then finally, as we define it today, it results in a record of past events or happenings. But first we must see, we must witness.
Last night the United States elected its first African-American president. Last night was a moment. It was a mere moment in the longue durée of American history. And some of us were fortunate enough to witness the moment before it became history. We were the ones who see. In the present, we were witness, for less than an eye-blink of a moment we were outside time and its relentless and indifferent march, immediately connected to an immortal event. It is now memory. Even so soon, it is now a historic moment, to be recorded, remembered, recalled, recounted. Always re-, always again, never again to be witnessed. But we will always be able relish in the fact that for once we were the ones to witness, we were the ones to see, we were the ones to know. We did this for a moment, that moment before the event became history, became a memory. I will not waste words describing the moment, it is impossible. But I think many of us could feel the moment, the eternity of it. I did. And it was good.