Globalisation and cultural memory

The Tulsa massacre in the U.S. and Partition narratives in India carry profound lessons for mankind. The memories, left behind through artefacts, now excavated from the debris of history, teach us the meaning of human fellowship and the need for atonement for historical wrongs.

Published : Nov 12, 2021 06:00 IST

June 1921: A black man killed in the race massacre at Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., from the Smithsonian Collection. “Race massacre photos were sold as souvenirs, and photo postcards.”

June 1921: A black man killed in the race massacre at Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., from the Smithsonian Collection. “Race massacre photos were sold as souvenirs, and photo postcards.”

O ur identities, both individual and collective, rest on public memory. These memories, cultural in character, are rooted in objects, artefacts, memorabilia, landscape and photographs that are part of our everyday experience. They constitute what critics in recent decades have called “material memories”, currently threatened by the ongoing globalisation/Americanisation of the world. Cultural globalisation has led to widespread destruction of local habitats and familiar cityscapes and the creation of a monochrome culture. Consequently, forgotten narratives and “material memory” have become important areas of study by avant-garde cultural critics today.

This essay will suggest how some of the recent critical works in the domain of material/cultural memory have unveiled forgotten narratives that are central to understanding the identities of minorities, African Americans and other victims of history. Curating, cataloguing and preserving cultural documents have become pivotal to the reconstruction of the archival past; they have brought to centre stage the museum as a crucial site for understanding revisionist history and multiculturalism. I shall argue that critical enterprises in the field of memory studies are vital to understanding movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’. They have relevance for our own milieu as well.

We are familiar with the term “global village”, i coined by the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan; we are equally familiar with the notion of “the citizen of the world”, following the ancient Greek and the Upanishadic traditions. In most quarters, these concepts are regarded as positive markers of a progressive world order in terms of education, culture, lifestyle, and financial and economic well-being. However, the ‘global modern’ or globalisation that has gained currency today, spearheaded powerfully by the advertisement industry and the corporate world, differs radically from the earlier approaches to the one-world concept championed by seminal figures such as Rabindranath Tagore in the first part of the 20th century.

Globalisation today has many faces and defining characteristics. ii It speaks of the primacy of the English language and the dominance of the Western/American culture, technology, costume, lifestyle, entertainment, industry and life values. It entails the devaluation of the village, the province, the local, the ‘tradition’ and the oral. The metropolis overrides the province. Consequently, languages of the world, the so-called ‘vernaculars’, are in a state of retreat. They are considered subordinate and dispensable. The more ‘educated’ we are the fewer languages we tend to speak. Languages, in this view, are not means of communication; they are a marker of prestige and status.

Also read: A Hungarian’s search for his people’s roots

Our choices in the arena of fashion, clothing, gadgetry and hairstyle mimic their counterparts from Barcelona to Brisbane. There is centralisation of political, economic, legislative and cultural activities in late capitalism. Uniformity is the watchword. As a critic from Venezuela records graphically:

“Americans indeed have a mania for uniformity…. Everywhere are the same gas stations, the same supermarkets, the same food, the same churches, the same press, the same people. The American cultural mosaic is in fact a monolith, a monochrome, a monotone. All flat and of one piece. Little by little, all the nations of the world are becoming more like one another in their Americanisation. The Pepsi Cola is no less than a great cultural outpost, a contemporary frontier abbey converting the barbarians. Yet the Yankee might does not represent civilisation by force but voluntary subjugation.” iii

There is a paramount need today to critique the dominant model of globalisation and its effect on cultural memory, built on the lived experience of the citizenry across the world. The victims of history face the growing threat of extinction; their life values are against powerful oligarchies in the transnational order. There is alienation and amnesia among many, including the marginalised indigenous people across the world.

Harnessing the wisdom of the local

I suggest that nativism, revivalism or xenophobia cannot be the answers to the present predicament. Tradition by itself is not regressive, nor is modernity, linked to the Western Enlightenment model, necessarily a virtue. Instead, recognising the wisdom of the local and harnessing it to the concerns of the global in a critical, non-hierarchical manner, as Tagore pointedly argued, could affect one-way border crossings; migration of ideas for the betterment of the whole world could go beyond the present asymmetry in cultural transactions and international relationships. Tagore wrote insightfully: “I have come to feel that the mind, which has been matured in the atmosphere of a profound knowledge of its own country and of the perfect thoughts that have been produced in that land, is ready to accept and assimilate the cultures that come from other countries.” iv

“To know other countries,” declares Sri Aurobindo, “is not to belittle but enlarge our own country and to help it to a greater power of its own being.” v

Memory is linked to imagination and creativity and is vital for the growth of human civilisation. It is more than a nostalgia for the past; forgotten narratives and revisionist history help us in refashioning our identities. We may, in this sense, look at two outstanding examples for our purpose: two instances which help us in resurrecting the ‘usable past’, a term insightfully used by the celebrated American critic Russell J. Reising vi in his pioneering critical work in 1986.

Tulsa race massacre

In recent years, cultural historians have paid attention to what has been called the ‘Tulsa Race Massacre’ dating back to 1921 in Oklahoma. vii The centenary of this event is being observed this year. Here, as well as in the case of India’s Partition, the purpose of memory is to determine how we value our history and what we value from our collective past. “It’s about truth telling, about our shared past and shared future.” While the collection of material artefacts such as coins, posters, postcards, photographs, potteries, household items, furniture and everything else that have survived the ravages of history, both natural and man-made, are worthy of excavation, it is crucially the museum that becomes more than a storehouse for the assembled artefacts. Essentially, the task involves “provenance, cataloguing, preservation and interpretation”.

It has been suggested in some quarters that the term ‘Tulsa Race Massacre’ is a misnomer; instead, it should be called ‘Tulsa Race Riots’. The term ‘massacre’, it may be argued, is a more apt nomenclature, given the magnitude of the conspiracy and the organised manner in which the state colluded with the killing and destruction of prosperous black settlements of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in February 1921. Known as the Negro Wall Street of America in early 20th century, Tulsa was home to 11,000 black people; one-tenth of the town’s population, “spanned 35 black areas close to 200 businesses, 31 restaurants, more than two dozen grocery stores, 5 hotels, 4 drug stores and 2 theatres, 1 dozen churches, 2 schools, 2 hospitals, 2 newspapers and a public library.” The blacks thus had a pride of place in Tulsa; they comprised a substantial section of the clergy, teachers, doctors and businessmen among other professionals. This would soon change, and for the worse. viii

Also read: Many shades of racism

The ostensible reason for the riot/massacre was the alleged sexual attack by Dick Rowland, a black youth, on Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator. It was reported that Sarah ‘screamed’ and Rowland ‘fled’ from the scene, with clear innuendoes of a sexual attack. This was on May 30, 1921.

On May 31, 1921, Tulsa Tribune , the leading newspaper of the town, published a sensational report about an “assault and attempted rape” ix by Rowland. It was found out much later that “in the Drexel Building elevator, Mr Rowland had accidentally stepped on Ms Page’s foot, and she had then used her purse to hit Mr Rowland who later admitted to grabbing Ms Page’s arm. But the truth did not matter as much as the legend that Sarah Page was physically and sexually assaulted by Dick Rowland.” x

It turned out to be a classic case of “the threat of interracial rape” that “haunts the American psyche”, an argument famously used by the critic Leslie Fiedler in his celebrated book What Was Literature: Class, Culture and Society , 1982. xi

Soon after the publication of the incendiary news, as expected, sporadic skirmishes broke out between groups of blacks and whites across the 4th Street and Cincinnati Avenue. xii Instead of curbing the violence firmly, the authorities appointed 350 to 500 white men as special deputies, granting them blanket authority to arrest, shoot and kill those they deemed to be assailants and lawbreakers. Little wonder that, given the entrenched prejudice and racial animosity in the town, the deputies functioned more like a vigilante group not answerable to any legal authority and were a law unto themselves.

The massacre continued for approximately 12 hours between May 31 and June 1, 1921. By the noon of June 1, according to a conservative estimate, roughly 300 blacks had been killed. Greenwood’s business district and more than 1,000 black residencies lay in ruins. Shocking as it seems, machine guns and airplanes were used to spray bullets on a number of unarmed blacks. The fact that many of the blacks had first-hand military experience in World War I (1914-1918) xiii worsened the conflict and turned the riots into a battle zone. The reprisals by the whites were swift and merciless. In the classic novella Heart of Darkness (1902) xiv , Joseph Conrad’s fictional character Kurtz, who carries the “whiteman’s burden”, wants to “exterminate all the brutes”, a refrain found in all the colonial discourse. George Orwell’s semi autobiographical novel, Burmese Days (1934) xv , also serves as a good example.

It needs to be mentioned here in parenthesis that while the participation of America in the Great War was ostensibly for the promotion of democracy abroad, the actual treatment meted out to returning black soldiers by white supremacists went counter to the professed policy of the American state. As David A. Davis tells us in his incisive study, “Not Only War is Hell: World War II and Lynching Narratives”, far from being treated as war heroes, a number of black soldiers often met with tragic and inglorious ends as victims of racial bigotry in an era dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. It unmasked the “hypocrisy of American intervention in World War I and the arbitrary brutality of American racism”. xvi In short, “fight for liberty abroad, but condone brutality at home”. xvii

As Davis argues cogently:

“When Wilbur Little, an African American soldier returned to Blakely, Georgia, from service in World War I, a group of white men met him in the train station and forced him to strip off his uniform. A few days later he defied their warning not to wear the uniform in public and a mob lynched him. His lynching sent the message to all African American soldiers returning from the war that their sacrifice for the cause of liberty would not lead to racial equality in America. A number of texts by African American writers published between 1919 and the 1930s, however, inverted that message by invoking the trope of the lynched soldier to make the case for civil rights.” xviii

As for the black districts of Tulsa, when the strife was over, many parts of the town resembled a demilitarised zone with broken down walls, scattered furniture and household items, including religious books and the holy Bible in the midst of smouldering fire and rising plumes of smoke. According to later enquiries, it was revealed that what happened at Tulsa was ‘basically a military style attack’ against a civilian community. The loss to the property was around 20 million dollars in today’s currency. No insurance was paid as compensation for the loss of black property.

It must be noted that the Tulsa race violence was not an isolated one or an aberration, it was not a rare happenstance at odds with the liberal culture of New York, Boston, Los Angeles or Berkeley. Similar outbreaks against the blacks had taken place in other cities as well, for instance in Chicago, 1919; Arkansas, 1919; Florida, 1923, among others, in disturbing frequency that shocked the civilised conscience in America. In Tulsa, people were keen to forgive and forget; they resumed their life with confidence and renewed vigour. By 1942, the district had been rebuilt with 242 black-owned and black-operated business; evidence of the carnage and destruction were not outwardly visible, at least for the outsiders and visitors.

Photographs as trophies

The memories of the Tulsa massacre did not die, however. They were preserved, not so much by the victims, but paradoxically by many of the dominant whites who celebrated white triumphalism; they desired to visually represent and share with other whites their role/joy in the widespread destruction of the Greenwood district. Postcards with riot scenes and black families huddling in fear and withdrawing from the city with saved belongings on horse-drawn carts were circulated as prized items. Such photography, as critics point out, was central to lynching culture of the turn of the century . Captions such as “Running Negroes out of Tulsa”, or “Little Africa on Fire”, or “Herding them in the Convention Hall” were widely circulated as “war trophies; they survive today after nearly a century”. xix Many of them were kept as rare items in affluent white homes and passed down to generations, oblivious of the racial dimension of such artefacts. Race massacre photos were sold as souvenirs, and photo postcards. xx Karlos K. Hill explains insightfully the process of photographing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. xxi

He says: “The 1921 [Tulsa race massacre] could aptly be described as a community lynching. By this I mean that the incineration of every significant structure in the Greenwood district and the indiscriminate killing of its residents was meant to create a spectacle of violence so powerful that terrorised black people would leave the city and never return.” xxii

It may be mentioned in this context that spectacles of lynching were often staged in many town squares in America, right up to the first decades of the 20th century, in full view of an assembled population, comprising all strata of society. The idea was to create fear, awe and intimidation, especially among the blacks. As Davis argues, such public hangings turned “vigilante justice into the modern spectacle of enduring power”. xxiii

The outbreak assumed more virulent forms in towns where blacks had done relatively well and occupied civic space in a conspicuous manner as in Tulsa. Ghettos had been given up here in favour of a more respectable city space with facilities that matched the white counterparts. Efforts to rise in class hierarchy, inspired by the preaching of progressive-minded clergy, were swiftly put down by the racial oligarchies in many towns.

Truth, atonement and reconciliation

In recent decades, there have been welcome moves to make atonements by colonial regimes for the perpetration of violence and war crimes. Apology by heads of states for crimes against subjugated nations by erstwhile colonial powers in Asia, Africa, Australia and Latin America have drawn the attention of the world to victims of history. Similarly, through the use of artefacts such as memorabilia, postcards, coins and furniture, there has been renewed attention paid to victims of the Tulsa race massacre.

The address of President Joe Biden of the United States at the Tulsa Centenary, 2021, was a message in the right direction. xxiv While conservative opinion in the U.S. may feel uneasy with the teaching of critical race theory in the classroom, progressive-minded institutions and civil society increasingly regard the teaching of revisionist history as a key imperative in the liberal agenda, a long-term remedy against racial crimes.

Also read: The “unfinished business” of Partition

Colonialism, diaspora and displacement continue to haunt modern literary imagination. Speaking about his latest novel Afterlives , the Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2021, who hails originally from Zanzibar and now settled in the United Kingdom, says: “My interest was not to write about the war or the ugliness of colonialism. Instead, I want to make sure the context in which war and colonialism happened is understood. And that the people in that context were people with entire existences.”This is a recurring note in some of the finest literature of our times. xxv It is also a leitmotif in the present essay dealing with memory and lived experience.

The truth of ‘material memory’ is also seen elsewhere including in the Partition narratives in India. Art/cultural historian Anchal Malhotra xxvi shows us brilliantly, through the use of artefacts, as to how ‘material memories’ could be vital for acts of healing and reconciliation among victims caught in the crossfire of history. The objects recalled are seemingly commonplace: a gaz , a ghagra , a maang-tikka , a pocketknife, a peacock–shaped bracelet or a set of kitchen utensils. Every object remains deeply etched in memory; it recalls what Walter Benjamin had memorably said about the ‘halo’ of art work and artefacts.

Remnants of a Separation is “a unique attempt to revisit the past through artefacts carried across the border. These objects absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining latent and undisturbed for generations. They now speak of their owners’ pasts, and emerge as testaments to the struggle, sacrifice, pain and belonging at an unparalleled moment in history.” xxvii As Anchal Malhotra puts it aptly, the book “seems to have only opened the doors to a larger, more cavernous excavation of migratory memory, and its persistently relevant consequences”. xxviii

The Tulsa massacre and Partition narratives carry profound lessons for mankind. The memories, left behind through artefacts, now excavated painstakingly from the debris of history, teach us the meaning of human fellowship and the need for atonement for historical wrongs.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. Winner of many national and international awards, he has published extensively in the field of British, American, Gender, translation and post-colonial Studies. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha, India.


i See Marshall McLuhan, The Guttenberg Galaxy , (1962); Understanding Media , (1964)

ii See Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early 20Century India , Revised 2, South Asian and Global Edition, Routledge, 2018, pp. xiii-xviii for a detailed discussion of this issue.

iii Quoted in Sachidananda Mohanty, In Search of Wonder: Understanding Cultural Exchange : Fulbright Programme in India , New Delhi: Vision Books, 1997, p.33.[Foreword : J.K. Galbraith].

iv See Saranindranath Tagore, ‘The Way of Unity,’ in Sisir Kumar Das Ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore , Vol.3, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996.

v See Sri Aurobindo, The Future Poetry , [The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo], Vol.26. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 1997.

vi See Russell J. Reising, The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature , Routledge,1986. This is path-breaking book that paved the way for understanding American literary sensibility and identity going beyond the notions of the ‘melting pot’, ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘American exceptionalism’. It has profound implications for understanding culture in general.

vii See

tulsa-race-massacre.html Accessed on 6.10.2021

viii See ‘Remembering Tulsa’: Special Report, Smithsonian Magazine ‘To mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre , Smithsonian Magazine compiled a collection of our coverage of the attack.’ Accessed on 6.10.2021. The article offers a comprehensive account of the incident, written with empathy and objectivity.

ix The accusation was later recanted by Tulsa Tribune , the city’s main paper. But the damage was already done. See ‘The Real Sarah Page,’ Accessed on 10.10.2012.

x See ‘The Black Wall Street Times,’ Accessed on 10.10.2012.

xi See Leslie A Fiedler, What Was Literature: Class, Culture and Society ,1982; rpt. Holiday House,1984.

xii Ruins of the Tulsa Race Riot 6-1-21 | Smithsonian Institution, › object › ruins-tulsa-race-riot-6-1-2. Accessed on 6.10.2021

xiii See ‘Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives’, by David A. Davis, African American Review, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (Fall - Winter, 2008), pp. 477-491

xiv See Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness , London: Blackwood’s Magazine,1899;1902.

xv See George Orwell, Burmese Days , Harper and Brothers,1934.

xvi See Davis, Op. Cit. p.488.

xvii Davis, Op. Cit. p.488.

xviii Davis, Op. Cit. p.477.

xix See National Museum of African American History and Culture, U.S. (NMAAHC). Paul Gardullo recounts the stories behind objects in the Smithsonian Collections from the Tulsa race massacre. Accessed on 6.10.2021

xx See 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre - Tulsa Historical Society & Museum .

massacre/ Accessed on 6.10.2021

xxi See ‘Photographing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921’ by Karlos K. Hill in Smithsonian Magazine, dated May 27, 2021. Accessed on 6.10.2021.

xxii See Karlos K. Hill ‘ The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History,’ University of Oklahoma Press,

blog/154545. Accessed on 11.10.2021.

xxiii Davis, Op. Cit.p.477.

xxiv Remembering the Tulsa race massacre 100 years later’, by Narayan Lakshman Accessed on 6.10.2021

xxv See Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed on 8.10.21

xxiv See Anchal Malhotra, Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition throughMaterial Memory , New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2017. An excellent volume in this genre, well researched and lyrically told, one of the finest Partition narratives one has read.

xxvii Remnants of a Separation , Op Cit.

xxviii Remnants of a Separation , Op Cit.p.xvi.

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