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I've been thinking a lot about memorialization this week. It's the news. It's the nature of the book that I'm writing about the girls who've powered American social movements—so deserving of commemoration, but so erased from most accounts of these histories. It's the process of finalizing a piece I've been working on for months that touches on how we commemorate and what it means to know the past.
In the scramble to metabolize the big, frightening events, we learn dates and numbers and awful statistics. We get push alerts. In the aftermath, we get unforgettable stories. Moments of true heroism. Snapshots (like this one) that capture the depths of human sorrow. And then after that, we get the stranger narratives—ones that don't fit into boxes. The kind that don't have a moral. The random bumping up of an individual person against an earth-shattering event.
Last month, I read a piece in the New York Times about how scholars are racing to interview the people who were active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The teenagers who imperiled their own lives to plan marches and protests are now in their 70s and 80s. The realization seems to have hit at once—we need their stories now.
(A side note, but the opening lines of the article are: "The oral historians' camera turned on. Vivian Washington Filer looked up, facing the lens." Let it be known that I will never not be interested in the sentences that follow from two sentences like those. Woman preparing to tell a tale? Invisible whirring of a recording device in the background? Cinema! Journalism. I could read 200 of them.)
The article reminded me of a lot of the work I've done for the book, interviewing dozens of women and girls about their experiences as activists—in the civil rights movement, in the anti-war movement, as part of second-wave feminism, in combatting gun violence and protesting for social justice, and on and on. I didn't talk to them with a real agenda in mind. I just wanted to hear them narrate their own lives. The weird stuff. The poignant bits. The parts that still make them explode with laughter. (Young and Restless! Out from Viking in 2023! It'll be great!)
When I started, I think I expected most of the conversations would be serious and follow a linear kind of sequence—how the person became involved in the work, what motivated her, what she did, what her life has been like since. We did cover all that, but almost never in that order. Sometimes it took hours to get to the simple matter of what convinced a person to join a social movement; we were too tied up talking about skincare.
Here are a few topics I discussed with some of the most strategic and devoted organizers of the last five decades:
The best drugstore makeup removers with a woman who grew up taking notes for Rosa Parks
The horrors of a bad haircut with an anti-war activist
The kind of hikes and music that can stave off climate fatalism
The entire Real Housewives franchise
We talked so much about love and singing and about friendships that fell apart under the strain of the movement. We gossiped. I had intended to interview these women about their activism. I was determined not to waste the precious time I had with them. But all this was part of it (and "all this" is part of the book too).
I love oral histories because the format lets people get "off topic." (I once wanted to start a 'zine called Off Topic, but I think that's what this newsletter is?) One second someone is recounting a daring act of incredible courage—spiriting supplies off to resistance fighters during the Holocaust or integrating a lunch counter or performing an underground abortion—and the next she's remembering her outfit. There we all go, living.
I don't think there's even an iota of romance in suffering. Violence is gruesome—no catharsis, no lesson. But I have a soft spot for our irrepressible humanness. It makes being alive such a ride.
I find when I'm writing what I'm doing is hunting for these anecdotes. When I was researching the book, I kept a whole document stuffed with them. Little pieces of evidence that even in the most terrible moments, we have some wild urge to do small things to please ourselves.
Here's a favorite: In 1962, three Spelman students boarded a bus to travel home from school. The women were close friends and seasoned activists with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). All of them had attended protests, risked their lives, and been disciplined for their involvement in the swell of unrest. Ahead of the trip—and in the grand tradition of adolescent girlhood—one of them decided that their clothes should make a statement.
These were capable, brilliant women. Leaders who were upending the status quo! But in the end, the fashion mattered. In an interview decades later, one of the women recalled how before leaving Spelman that spring, she and her friends had each embroidered a different word in the corner of their blouses—buzzwords like freedom and justice. The blouses were not a hit on the bus. The driver made them board last. The white riders were hostile.
"We felt no fear," the one interviewed in 2010 said. "I think we fed off each other’s courage."
There is so much heartache to hold. So much true terror. I think of three brave girls, taking time to embroider their shirts. How that felt worth it. I think of students who've begged our government to confront its addiction to guns and mass incarceration. I think about the cream that a woman in her 80s advised me to start using ASAP! (I'm using it!) It gives me hope. All of it.
To that end—and this might be nuts—but I had an idea for something I'd like to experiment with here. You must know a woman like the women I've mentioned in this letter. Someone who has lived through some shit, someone who has strong feelings about how to choose a good melon or what makes a great relationship. Someone who has great advice. The kind of person who should have a podcast or at least be invited to be on one episode of one podcast.
I'd love to interview her for the newsletter.
The interview can be as long or short as we want. The person does not have to be famous. She doesn't have to have "done something" of particular note, although I guarantee that if I talk to her for long enough I'll find something remarkable that she had a hand in. She just has to be someone people love talking to who has something to tell us about living.
Respond to this email with nominations. Tell me a bit about the person in question and what makes her a good fit for this. We'll figure out the rest. We all know incredible women and sharing is caring. Let's give it a go! It'll be fun. An advice column could be born! We could be the oral historians we want to see in the world. It's all possible.