Thursday, April 27, 2017

History and Memory

There are historical firsts every day, some more generally significant than others.  For example on Wednesday, for the first time, a player born in Africa played in a US Major League baseball game.  He's an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in his first at bat he hit a single.  He has a great baseball name, too: Gift Ngoepe.

It's of special interest to baseball fans, and somewhat curious in general, in that many African Americans have played the game.  In fact, the first all-black starting lineup also belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the 1970s.

But the lack of African players has not been due to racial discrimination, at least not since Jackie Robinson. Baseball is apparently not a major sport in any African country, and to be born and raised in South Africa presents fewer opportunities to learn and play the game.

A flood of African players doesn't seem on the immediate MLB horizon, but there was another somewhat stunning historical first that may forecast the future. Reports Quartz:

The seismic shift in global energy production was powerfully in evidence today (April 21), when all electricity in the UK was produced for a 24-hour period without burning a single shovelful of coal—for the first time since the industrial revolution [began.]

Consider that the industrial revolution essentially began in England in the late 18th century, and that its growth is largely responsible for global heating and the Climate Crisis.  The massive burning of coal is historically the chief cause (though oil is catching up.)  This event hopefully forecasts a near future when a day without burning coal is a normal day in the UK and the US, and rapidly thereafter, everywhere.

Another historical first has more to do with our relation with the past.  The New York Times ran a feature on Emma Morano, who at her death recently was the oldest known person in the world.  She was 117.

She lived in a modest room in an Italian town, and the article ran large pictures of her possessions, as if they were already remarkable relics of a faraway time. Although to me they were quite familiar from my own grandparents and their friends and contemporaries.  Her odd habits weren't odd to me.  Some have been passed down.

But a kind of throwaway line in the story stopped me.  Here it is:" Ms. Morano, the last person documented as being born in the 1800s.."

So that's a big change.  If this is true, we have all lost forever direct contact with the nineteenth century.

I think of my Italian grandparents, both born in the 1890s.  I think of a grandparent of John F. Kennedy, who reputedly lived during both the assassinations of JFK and of Abraham Lincoln.  Or Kennedy himself, noting in his 1961 Inaugural that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century..."  He was the first President of the 20th century not to have been born in the 19th.

When time escapes memory it becomes history.  Photographs and sound recordings provide some connection, but especially writing--both diaries and memoirs as well as fictions based on times remembered rather than only researched.

We still have those from the 19th century.  But none of us will ever again touch the hand of someone who lived in it. Nor will we hear a new memory, perhaps one that had not emerged before.

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