I was sitting on the West Side Highway in New York City, holding a sign, surrounded by hundreds of people. It was a Sunday in August, nearly 150 days after police killed Breonna Taylor, forcibly entering her home with a no-knock warrant while she slept in her bed. The officers had not — and still have not — been charged, and demonstrations abounded.

It was one of those days with a still, unceasing heat, and the skin under my face mask was pruning with sweat. The organisers had sat us down, bodies where tyres should be, to photograph this act of disruption — a movement so important that a city block’s worth of people had gathered, despite a pandemic, as New Yorkers have each day since the protests began in June. As they danced and chanted and passed round water bottles so no one would faint, I thought: “Am I going to remember this when I’m 75? Will I tell this part to my grandchildren?”

And what will I tell them? That I saw the event on Instagram and turned my car left instead of right on a whim to join? That the West Side Highway really doesn’t have a lot of exit ramps? That I came home with pebbles of asphalt stuck to my palms? Or maybe those details will fall away and instead I’ll tell them about the thrill of taking over a highway for a greater cause, of cars beeping in solidarity, of arms clanging pots out of their windows, of the feeling that my one extra body being there may be nothing but may be something.

I can’t stop thinking about how memory works as I live through what feel like the most consequential moments of my lifetime. How does a collective public narrative emerge, and what should we document before it has?

The West Side Highway protest, New York, August 2020
Activist Andy Jean (@qween_jean) speaks to protesters during the March for Breonna Taylor, New York, August 2020 © Lilah Raptopoulos

“Oral history is all about convincing people that they are a part of history,” oral historian and cultural anthropologist Amy Starecheski told me over an online hangout. “We’re watching people in this moment come into a new kind of consciousness of themselves as historical actors.”

Starecheski is part of a team at Columbia University that is building a public Covid-19 oral history, narrative and memory archive of New York City. This year-long project documents the pandemic as it’s happening, in a series of interviews with more than 200 New Yorkers. The interviews began at the peak, in April.

The second wave of interviews is now and the third will happen in April 2021. In 2022, the team plans to deposit all the material (video, audio and transcripts) in the library at Columbia University, hoping that, once it’s public, it will be used by documentary film-makers, historians, public health officials and scientists to distil and make meaning of this time.

Part of the work of documenting an ongoing historical moment is thinking from the future and building backwards. “We still don’t know what’s salient about this moment,” said Starecheski. “Is it the moment when our democracy started to completely fail? The moment when we entered a new phase of racial reckoning? When we started having healthcare for all?”

When designing the project, the team asked scientists and NYC historians what questions they would have in the future. Starecheski suggests we can ask ourselves this too. What will future me want to know about this time? What would I, for example, ask the person who lived in my home during the 1918 flu?

People holding up signs in support of people of colour at the West Side Highway protest, New York, August 2020
People holding up signs at the West Side Highway protest, New York, August 2020 © Lilah Raptopoulos
Colourful signs from the West Side Highway protest, New York, August 2020
Signs from the West Side Highway protest, New York, August 2020 © Lilah Raptopoulos

One of her favourite interview questions is asking people what past events they’re turning to in order to make sense of this moment. “It’s a way of asking people what historical analogies they’re drawing, and how people are realigning the past in light of the current present.” 

People have talked about the Aids crisis, participating in ACT UP, a grass-roots political coalition fighting the disease and developing practices around safer sex. Growing up working class and having a sense of frugality. The second world war. 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. The polio epidemic. Personal memories of war. Complications with their immigration status. Bedbugs. 

FT Weekend Digital Festival

Join the FT for 3 days of digital debate and entertainment, and your ultimate guide to our changed new world

I asked Starecheski’s colleague Ryan Hagen, a sociologist who specialises in disaster risk management, about what society uses to remember historic times. “One of the big mysteries of the 1918 flu is why more people don’t remember it, beyond as a factoid we use in trivia, when so many died,” he told me. There are theories: people were home, not doing public rituals. President Woodrow Wilson never made a tearful speech. And there’s no single anniversary to point to.

Hagen referenced the sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici, who coined the formulation that events are “restless” — they change over time. “Events are never over,” said Hagen. “They always get refought and reinterpreted and remade. And what Covid means to people in the future will have as much to do with them as it has to do with us.”

The thought of my descendants reading my journal to understand 2020 makes me want to burn it, or comb through it for redactions… but if they do, can I predict the lens through which they’ll read about that day on the West Side Highway? Will they think: “That pandemic launched a movement that led us closer to racial and economic justice”? Will they be rolling their eyes at me from a post-apocalyptic wasteland?

There’s some beauty in the fact that it depends on the moment in history they’re living through themselves. There’s no use predicting.

Lilah Raptopoulos is the co-host of the FT’s culture podcast Culture Call and the FT’s US Head of Audience Engagement

How to become your own historian

Starecheski suggests reflective questions like: “How have you changed? How have you seen your neighbourhood change? What have you learned? How has a relationship of yours changed?”

Hagen reinforced thinking about the relationships we’ve kept during this time, as we will remember social experiences most vividly: “Who have I talked to? Who are my most important relationships? Who am I worried about in my life? These questions open people up and generate a lot of stories, because we’re all social creatures.”

Here’s a question from their colleague Nicole JeanBaptise, to help us reflect on how the world has changed: “What is included in your radical imagination?” and, more tangibly put, “What would a new world in the aftermath of this look like? What can you imagine now, that you couldn’t imagine before? What do you want for the future?”

Starecheski recommends writing letters to yourself, journaling or finding a friend who you periodically record conversations with, where you interview each other or casually reflect on the time. She stressed finding something that doesn’t feel like work.

Hagen suggests making voice memos, taking photos and keeping mementos of this time, things that have been invested with a meaning they may not have had (he kept the wrapper of his first Covid test).

If New Yorkers reading would like to participate, they can fill out the survey for this project. You can find an aggregated list of Covid-19 oral history projects happening around the world here.

How would you answer these questions? What do you think you’ll tell your descendants about this time? Let us know in the comments below

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.

Get alerts on New York City when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article