Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chasing the Dead

I'm fascinated by history, mostly because of its enduring mystery. We can uncover artifacts and writings and try our best to recreate long-gone eras, but we can't ever go back. We can never know what it really was like to be one of our ancestors. We can never know the smells of Ancient Egypt, or the songs that our ancestors sang on their long journey across the Atlantic (they were singing). What was it like to share the landscape with giant animals that have long been extinct? How did it feel to be a peasant standing outside the gates of ancient Rome when they were more than just ornamental artifacts of time immemorial? How did the Chinese develop such an elaborate, yet beautiful writing system?

When it comes to history, there are definitely more questions than answers, especially for a curious mind like mine. If only we could speak to the dead. A while back, I came across a writing prompt that challenged me to list ten dead people who I would like to have a conversation with. This post is less about the historical facts than it is about the people who lived them. Here is an excerpt of that list, in no particular order:

My great-great-great-grandmother- She lived during slavery, and she was married - yes, married - to a white man. What was her daily routine like? How was she treated by her husband, her family, and other slaves? What did she tell her children about the world?

Ashoka the Great- He was one of India's greatest emperors, and a well-known conqueror. Then he did a total 180 and became Buddhism's biggest champion. He built hospitals, schools, and pillars marking Buddha's greatest tenants, many of which are still standing. What did India look like in his time? Why did he change so drastically? In his last days, when he looked back at his life, what had he learned?

Buddha- I would ask him about his courage.

Ralph Ellison- He wrote - no, he divined - one of the best books ever. The story in Invisible Man is both universal and unique. Above all, it is truthful.

Zora Neale Hurston- She grew up in an island of Black prosperity and autonomy, became a literary star, kicked it with Langston Hughes, and then died in obscurity. Tell me about it, Zora. From beginning to end. And then tell me what you think about your place today in America's literary canon.

The people/person who drew on the caves at Lascaux- No, I don't think that they were the first people to express themselves through art, but since evidence of their work remains, I'd like to ask them about it.

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