It is impossible to tell “The Story” of 9/11 for the nation or even for a single community. Yet, given HomeSpun’s role as helping tell the stories of Indian Americans, it is important to give voice to some part of this experience, so here I share part of my own. I was living in Pennsylvania then, a few hours from New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, PA. Some of my closest connections – my brother, sister-in-law, and future wife – were in Manhattan at that time. They all lived and worked away from the World Trade Center and I was able to make contact with them quickly. A friend from New York City was on a bus to visit me, and his whereabouts were clear. I was lucky – no threats to my personal world. My major task was to walk into my college classrooms and figure out how to teach students the course material while incorporating the unfolding events. The students made that easy on me with their earnest and inquisitive outlook on the tragedies surrounding us.
Others, obviously, were not so lucky. New York City was immersed in the need to make sure no one was forgotten. On my visit to Manhattan a few days after 9/11, I witnessed the spontaneous outdoor vigils in Washington Heights, in Washington Square Park, and elsewhere throughout the city. The sharing of hugs, of poetry, and of food and drink affirmed a beauty that may only be possible after tragedy.
But other types of tragedies continued after 9/11. We learned of an increase in violent hate crimes against Muslim Americans and those mistaken for Muslims. Deportations rose. Mosques were attacked. Others reported more minor incidents of harassment, undue attention, and a general sense of fear. Entire communities felt under surveillance. In the years since 9/11 not all of those concerns have disappeared. At the same time, many individuals have stepped up to assert their faith in the nation and its efforts to safeguard the population and build stronger international ties.
More broadly the past 10 years have been a story of how we as public citizens understand the multiple layers of difference that divide not only people in diverse parts of the world but also neighbors from each other. The political, economic, cultural, religious, and other dimensions that seem to only separate us also connect us, although not always in harmonious ways. There is much that joins groups living across borders, that joins immigrants to the nation, and that joins those who have lived side by side for generations. Yet, trying to create unity when our histories and futures do not align is our greatest challenge. I hope that HomeSpun can play its role in this endeavor, of recognizing a community and its various places in this country. As the curator I hope to facilitate the telling of multiple stories, all with the goal of furthering the respect and appreciation we have of one another. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is as good a day as any to recommit myself to that cause.
Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.
by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)
If I relied on nothing else other than popular culture to inform me about Indians and Indian Americans I would think that they all have mystical powers somehow related to their religious beliefs… Oh yeah, also they love to dance. Until this summer, when I started doing research for HomeSpun, I never really questioned where these images came from. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but as critical as I am as a Chinese American of the representation of my own ethnic group in the media, I really did not question the ones I saw of Indian Americans. I just accepted that all Indians and Indian Americans had some form of superpower.
Interning here at the Smithsonian APA Program and doing research for the HomeSpun project has opened my eyes to just how ingrained these mystic Indian ideas were in my mind. While researching a range of topics for HomeSpun, from the history of the American circus to the Microsoft Cricket Club, I have been completely fascinated by how India has captured the American imagination.
Indians have long been associated with a certain level of mysticism and magic. Apparently, Indians were considered naturally mystical because 19th century American magicians could not figure out the “Indian Rope Trick” where you can watch here. Though accounts of this trick vary, the basic trick is when the magician makes a rope go up vertically and has a boy climb it. The more outrageous versions of the story have the magician climbing the rope after the boy, cutting him up, and then putting him back together. Despite the numerous published accounts of this trick, audiences have traveled to India to observe it themselves, and huge monetary offers made to learn the secret, American magicians could not figure out how the trick was done. Some tried to explain it as hypnotism while others went as far to claim the trick did not even exist! While the part about the boy disappearing or being cut up and put together is clearly a stretch, to put it mildly, the basic trick of making the rope stand up straight is not. While American magicians could not figure out how this trick was done, they still brushed the trick off as amateur. However, this never stopped them from pursuing ways of imitating it in the United States. The elusiveness of the trick’s secret just increased the trick’s mysticism and the sense of magic and mystery of India.
The mystery and magic associated with India is as embedded in America as deeply as apple pie. From Johnny Quest to Johnny Carson, American cultural icons have been able to tap into the realm of magic by associating with Indians. Jonny Quest had his Hadji, Carson had his Carnac, and even today Homer Simpson has his Apu. The relation between Indians and mysticism transcends generations. Apparently, secrets remain in India that they just won’t share with the rest of us. It allows them to make rope grow into the air, grants them psychic powers, and as any devote Simpsons fan will tell you, allows them to succeed in the realms of small business.
The frustration of not being able to figure out one magic trick is just a small glimpse of the legacy of Indian mysticism in American culture. Personally, I do not even think that the trick is all that impressive, but that could be because I have grown up in an age of computer generated special effects. Seeing a rope stand up by itself does not hold a candle to giant transforming robots fighting each other or Robert Downey Jr. flying around and blowing stuff up or even my smart phone for that matter. Still, the impact of this one trick on American popular culture is astounding. Besides, I still cannot figure out how it’s done.
“Sim Sim Salabim” is what Hadji would say to do magic on the Jonny Quest television show. It has no real meaning or ties to any language.
Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.
by Priya Chhaya
My day job (when I’m not thinking about blog posts for HomeSpun) is working as an employee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). We’re a non-profit organization that works to preserve and protect the places that matter to all Americans—through advocacy work, education, and community development. Most recently we released our annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list which spotlights places across America that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. This year’s list included Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, the John Coltrane Home in New York, and China Alley in San Francisco, California.
While most of our work is focused on saving places within the United States, we are also a member of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO), an international network of National Trusts and similar non-governmental organizations that are committed to conserving and sustaining our shared heritage. One of the other members is The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and about a month ago I attended a week long training program and got to spend some time with an employee of INTACH, Suresh Sethuraman—who for nine months is working in Washington, DC at NTHP.
Interview with Suresh Sethuraman, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)
Priya: Tell me a little bit about your background, and what brings you to the United States?
Suresh: I am basically an archaeologist with a Ph.D in Classical Archaeology. I am here as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow affiliated to the NTHP and the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of the University of Maryland. Under this Fulbright fellowship, I am working on the American system—laws, policies and problems—of the preservation of heritage buildings and sites and comparing it with the system in India.
Priya: Tell me about INTACH and how it works.
Suresh: INTACH is the NTHP’s counterpart in India. It is, of course, much smaller and younger than NTHP. It was started in 1984. It is modeled more on the English National Trust than on the NTHP. It is supplementing the role of the Government of India in the arena of heritage preservation. It has small offices in almost every part of India. I am the Tamil Nadu State Convener for the Tamil Nadu (South India) Regional office.
Priya: Can you give me an example of the educational and recruitment programs of INTACH, and how they try to pull in young people?
Suresh: INTACH, since its inception in 1984, was, for many years, a small group of volunteers interested in heritage preservation. Slowly, it has now expanded to be a major voluntary organization, in fact, the largest cultural voluntary organization in South Asia. The headquarters of INTACH is located in New Delhi. They have initiated a major program for the restoration of old buildings and historical artifacts not protected by the government. They have also started a special program aimed at school students with a view to inculcate the ideas of heritage preservation in them. Through children’s books, group discussions and competitions, the students learn more of our heritage and the need to preserve it. Presently, this is one of the major activities of INTACH.
Priya: As the Tamil Nadu State Convener are there any specific projects that you’ve worked on that might be of interest to the readers?
Suresh: INTACH has small offices or chapters in different parts of India. The Tamil Nadu State office in South India is one of the oldest regional offices started a few months after INTACH was inaugurated. It is also one of the most active chapters of INTACH. We do many activities in schools and colleges. We have helped establish Heritage Clubs in over 50 schools in South India. These Clubs are manned by the students, with academic and technical guidance by INTACH. They do a variety of activities including tours to historical places.
Priya: What differences do you see in the way American’s think about preserving their cultural heritage, and the way Indians approach the same issues?
Suresh: India is very rich in cultural heritage. But the sensitivity to preserve it is not as much as one observes in U.K. or U.S. INTACH, through its educational and awareness programs, aims to create this sensitivity amongst students and others in rural and urban areas. It is a slow process. But the trend is catching on. People today are more particular to save old buildings than they were twenty years ago. But we have a long way to go. We can learn a lot from the NTHP experiences—their Main Street Program and other programs.
And vice versa. One of the things I find fascinating about INTACH is their commitment to preserving the intangible heritage of India—including dying languages, traditional knowledge and cultural practices (such as dance). Their work with Heritage Clubs also demonstrates how important it is to start at the student level—investing time and effort in educating the younger generation about their heritage, in order to create a greater number of stewards as they grow older.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.