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Trenton 1968: The Edges of Memory

Tuesday night was URB202’s fourth annual student screening at Artworks, Trenton’s gallery and art-making space. This year’s screening brings a look back to the 1960s, to the culture and life of the city then, and to the so-called “riots” of 1968 that, I would argue, have come to be a mental and emotional watershed in the telling of the story of the city. Whether the historical record supports this claim, is a question we’ve been examining all semester in class using interview and the archival record.

As always, I’m grateful to everyone who turned out from Trenton and Princeton—and the folks who claim both as their own. It’s wonderful, exciting and a little nerve-wracking to have our film subjects in attendance to see what they think of the students’ portrayal of them and their city. The documentary process is a collaboration between them and the student filmmakers, but in the end, the students have final cut. And then we hold our breath and see what people have to say. I was thrilled to have not only some of our subjects there, including Maria Jones, Jo Carolyn Dent-Clark, Zarinah Shakir, EC Bradley, but also people who have been helping us behind the scenes like Laura Poll from the Trenton Library. Special thanks to Nancy Lee, TCHS librarian, for bringing some of her high school students.

As Alison Isenberg and I sat back to watch the student work projected on the big screen, I have a chance to see the students test some of our ideas about archival storytelling techniques. All semester, we’ve grappled with the paucity of archival material from Trenton in the 1960s. Despite being the state capitol and home to two local papers, the photographic record of the city is remarkably thin. On the one hand, this lack has been a source of anxiety. Will we—and the students—have sufficient material to tell a story in images? Is there enough visual evidence to hold an audience and bring them with us into the past? We embarked on this process of making works of cinema without knowing what raw material we would find, or have to create.

Watching last night, I’m struck by how little material we need. Cinema is a visual medium, but it’s also an experiential one—and imagination steps in to fill the gaps and create experience. Sound in particular, transports. But I find myself wondering what the connection is between these worlds film conjures and the more hard-nosed research questions we’ve been asking this semester about what really happened. What is our visual evidence telling us? And, to connect to a bigger question of the semester: how do documentary and straight-up history work together to address these questions?

The limitation of our material offers an interesting perspective on this. At the same time that the non-visual aspects of film—the use of sound, first-person recollections, music—help us imagine the world outside the frame, the paucity of images reminds me of how few frames and photos survive. We linger on the existing record and, at the same time that we fill in the gaps, we are immensely aware of what is lost, what isn’t there. Cinema surrounds us and erases the distance between past and present—but also yanks us back, remind us of what we cannot see. We feel the edges of memory.

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