Is there any danger in fond remembrance? Most people look back on some point in their lives with happiness or even wistfulness; their memories of that time constitute an essential part of their self-understanding. Memory is vital to both the personal/individual and political/collective human experience: oral history projects across the globe have shown us that individual memories of certain events can be powerful tools in combating “official histories” that silence unsavory aspects of nation-building projects.
But nostalgia and memory can be insidious. Consider the nostalgia of American Southerners (and Northerners, and Midwesterners, and Westerners) who have Confederate flag bumper stickers on their cars. These men and women often claim that their love for the Dixie flag has nothing to do with racism or slavery and everything to do with states’ rights, independence, rebellion against an overbearing federal government. They, ostensibly, see their forebears as brave souls who stood up to the bullying Union—the Southerners were David to the North’s Goliath (http://www.scv.org/). But I, as a black woman with deep roots in the American South, see things differently. My heart starts beating faster in fear when I see a Confederate flag, and I would do everything in my power to avoid speaking to a person in possession of one.
I see memories of Guantánamo as similarly politicized. As a student of Cuban history, I was shocked, for example, to hear the story of Anita Isom, an American base employee in the 1960s and 1970s. She remembered the base as a kind of paradise, where everyone knew everyone, there was no crime, and it was “summer all year long.” I was more familiar with Jana Lipman’s portrayal of life for Cubans on and off the base: as difficult, sometimes dangerous, and increasingly humiliating once Cuban-American relations devolved after 1959. How could Anita Isom not understand that her idyll was built on the back of imperial subjugation of the Cuban government and the Cuban people?
My self-righteousness became more difficult to sustain, however, when I heard Conrado Basulto speak about his time as a balsero refugee on the base in the mid-nineties. Here was a Cuban man who spoke about his detainment on the base as a period of artistic and personal development! He had been on both sides of the fence; surely he had more basis on which to judge both than I did, but I could not resolve his optimism and positivity with what I understood to be the illegality and the moral wrongness of the continued existence of the Guantánamo base. Besides, didn’t he know what the Haitians on the base were going through right around the time he arrived?
I know that people are not history books and their memories are not political statements, but I think that we have a responsibility to challenge understandings of the past that are sanitized or one-sided. This is true of any aspect of world history; but Guantánamo, with its very real fences and borders between Americans and Cubans, between Cubans and Haitians, between HIV-positive and negative people, between soldiers and “terrorists,” illustrates the contradictions of personal memory more acutely than most geographical sites.
Posted by Anasa Hicks—Ph.D. candidate at New York University
 Anita Lewis Isom, http://www.gitmomemory.sitesofconscience.org/story_h1.html
 Jana Lipman, Guantánamo: A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), Chapters 2-3.
 Conrado Basulto, “Behind the Cactus Curtain,” University of Miami student film for Guantánamo Public Memory Project, 2012.
 Jonathan Hansen. Guantanamo: An American History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011), Chapter 8.
New York University is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.