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.