Perceptions: Remembering 9/11 for those of us too young to remember

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When I realized that my column for this week would be published on 9/11, I knew that it would be callous to not write something reflecting on the deeply tragic and impactful events that occurred on that day 19 years ago. 

Yet, when I sat down to write about remembering 9/11, my mind was blank. It was not an empty blankness; it was filled with the facts burnished into our minds each year in school and the emotions we were supposed to feel: sadness and reverence for the lives lost, but also pride in our country and people. However, it was a blankness nevertheless because those facts and emotions did not carry much personal weight or memory.  

I, and others in my generation, don’t remember 9/11. At the time, I was a month away from turning one. Most of us were far too young to even be remotely aware of how it would change our country in the years that followed.  

So, when I sat down to write about 9/11, I found myself contemplating that blankness. All that really came to mind was a painting that I saw in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) last winter.  

Barnett Newman Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), Courtesy of MoMA

The painting is on the fourth floor. It is a large rectangle of red canvas with five, irregularly spaced vertical bars of varying colors painted over the red, and that stretches over the length of about the middle third of the wall it’s on. However, if you really want to experience it, you have to stand right in front of it.  

As you stand in front of it and absorb the expanse of red, at first, very little comes to mind. There is nothing personal or welcoming about it. You do not see any part of yourself in the painting. What is familiar about it seems to have no meaning, or at best, meaning that is impossible to discern.  

As you continue to look at it, you notice that the red is not just a single layer of paint, but many layers of paint that create a red more varied than you first noticed. At first, the display of red seemed to lack ingenuity. Now, perceiving the layers indicates the artist’s sensitivity to the dimensions of color, and the character of that color which is emboldened by the asymmetrical placements of the vertical bars.

There is. There is more than blankness to an experience of remembrance for something you do not remember, but that hangs in your consciousness in a place of solemnity and reverence.  

That painting on the fourth floor of MoMA isn’t about the painting as a discrete object. It’s about the experience it moves you through as you stand there looking at it in stillness. Despite the initial disconnect, a crude awareness of the painting’s significance impels you to stand there, looking at it more closely. After some time, you begin to notice the subtleties and layers of red. The facts and emotions my generation was taught about 9/11 in school are layered with the reality of the experience for the people who taught us about it. We were not taught about the events of that day from history books; we were taught about it from people for whom that day was scary, shocking, impactful and real.  

“It’s about the experience it moves you through as you stand there looking at it in stillness.”

And as you continue to stand there, you are moved to awe. It is an awe not without fear or terror, but an awe that envelops you in an inarticulate wonder of what it is to personally and quietly remember the history of a country to which you belong. Even if, at times, that question of belonging seems unanswerable and incomplete.  

And while staring at that painting of red, while trying to remember 9/11 in a meaningful way for those of us who were too young to remember, we might step a little closer and squint our eyes to try to read the title of the painting, to try to inscribe something about it onto our own hearts that would in some small way honor the lives lost, and that might alter our own postures in times of confusion and uncertainty. Barnett Newman’s title of the painting does exactly that. The label reads, ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’: “Man, heroic and sublime.” In that assertion and call, the disconnect we may have felt previously dissolves. The painting and its commemoration reflect ourselves back to us in a way that is truthful, challenging and necessarily hopeful — even for those of us who do not remember.  

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