My memory stammers

On August 5, 2014, Nancy Writebol became the second American to be evacuated to Atlanta from Liberia for Ebola treatment. Accompanied by police and FBI escorts from Dobbins Air Reserves base, Writebol was met by several attendants at the Emory University Hospital on Clifton Road. The ride to the hospital, while described by authorities as ‘uneventful,’ was a media spectacle that drew scorn toward the CDC — located on the same road, mere blocks away. To hear Louise, the CDC museum’s curator, tell it, a “sea of media” were parked on the street as helicopters circled above the CDC and the hospital. She knew it was a historic moment worth documenting, and she had a plan: she would ask CDC employees who had been deployed to the Ebola-affected region to return with objects from their fieldwork. Her voice lowered on the phone, “I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”

The “that,” in parentheses in my field notes, referred to her failure to recognize the significance of the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders and disappearances, and their deep reverberations through the city’s black poor and working class neighborhoods — all of which were, at the time, in the opposite pole of the city from the CDC’s main campus. Why had “that,” her failure to document the murders, been her point of reference that day, for her work documenting the Ebola crisis that was unfolding in West Africa?

On its face, the link is quite simple. Louise arrived in Atlanta in the late 1970s and had worked for the city’s historical society, collecting and cataloging materials of historical significance at the same time that two dozen children went missing or turned up dead. “Where was I when I was not collecting those materials?” she asked me. At the time that we talked –some weeks after I had visited the museum’s “Ebola: People + Public Health + Political Will” exhibit in summer 2017 — it seemed that she was simply referring to the challenge of recognizing contemporary history-in-the-making, of tailoring and tethering museological and archival practice to the demands of a 24-hour, rapidly evolving news environment.

But there was more to the story. Down in the basement of the CDC museum, where the permanent exhibit “The Story of CDC” sits, is a section called “A Public Health Approach to Violence.” The panel chronicles the role of the CDC in establishing violence as a public health problem, with explicit reference to the period that the CDC assisted Atlanta police in their investigation of the Atlanta child murders. That Louise established a connection between the unsolved murders and disappearances of black children and the West African Ebola outbreak offers a generative way to think about failure, neglect, abandonment, anti-blackness, terror/horror in the mnemonic institutions where she worked then and now, and the ways that Atlanta — in the many senses it is invoked– is emblematic of the challenges posed by an outbreak investigation across a steep gradient of racialized differences and hierarchies, of its gendered inequalities and exclusions.

In this chapter, I will be thinking through the common ground shared by these distinct cases — even if Louise, my main interlocutor here, does not do so beyond her own sense of shame about her past actions. In fact, as a starting point, I would like to suggest that it would have been illiberal for her to have openly acknowledged the potential racial, gendered and classed underpinnings of her failure to conceive of these crimes as historically significant events. For the very same foundations — that is, racialized, gendered and class inequalities — have supported a desire to help others through collecting objects that testify to their struggles, their tragedies, and their heroism.

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