What we can learn from popular street memorials

The memorial mural of Murphy aka Papa Smurph, shown above,  is one of many popular street memorials that incite us to remember the victims of urban violence in Jamaica and its diaspora.  Murphy, in death, is mobile, a man and a supernatural spirit, a masked gangster and a godlike figure who embraces his apotheosis while maintaining his outlaw status.   His image grows out of the earth on the corner in Kingston where he once hung out, but it is also a visual bridge between his local community, his nation, and the hub of earthly global power imagined to exist in places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.  The self parodic style of the painting appropriates elements of an American television series, The Smurfs in which Papa Smurf wise elder and counsellor, protects the village of  creatures called Smurfs from evil. And so Murphy is imagined watching over the welfare of his neighbourhood from the safety of the heavens, his white attire, symbolizing spiritual purity or perhaps social whiteness. With humour and defiance, the mural mixes displacement and rootedness, the supernatural and the secular profanity of American popular culture as it stubbornly recuperates traces of one man’s life from the legacies of urban violence borne disproportionately by the Black, urban poor of Jamaica.

This example encapsulates some of the contradictory themes of memorialization in Kingston, but there is also much that is absent from this image and much that it masks.  In what follows I go behind the visible side of such popular memorials for the fallen asking what, if anything, we can learn about global democracy from pedagogies of memorialization?  I examine memorialization practices in the context of the violence that has accompanied the destruction of the postcolonial nation state and the emergence of a new global order, and I ask what issues are raised by the active commemoration of violent local and global pasts.  What are the implications of these issues for educational and cultural agency across a range of geographic and social locations?


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