The present is by common definition the instant between the not yet and the already, a moment as narrow and treacherous as a tightrope. But you might instead define it as all that is remembered by those who are currently alive. A version of the now ends when living memory gives way to secondhand memory or recorded history — when the last veteran of a war dies, or a language loses its last fluent speakers. As long as such witnesses are on hand, the now is something bigger than it seems.
Which brings me to Mary Elizabeth Philips, whom I met in 2014, on her ninety-eighth birthday. A lively, gregarious woman, she was born in the South, moved to San Francisco in 1937, lost her first husband when he was killed in the South Pacific during World War II, was happily married twice more and widowed twice more. She had worked throughout her life — by turns as an accountant, an antiques dealer, and a real estate agent. Now she was being threatened with eviction; an investment corporation had bought her building and was trying to empty it out, one tenant at a time.
On the day of Philips’s birthday party, friends and people involved in the housing rights campaign crowded her modest apartment, which was filled with Asian antiques, photographs, and little notes about where household items were located and how they worked. Her neighbor, who worked at a public school and was also facing eviction, had told me that Philips liked strawberries, so I brought a strawberry meringue cake and not nearly enough candles. Philips, her hair an ethereal cloud above her animated face, sat in a bamboo chair in the middle of the clutter, reminiscing about the city she had known before the war, a city that I will never visit, though it is the same one I’ve lived in most of my life.
Each era has its own temperament, and one of the joys of listening to Philips was the gaiety and dash with which she spoke. The mood she communicated as she talked about her past — the impression of having met what arose with pluck and humor — was partly hers but partly her whole generation’s. Philips laughed when she described telling doctors that she was in such good health because she’d survived smallpox as a child. She blithely claimed to have met Bonnie and Clyde on a Texas highway during the Depression, recognizing them only later, via a picture in the paper. Wartime blackout curtains, she noted with pleasure, were green on the inside. She met her third husband when his chair collapsed at a party; as he lay flat on his back, she leaned over him and asked, “Do you play bridge?” He did.
Often her anecdotes drifted, as though she were browsing the pages of a disorderly album. On one of my subsequent visits, she was telling me about her habit of lingering with friends in bookstores, when suddenly she remembered a particular book she’d lent someone decades ago and never gotten back. Unprompted, she began to expatiate on its subject: Mary Ellen Pleasant, a black entrepreneur and abolitionist of the nineteenth century.
Pleasant was an extraordinary figure. She reportedly funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and, after the Civil War, fought in court to integrate San Francisco streetcars. She was a successful businesswoman at a time when both her race and her gender might have been expected to bar her from such a role, and late in life she was embroiled in scandals with members of the elite white society for whom she acted as a power broker and confidante.
Unsurprisingly, Pleasant was saddled with stereotypes. When she was seen as a deferential servant of whites, she was called a mammy; when seen as a dangerous player in white love affairs and financial dealings, she was a sinister voodoo priestess. Though Philips remembered her as a liberator, the book she had read was a 1953 biography called Mammy Pleasant, which indulged both clichés. Because Pleasant was not, as Lynn M. Hudson’s more recent biography puts it, a “clubwoman, heroic slave, self-sacrificing mother, devoted wife, or church deaconess,” she was excluded from “the canon of acceptable black heroines.” Her irreducible complexity, her unfitness for the usual categories of good and evil, meant that she was largely forgotten.
Listening in 2015 to a woman born in 1916 praise a woman born in 1814, I felt acutely the long reach of the present. It seemed, sitting there, that the city we both inhabited was a place full of overlapping gestures, of people looking backward and passing something forward, of the coherence of a storied landscape. It was easy to believe that something of the present would survive and be loved when it, too, became history.
In the 1990s, the fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly popularized the term “shifting baselines” to describe the impossibility of accurately appraising the present without a clear sense of the past. A baseline is the stable point from which you measure change in a system before it was damaged or dramatically altered — the usual date on which the spring thaw used to arrive before climate change began, for example, or the total population of a given species before it became endangered. The scientist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it this way:
If we know the baseline for a degraded ecosystem, we can work to restore it. But if the baseline shifted before we really had a chance to chart it, then we can end up accepting a degraded state as normal — or even as an improvement.
This principle goes far beyond ecology. If history and intergenerational memory give us social and political baselines, amnesia renders us vulnerable to experiencing the present as inevitable, unchangeable, or just inexplicable.
There is power and possibility in remembering that booms don’t last, that campaigns like those Pleasant supported can alter a people’s fate or even a nation, that the ways in which we think about race and gender, childhood and age, are mutable, that anyone who has lived for more than a few years has lived through violent transformations. Even what we consider the past is not so past. I know people who as children knew people born in slavery; they remind me that this atrocity is not so distant that we are beyond it.
The tragedy of Philips’s eviction was the persecution of an old and frail and exceptionally charming woman, but she was far from the only near-centenarian being forced out; there were also poets, historians, hallowed institutions — a Latino drag bar, a downtown watering hole that had survived Prohibition. What replaces these businesses often seems willfully rootless, enterprises that promote visions of a future so sunny the past is lost in shadow. Airbnb, which is headquartered about a mile and a half from Philips’s home, has offered landlords and speculators incentives to replace residents of cities around the world with transients, to turn larger and larger portions of cities into playgrounds where no one has a baseline on what the place once was.
Measured over too short a span, change becomes imperceptible; people mistake today’s peculiarities for eternal verities. The image that comes to mind is a map on a phone. When trying to navigate, you see either a picture too small to provide detail or details too close up for context — or you blindly obey orders dictated by an algorithm that has made all your decisions for you, and never fully grasp where you are.
There have been many versions of the past as a golden age, attainable only through the brutalization of some minority population, the reassertion of old hierarchies. Donald Trump’s exhortation to “Make America Great Again” is only the most flagrant of the recent examples. Such ugly sentimentality might seem a case against reaching backward for perspective — but really it is an argument for a present in which people are not so bereft of recent history that they will accept fictions and oversimplifications. It’s an argument for more history, not less.
Several centuries ago, an ancestor of Chi-hui Yang’s wrote a generation poem — a traditional poem offering a series of names to be given to successive generations, a set of instructions to posterity. “Before my first child was born, I wrote a letter to ask my father . . . to select a name for my child,” it begins, before giving the names, in sequence. David Spalding and his husband, Li Jianhui, who translated the poem for me, explained that its meaning is for the most part straightforward, establishing the family system. The names themselves, however, are less so: “Each one is like a small poem, written in old traditional characters, making translation very difficult.”
Yang’s family cycled through the lines at the rate of one character per generation. Yang, a film scholar and curator who belongs to the twenty-eighth generation, shares his generational name, Chi, with his siblings and numerous cousins.
But the poem is a living document, and along the way, variations were introduced: Yang’s grandfather added a few words, and, after many generations of patrilineage, Yang’s parents gave the name to a daughter. Still, the tradition remained intact. It communicated a powerful idea of history, of one’s place in time, and suggested a sense of belonging and location I could hardly imagine. Yang’s family had the confidence to believe they could embark on a project across eighty generations, that they could collaborate with people not yet born, that continuity through unimaginable change was possible.
I am old enough now to be a repository of the way things were before: I know what it was like before cell phones, before home computers (not to mention the internet), before AIDS, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, before a series of victories for feminism changed women’s lives, including mine. The sheer differentness of the past, the reminder that everything changes, has always felt liberatory to me; to know that this moment will pass is freeing. There have been, there will be, other ways to be human.
Philips’s eventual victory over her landlords was bittersweet. The owners gambled on her life expectancy and let her stay; everyone else was forced to go. She died last year, secure in her home but without any immediate neighbors, not long after her hundredth birthday. When we last corresponded, Yang and his partner were figuring out how to incorporate the next character of the poem into the name of their child, who was born this summer.
Recently, I went to visit a row of eucalyptus trees that Philips had mentioned to me. They were planted by Pleasant before her death in 1904, in front of what had been the mansard-roofed mansion she shared with a white family with whom her personal and financial relations were ambiguous before they were adversarial. The saplings had put down roots before Japanese immigrants moved to the area, before the mansion was replaced by a medical building, before the Japanese Americans were sent away to internment camps and African Americans fleeing the South took their place, before urban renewal broke up that vibrant black neighborhood and replaced it with an expressway and boxy housing developments, before so many things.
Mute and enduring, the eucalypti reached across from Pleasant’s time to mine. Their longevity seemed to broaden the present, to offer other ideas of what a life span can mean, here in this state where some trees live for millennia and museums hold slices of redwoods labeled with dates going back as far as the European Middle Ages. You can see Pleasant’s trees in a photograph from the 1920s, when they were smaller, shaped like candle flames, dwarfed by the mansion behind them. Nine decades later, the five surviving trees have enormous knobbed bases several feet across that push the sidewalk up into ledges — I tripped over one and nearly fell. Their trunks are wrapped in diagonally peeling shards of cream and gray bark. Far above me, the passing breeze made the sickle-shaped leaves rustle like silk.