Memory may be painful. But it is always necessary. Consider Lois Lowry’s 1993 dystopian novel, The Giver, about a secretive society that tightly controls what its public can remember. Specifically, in the name of eradicating pain and strife, no one outside The Giver, a powerful leader, is allowed to know about the past. Through the eyes of its protagonist, a young apprentice Giver, the novel shows what happens when history is distorted to remove all uncomfortable and unpleasant truths. The apprentice, forced to learn his society’s painful memories, is horrified to realize it is not peaceful and benevolent at all, and that the suppression of these memories is violent and cruel. Although Lowry’s book is a work of fiction, it contains important lessons about the social and moral costs of erasing unpleasant, inconvenient pasts, and of consensus histories that force a society to see itself through rose-colored glasses. In real life, the choices a society makes in terms of how and what it chooses to remember and acknowledge of its past beg important questions: What do the choices say about a society’s identity and values? What do they imply about who belongs within that society, and whose experiences matter?
Like Lowry’s troubled protagonist, the United States is now contending with some of the more painful parts of its past: colonization, slavery, Indian Removal, Japanese internment, the Black Wall Street Massacre, and other tragedies. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the contestations over the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which was first published in August 2019 but has since reappeared in the news cycle after cycle. In many respects, the project has achieved what its originator, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, intended for it: to challenge dominant historical narratives, and to get a nation long reluctant to confront its history of Black enslavement and anti-Black racism. The canonical past is all too often a utopian one, creating false dichotomies between (predominately white) “patriotism” and uncomfortable historical facts, and perpetuating moral assumptions about whose histories and experiences matter in our understanding of the nation’s past.
The 1619 Project is salient here both for the conversation about public history that it is designed to elicit and for the strong opposition against it in academic and public forums. Some objections, such as those expressed in an opinion piece by the historian Leslie Harris, called attention to problems with factual errors, and disputed the interpretation that protection of slavery was a primary cause of the American Revolution. (Harris also said that the project was a “much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history.”) In a number of cases, opposition went beyond interpretive disagreements, to demand that the Project be stripped of its Pulitzer, for example, and attempts have been made to ban the teaching of the project in publicly funded schools. But, as Lowry showed us, it is in being willing to confront painful pasts that society might have an opportunity to change. And thus, for those invested in the current, amnesiac status quo, fighting against memory makes good sense.
Fortunately, books like Ana Lucia Araujo’s Slavery in the Age of Memory and Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History offer help in understanding the scope and stakes of today’s memory battles. Araujo focuses on the consequences of losing this fight; her book is a sharp analysis not just of how slavery is remembered, but of the ways it is erased. The erasures discussed by Araujo include debates over the removal of Confederate monuments, shown in a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center to correlate with key points in Black history, such as the 1909 founding of the NAACP. Proponents of removing Confederate monuments and names from public buildings have pointed to this study, and also argued that the monuments were celebrations of white supremacy, rather than history, often at the expense of those who suffered under white supremacy. For instance, half of the 240 schools named after Confederate generals in the US serve student populations that are majority Black or otherwise nonwhite, even as there are national stories about schools failing to teach the “hard history” of slavery, and other acknowledgements that there is insufficient attention to the Black experience as a substantive part of history curricula.
The Charleston church massacre struck a long-standing symbol of Black resistance and defiance, a shrine of collective memory.
Araujo also discusses the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in the violent beating of Black protester DeAndre Harris, leaving him severely injured, and the murder of Heather Heyer. Then president Trump responded by saying there were “very fine people, on both sides.” Both Araujo and Scott discuss not only how such events unfolded, but how the public’s reaction to them, and the judgments assigned to those reactions, matter in terms of how the American public understands the past.
Araujo’s Slavery in the Age of Memory opens by memorializing the victims of the 2015 Charleston church massacre at the hands of white supremacist Dylann Roof. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of the massacre, was founded in 1817, in many respects in defiance of slavery. It was the spiritual home of Denmark Vesey, a formerly enslaved carpenter who was executed in 1822 after being accused of leading an antislavery uprising along with 50 others. White Charlestonians burned the church only months later. From Emanuel AME’s founding up to the present day, the church has stood as a symbol of Black triumph over slavery. In the early years of the Black church (broadly speaking), Black preachers and their congregants were forced to meet in secret, because of restrictions on Black gatherings that were enacted by state and local governments out of fear of them providing opportunities to foment slave uprisings. And indeed, Black churches tended to be spiritual and political homes where Black liberation politics and theology were preached, and members gathered to organize against slavery, Jim Crow, and other anti-Black systems of oppression. That this particular church was targeted by a white supremacist pictured with the pro-colonial Rhodesian flag is significant. The shooting also fell, to the day, on the 130th anniversary of the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, leading one to wonder, “liberty for whom?”
The Charleston church massacre struck a long-standing symbol of Black resistance and defiance, a shrine of collective memory. It and the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman touched off another wave of public discussion of a past that many wished to ignore. Too often this discussion took the form not of sincere attempts to confront the country’s troubling history around race and racism, a requirement for genuine healing, but of objections to Black Lives Matter protestors, ranging from criticisms that they were being “divisive” to claims that the protestors were inherently violent due to their race. BLM cofounder Patrisse Khan-Cullors wrote a memoir with asha bandele titled When They Call You a Terrorist reflecting on this very point.
Repression and erasure of racial pasts, along with the denial of an (admittedly imperfect) judgment of history, are a fissure rather than a source of healing in a nation-state with a lengthy history of disenfranchising its Black population. Black societies in the United States have been having discussions about disenfranchisement from the full rights of citizenry for over a century. As a larger, national society, we are at the stage of Lowry’s apprentice Giver, having just barely begun conversations around race and discrimination in public spheres that cross racial lines. Despite Black maternal mortality being a problem long enmeshed in our national history, it is only recently that medical racism was officially declared a public health emergency by the American Medical Association. And, in January 2021, Joe Biden became the first US president to call out white supremacy in an inaugural address. We are seeing judgments of history starting to go beyond Black organizers and Black spaces, but there is still much to be done, because history (to put a fine point on it) is far from a perfect judge.
The push for reparations is not only an appeal to the morality of history but also an acknowledgment of disenfranchised people’s role in shaping a nation.
This myth—“that there is a certain moral impeccability about history’s judgment”—is how Scott’s On the Judgment of History begins. Citing Martin Luther King Jr., she shows that despite reassurances that “history will be the judge,” that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” or that “world history is the world’s tribunal,” such claims rarely bear fruit. The nation-state from 1776 onward, she argues, presupposes a hegemonic model, and nationalism carries with it a racist dimension. In this way, the nation-state created distinctions that were the basis for exclusion from the national dialogue and, by extension, its citizenry. The government of a nation-state is not the only determinant of what is remembered and honored, but fights over what gets included in (or excluded from) the histories taught in US classrooms and who is deemed worthy of national holidays are part of our national memory. The commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is an example. Despite the fact that MLK Day was conceived of as a national holiday, there were state-by-state battles over its recognition. In 1993, the NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Phoenix after Arizona voters repudiated an effort to make it a paid holiday. Utah did not recognize MLK Day until 2000, and South Carolina only made it a paid holiday that year. Mississippi and Alabama continue to celebrate it alongside Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s birthday. The politics of memory are messy.
In her assessment of slavery, Scott focuses particularly on the long debate over reparations. The push for reparations for historical experiences of oppression and exclusion—be it South African apartheid or the transatlantic slave trade, because Black civil rights are a transnational issue—is not only an appeal to the morality of history but also, in many respects, an acknowledgment of disenfranchised people’s role in shaping a nation. Scott sees conversations around judgments of history as necessary, but argues that history is an imperfect judge, and that addressing traumatic pasts needs to come with something more tangible.
Reparations are, in part, an attempt to make amends for the past, a tangible expression of the judgment of history. Support for reparations also acknowledges that the United States, among other nations, owes much to enslaved labor. As Scott argues, “The need for historical reckoning is enormous for a country that has neglected the role of slavery in its very creation.” She specifically emphasizes that slavery, for all its horrors, was legal. What Scott intends for us to contemplate is that law is an inadequate tool for this reckoning. Moreover, the accounting for slavery has differed from that undertaken for other past historical horrors, like the Holocaust and apartheid, wherein some form of reparations was eventually tendered. In each case, there are long-standing oppressive structures that remain—the past is not yet past; nonetheless, reparations are an indication of progress.
The proponents of reparations, Scott continues, recognize that reparations cannot ever fully reconcile the entirety of the (moral and fiduciary) debt. Nor do they conceive of them as a demand for equality. Rather, it is a symbolic redress of a wrong committed by a nation-state toward a part of its people, a wrong that created an unforgiveable and permanent wound, a redress where political and judicial mechanisms of redress have failed. Furthermore, reparations are in a sense an acknowledgment of “guilt” that cannot be as readily taken back as an apology. To proponents of reparations, payment represents a meaningful acknowledgment that goes beyond an apology, into the realm of action. That money has been placed on the proverbial table also implies that there may be future opportunities for conversation around the wrongs of the past, particularly when that past has led to an ongoing system of socioeconomic inequity for the party that was harmed.
In Slavery in the Age of Public History, Araujo discusses the function that monuments serve in reflecting which pasts governments, institutions, and people are willing to acknowledge. The United States, as Araujo notes, has a long tradition of Black activists lobbying for the removal of monuments to white supremacy, and for public acknowledgments of slavery. But, she continues, “battles of public memory are always in progress.” Activism to obtain these public acknowledgments of slavery began in Black community organizations, intellectual spaces, and churches like Emanuel AME, much as the abolition of slavery essentially began with Black activism. Because buildings, monuments, street names, and the like are more likely to be seen by members of the general public than histories written by academic historians, they are a particular kind of battleground over remembering and representing the past. Representations of the enslaved past, such as the inclusion of Phillis Wheatley in Boston’s Women’s Memorial, become first etched into public spaces, supported by local, state, and then, sometimes, national governments. Books, placards, declarations, and other commemorations are more easily ignored. And that is why the recent replacement of Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue in the US Capitol with one of civil rights activist Barbara Johns is so significant. The move is not only an endorsement of a prominent African American but an acknowledgment of someone who is symbolic of the Black freedom struggle, to be honored in a space that once commemorated the Confederacy. More specifically, because public monuments and the like are driven by what a society values, the acknowledgment of painful pasts in this context are a countermeasure to the kind of systematic repression of difficult pasts described in The Giver.
Araujo rightly concludes that the (primarily Black) social actors who have campaigned for public recognition of slavery are concerned with the broader picture: the dismantling of white supremacy. Clamors for this recognition are also a product of frustration over the continued social and economic exclusion of Black people, not only in the United States but also in Great Britain, South Africa, and elsewhere. The particulars of the collective memory around this activism differ in time and place. But, to the activists, the fact that monuments to apartheid and the Confederacy continue to exist, to the exclusion of acknowledgment of those who were dehumanized by apartheid, slavery, and other forms of white supremacy, betrays how much full citizenship remains tied to whiteness. And that is why discussions of history, and what we choose to acknowledge and commemorate, are tied to citizenry within society.
This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel.