The Power and Promise of Public Memory

Sara Grossman

Communications and Media Specialist
Essay

Friday, November 10, 2017

MONUMENTS REFLECT SOMETHING MORE THAN IRON AND STONE: THEY ARE THE PHYSICAL MANIFESTATION OF A COMMUNITY’S UNDERSTANDING OF ITS OWN HISTORY.  THEY ARE ALSO REFLECTIVE OF THE STORIES WE TELL—OR DON'T TELL—TO OURSELVES AND OUR CURRENT AND FUTURE GENERATIONS.

This piece was originally published in the 2017 Haas Institute newsletter.

 

There was no need for white robes and hoods at this rally. The torches, the flags, the rage—it was obvious who these protestors were and what they stood for. 

And yet, despite the Confederate flags, weapons, and signs bearing swastikas, many at the rally claimed the protest was never about race or discrimination. Rather, they said, they were simply protecting Southern pride and heritage—and in this particular case resisting yet another “attack” on white America: the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Although the rally itself was organized by a professed white supremacist, not all opposed to the removal of the statue identified themselves in such radical terms. One attendee, captured in photos circulated widely online, argued that he wasn’t the “angry racist they see in that photo.”

“However I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States,” Peter Cvjetanovic wrote

Yet the protests that began that warm Saturday in August were never merely about maintaining a single chunk of sculpted metal or honoring a long-dead warrior. In fact, it was just one battle in a much larger war over US public memory and Americans’ understanding of their own past—as well as their values and goals moving forward.

In May, just months before the Charlottesville protests, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu astutely encapsulated the significance of a simple stone monument in seeking to explain why he had called for the removal of a Lee statue in his own city. 

“These statues...are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” Landrieu said. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Landrieu rightly recognized that monuments reflect something more than iron and stone: they are the physical manifestation of a community’s understanding of its own historical narrative, despite how flawed or incomplete this memory may be.

 

Haas Institute Director john a. powell expanded on the importance of complete and truthful stories in his speech at the 2017 Othering & Belonging conference. “How do we build bridges: we must hear other people's suffering and stories,” powell said

In this, powell illustrated the key to moving forward during a time of fractured and competing public narratives: making space for the stories of suffering beyond those in the mainstream consciousness.

“These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

While some US leaders like Landrieu have worked insistently to tell more truthful public narratives and help Americans "hear others' suffering," the man occupying our nation’s top leadership role seems unable—or unwilling—to do the same. 

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, however, another world leader took the opportunity to speak forcefully against the scourge of racism and hate that had erupted in Charlottesville—largely because her own country had reached the depths of such horrors. It was not a place she wished to see the world return.

Days after the incident, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphatically condemned the rally as “evil,” adding that “forceful action must be taken against [far-right violence], regardless of where in the world it happens.” 

Still, in uniquely German fashion, Merkel held back from criticizing the US response altogether, acknowledging that her own country struggles to contain similar ideologies. 

This attitude may, on first glance, seem inadequate. Yet, upon deeper inspection, there is much the US can learn from the German mode of self-critique and public memory—a model that emphasizes continuous self-reflection and the ongoing revisitation of past crimes. In a world where many Western nations, particularly the US, have increasingly begun to suffer from growing racism, xenophobia, and other forms of radicalism, perhaps facing the worst of one’s history is exactly what the doctor orders.

 

Snaking peacefully through the northeastern quarter of Montgomery, Alabama is the Gun Island Shoot, a waterway that ultimately joins with the Alabama River and meanders languidly through the southern half of the state.

It was upon this channel, at the tip of a perfect U-shaped bend dipping into the heart of Montgomery, that sat the heart of the region’s bustling slave market. Here, men, women, and children found themselves shipped as merchandise from the upper South to the lower parts of Alabama and humiliatingly marched down Montgomery’s Commerce Street. These slaves would go on to live on average no more than 21 years.

Despite more than a century of a regular and unrelenting slave marketplace in Alabama’s capital city, there are few public markers or memorials honoring this aspect of the state’s history or its victims, said attorney Sia Sanneh, whose office today buttresses the same street upon which those slaves marched more than a century ago.

But there do exist a vast number of public markers in Alabama celebrating the Confederacy, Sanneh said, as well as a Confederate Memorial Day. 

Sanneh, a senior attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) who represents individuals from impoverished communities facing incarceration, argues that public memory in Alabama—like in many places across the South and US more broadly—is stifled by a strong desire to only represent victories of the past, or even to go so far as to reconceptualize grave injustice as valorous triumph. 

Her conclusion was echoed by Robert Weyeneth, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina who specializes in historic preservation and public memory.

Weyeneth wrote in an email that many historians argue “the North won the Civil War but the South won the memory of the war.”

“The white supremacist narrative that [the post-Civil War period of] Reconstruction was a dark and terrible period of history when the good white people of the South lost everything to ignorant former slaves and rapacious Northerners became the national narrative,” Weyeneth wrote. 
  
For Sanneh and her EJI colleagues, whose daily work involves oftentimes-tedious legal fights on behalf of individuals from marginalized communities, this mis-remembering of a dark yet fundamental aspect of American history has led to greater challenges than simply frustrating cases of public amnesia. In fact, they argue, it has led directly to the bloated system of racialized mass incarceration they find themselves fighting today.

The US today boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world, housing 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Among the millions incarcerated in US facilities, nearly 60 percent are Black or Hispanic, despite the two groups jointly making up less than a quarter of the population. Furthermore, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of more than five times that of whites, with statistics showing that one in three Black men will be arrested and incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes. 

According to a number of legal experts, these astonishing rates can at least be partially attributed to disparities in drug sentencing laws that target people of color in lower income communities, coupled with other “tough on crime” policies.

In other western countries, such a stunning rate of incarceration, coupled with a gross racial imbalance, would be immediate cause for national concern and search for policy solutions. In the US, public consciousness has only relatively recently taken note.

“When you see massive unfairness in a society, you’ve got to ask yourself: ‘What narrative, what false ideas have been promulgated to allow people who see themselves as fair-minded to become comfortable with this level of unfairness?’” Sanneh said.

Over the course of a six year research project that attempted to answer just that question, Sanneh and her EJI colleagues found that the overarching public narrative that made systemic enslavement acceptable—that of an inherent Black inferiority that framed enslavement as not only necessary, but inevitable—never actually faded away. Over time, this narrative evolved into one that placed African Americans as the dangerous antagonist against the virtuous white hero, a widely-held public belief that was used to justify lynching, segregation, and today’s mass incarceration. 

“There’s a limit to the fairness of outcomes we can get for clients when there exist pervasive public narratives that make ‘decent Americans’ feel comfortable with suffering and unfairness,” Sanneh said. “At least when those who experience it are poor and African American.”

“the North won the Civil War but the South won the memory of the war.”

Sanneh and other advocates around the country have since begun recognizing the perhaps surprising importance of public narrative and memory in their larger fight for racial equity and justice. For them, the entire memory of our nation is incomplete, purposely remiss of the suffering, the pain, and injustice that was condoned by the government and never fully remedied or repaired.

“We’ve got to do a better job of telling a truthful history in public space,” Sanneh concluded. “If we want to actually understand that dark past and confront it in a helpful way.” 

 

The notion that it may in fact be healthy to remember and memorialize the darkest parts of one’s history may be contested in the US, but it is hardly radical in another nation with an exceptionally disturbing past: Germany. 

The history of Germany, “is in a profound sense a history broken,” said British historian Neil MacGregor in his BBC radio series Memories of a Nation. “So damaged that it cannot be repaired, but rather must be constantly revisited.”
 
For most nations, the constant re-visitation of its most well-known disgrace would be unimaginable. But for Germany, this re-visitation has, as New Yorker writer George Packer wrote, “freed the patient to lead a successful new life.”

“By confronting the twentieth century head on, Germans embrace a narrative of liberating themselves from the worst of their history,” Packer wrote in a 2014 profile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

After years of silence on their nation’s greatest crime—the genocide of six million European Jews along with millions from other minority groups—Germans ultimately underwent decades of self-reflection and public mourning. This introspection, while certainly painful, ultimately revealed a strange and unexpected treasure: the liberating awareness that oneself is never truly safe from humanity’s worst, but the ability to learn from mistakes can help avoid the torment of repetition. 

Perhaps the best illustration of this very conscious national awareness is, as MacGregor noted, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin—a 4.7-acre sloped plaza home to 2,711 hulking concrete blocks. Just blocks from the memorial stand the shimmering glass-domed German parliament and Brandenburg Gate, the nation’s most iconic historical monument.

“By confronting the twentieth century head on, Germans embrace a narrative of liberating themselves from the worst of their history.”

The magnitude of a nation memorializing its own crimes against humanity in the center of its capital city and in the shadow of its greatest civic monuments cannot be overstated. 

“I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capitol erects such prominent monuments to its own shame,” MacGregor said.

In addition to the Holocaust memorial and other federal memorials to victims, visitors can find smaller monuments on almost every street in Berlin. Metal “stumbling stones” are lodged in the sidewalk in front of apartments where Holocaust victims lived, citing names, birthdates, and dates of death, and constituting the largest decentralized memorial in the world. Furthermore, most German children visit concentration camps as part of their school curriculum—and in doing so witness firsthand the brutality of people who were once just like them. 

 

An ocean away, the US has embraced a very different narrative: that of American Exceptionalism. 

While the US, at least domestically, claimed the coveted role of moral victor in Germany’s humiliating defeat after World War II, this same identity has served to block the US from fully reflecting on its own failings of virtue at the same time as this triumph. 

As noted by historian John Bodnar in The “Good War” in American Memory, the entrenched exceptionalist narrative in the decades after World War II allowed the US to downplay remembrance of events during wartime, including widespread racism both within and out of the military, “that threatened to undermine faith in a liberal creed or hold the political community accountable for its misdeeds.”
 
“Memory without accountability and anguish fostered a heritage of innocent people who held no liability for trauma or injustice in their past,” Bodnar wrote. 

Indeed, while millions of America’s men and boys found themselves abroad fighting tyranny in the Second World War, fewer seemed to give as much thought to the horrific injustice found in their own communities back home.

But others did take note.
 
“There is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception...the American Union,” wrote Adolf Hitler in his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf, which detailed the Führer’s vision for a “better” Germany. Hitler took particular interest in US immigration laws of the 1920s, which heavily restricted the immigration, as he put it, “of physically unhealthy elements, and simply excludes the immigration of certain races.”

According to Yale Law Professor James Q. Whitman in Hitler’s American Model, the United States was “the leading racist jurisdiction” in the world at that time—so much so that National Socialist Germany looked to it for inspiration for its own racist lawmaking.

“There is currently one state in which one can observe at least weak beginnings of a better conception...the American Union,” wrote Adolf Hitler in his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf.

Of course, this is not to say that the US was particularly unique in its racism at the time. Merely, Whitman wrote, one should question just why, at least during their early years of leadership, the Nazis saw so much to admire in American racial practices—as well as to better identify the US’s own capacity for appalling injustice.
 
The Nazis paid particular attention to the US’s severe race-based immigration laws and quotas, as well as its creation of unique forms of second-class citizenship for Black Americans (first enacted after the Civil War, when former Confederate leaders worked to block much of the racial progress envisioned under Reconstruction), as well as its strict anti-miscegenation laws, which forbade the “mixing of blood” between races.

America, Whitman wrote, “was ‘the classic example’ of a country with highly developed, and harsh race law...and Nazi lawyers made repeated reference to American models and precedents in the drafting process that led up to the Nuremberg Laws and contininued in their subsequent interpretation and application.”  

“It was a familiar fact,” he concluded, “that much of America was infected with the same race madness” as Germany, albeit aimed at different victims.

With thousands of African Americans lynched by lawless white mobs in the early 20th century (to the disinterest of authorities) and millions others disenfranchised, exploited, and left to suffer in extreme poverty on account of their race—not to mention the complete destruction of Native American homelands, cultures, and peoples at the hands of the US government—it cannot be said that the US offered a gentle form of bigotry. 

Black Americans “noted the irony of being asked to sacrifice for America and being subjected to hostility and segregation at the same time,” wrote the historian John Bodnar in his book on public memory of World War II. It was this continued hostility that led Black leaders to call for the “Double V” campaign: victory against tyranny abroad and victory against racism at home. 

That latter victory, of course, would take much longer to achieve.

This is, of course, not to say that the misdeeds of midcentury Germany and the United States are comparable, or that they should be compared, but simply that because of Germany’s complete and utter defeat to the Allied powers, and a generation of youth that demanded its parents answer for Nazism, Germany underwent decades of self-reflection and public mourning. 

It was an undeniably agonizing process, but an ultimately fruitful one, as what emerged was a more somber nation and—despite a recent uptick in support for far-right politics—less prone to populist waves and more sensitive to racism, hate, and fascism compared to other Western European nations.

America, on the other hand, more than 150 years on from the Civil War and at least two generations away from World War II and the Jim Crow era, has yet to fully grapple with its own sordid legacy of injustice—no more so evidenced than with the ongoing fight over whether or not to memorialize a Confederate general in the heart of Charlottesville, Virginia. 

 

Although many cities have struggled, like Charlottesville, to identify new conceptions of memorialization and public memory, a number of localities have identified diverse ways to acknowledge, honor, and bring to the surface dark pasts.

According to Robert Weyeneth of the University of South Carolina, there are many diverse and ongoing efforts around the country to reconceptualize and honor difficult parts of history. He highlighted the re-interpretation of slavery through the lens of slave resistance as a particularly compelling model for public memory.

“Thus, the site of a slave insurrection becomes a place where the persistent myth of slavery as a benign and paternalistic institution (“we treated our slaves well”) is unsustainable,” Weyeneth said. 

Similarly, Sia Sanneh and her colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have spearheaded a massive effort to place markers at sites where lynchings occurred as part of its National Memorial to Peace and Justice.

This ambitious memorial to victims of lynching, which will be launched in 2018 and whose main structure will be located in Montgomery, will consist of 800 columns, each representing a county where EJI documented lynchings. The names of more than 4,000 lynching victims will be inscribed on these monuments.

Similar to the “stumbling stones” for Holocaust victims across Germany, the memorial will encompass a secondary decentralized memorial, whereby counties in which lynchings took place can retrieve a column and return it to where the terrors occurred. 

According to EJI, “over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”

Still, memorials spearheaded by organizations like EJI may illustrate a key difference in the ways public memory is viewed in the US versus in Germany, said Valentina Rozas-Kraus, a Ph.D. candidate in Architecture at UC Berkeley whose research centers on cultural memory in California, Buenos Aires, and Berlin. Many US memorials, she said, are spearheaded and sponsored by affected communities or organizations (like EJI), rather than the government, while in Germany, remembering and enshrining the past is viewed as a public good—and are largely funded by the state, even if their conception began in affected communities.

“It’s a completely different relationship to building public memory,” she said, noting that she has been surprised by the prevalence of sponsor names engraved directly onto US memorials. 

According to EJI, “over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”

While there do exist many local and community monuments honoring the victims of systemic racism and other forms of injustice, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II or those who fought for civil rights in the 20th Century, there is still no federally-funded memorial or monument honoring slaves—the backs upon which the country was founded. 

There does exist a federal monument to the nation’s greatest civil rights hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as a National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Still, as historian Paul Finkelman told The New York Times in 2015, “It has to be said that the end note in most of these museums is that civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful.”

“We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad,” Finkelman said. “This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”

 

That we need to represent our past “is the human condition,” explained Rozas-Kraus recently over coffee in Berlin, not far from a cluster of “stumbling stone” memorials lodged deep into the sidewalk. “We need places to think about history” and grapple with the emotions that arise in physical spaces of remembrance.

If public memory is healthy, she added, it isn’t fixed, but rather constantly reevaluated and re-understood in the context of the current political and social moment.

Expanding on this, Haas Director john a. powell noted in a recent radio interview that societies are always changing—and memorials necessarily reflect that.

“There was a time in our history when we said most people don’t belong,” he said. “Women don’t belong, gays don’t belong, Blacks don’t belong…and it was during that period that many [Confederate] statues were constructed.”

And as we expand who belongs, he continued, we must inevitably reconsider what kinds of symbols and monuments will represent us—“the ‘we’ itself expands.”

“It’s not just white men deciding what is beautiful,” powell concluded. 

_____

Original collages by Alima Jennings.

Collage captions in chronological order:

1. Memorializing Black triumphs and changemakers, including figures like Angela Davis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Coretta Scott King, Frederick Douglass, and more. What could public memorials look like if they embodied a more inclusive history?

2. Commemorating Latino victories, stories, and leaders such as Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Sonia Sotomayor. 

3. Remembering Asian legacies of discrimination in the US—what public memory might recognize for a fuller picture of US history.