HNY is continuing its Online Community Conversations series with a discussion on “Memory, History, and Community.” Who, in a democracy, gets to decide how we remember the past? What happens when one group’s memories lie in tension with those of another? What role does memorialization play in our society?
To complement this online conversation, we have curated a brief selection of readings that examine the complex interconnections between memory, history, and memorialization. That said, our online conversation, like all of HNY’s Community Conversations, will use a single brief text to spark the conversation. This text will be provided after registration. Each of these selections is available online, free of charge.
Some readings to get you started…
“Southern History,” a poem by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey’s brief poem examines how the legend of the Lost Cause – and the structures of racism that the legend defends and promotes – remains embedded in our education system, and how the history we are taught not only conditions how we feel about ourselves but often how we treat others.
This essay, produced for and published online by the National Park Service, introduces the reader to several schools of thought about the tensions between collective memory, history, and public memorialization. Although there has been a cascade of scholarship on this subject since this essay was written, this essay remains a useful introduction to the issues, particularly because it was completed before the most recent, quite turbulent, public debates.
“A Memorial to the Lingering Horror of Lynching,” by Holland Cotter
In 2018 the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to the more than 4,000 African-Americans who have been lynched by white Americans, opened in Alabama. In this essay Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Holland Carter, takes us on a tour of this bracing, essential addition to our nation’s memorial geography.
“Who Speaks for Crazy Horse?” by Brooke Jarvis
The collision of memory, history, myth, and wishful thinking is as potent in the American West as in any other region of the country. And many of these tensions are present in the ideas, executions, and delays of the Crazy Horse monument. If it is ever completed – it was started in 1948 and it’s anybody’s guess when it will be finished – this will be the world’s largest monument. But the questions and debates swirling around this site in the Black Hills of South Dakota are more important, if not as objectively large, as the monument itself.
“A Heritage of Evil,” by Michael Gorra
Gorra’s essay-review of several books, including philosopher Susan Neiman’s book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, poses the question: “how might Germany’s example help the United States in its ever-ongoing attempt to confront the legacy of slavery and the memory of those who fought to preserve it?”
“History and Guilt,” by Susan Neiman
If the discussion of Neiman’s work in the preceding entry piqued your interest, here is a much more substantive look into her thinking, using Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained as a catalyst to discuss the resonances between American slavery and German mass murder.
Baginni offers a pragmatic three-part test for helping to determine whether a memorial should remain or should be removed: “Is the achievement for which they are being celebrated intimately or causally tied to their sins? Were they significantly worse than others of their time? How recent was the offense?” Baggini admits that arguments over memorialization are too difficult to be determined solely through his formula, but his essay offers one way past the all-or-nothing stances that are often presented as the only ethical answers to questions about a memorial’s fitness.
“Toppling of the Ulysses Grant Statue is no way to treat history,” by Gregory Downs
Historian Gregory Downs applies a version of Bagginni’s historically-informed examination to a specific incident, the topping of the Ulysses Grant statue in San Francisco.
“The Hidden History of Juneteenth,” by Gregory Downs.
Sticking with Downs for a moment, this piece looks at an entirely different mode of memorialization: the holiday. In particular, Downs explores the deep history of Juneteenth, a day that seems to have finally obtained its rightful recognition this year.
“The Invention of Christopher Columbus, American Hero,” by Edward Burmila
The rising calls to dismantle, remove, or destroy statues of Christopher Columbus have created widespread anxiety. Yet, Columbus as a defining feature of American history books was manufactured when the young country needed to “develop a national history with no discernible connection to Britain.” As a result, there has been the creation of a secular saint who never landed in what is now the United States but remains one of the most most tangible instances of a fabricated heritage becoming defended as historical fact.
“How to Build A Monument” by Roxanne Gay
In this powerful piece, Roxanne Gay suggests that it is past time that we started erecting monuments to our national failures as well as our national successes.
“Monumental Questions” On the Media
This segment features Kirk Savage – from the National Park essay included in this list – in a discussion with Brooke Gladstone about the United States’s history of statue toppling.
The Confederacy and its Monuments
Each of these essays explores the history – and the history of controversy – that lies behind our nation’s abundance of Confederate memorials. Above all, these essays offer thoughts on what should be done with these controversial monuments.
“I’ve studied the history of Confederate memorials. Here’s what to do about them,” by W. Fitzhugh Brundage
“Where Should Confederate Statues Go to Die?,” by Catherine White
“With these racist markers in place, there can be no peace,” by Karen L. Cox
“Gettysburg Monuments,” by Scott Hancock
This short excerpt from a longer documentary by the preternaturally patient historian Scott Hancock shows how swiftly intimidation and aggression rise to the surface when some folks’ cherished understanding of their heritage is confronted by historical evidence.
“Monuments and Power: Memory vs. History,” a panel discussion hosted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian
This panel discussion offers several perspectives on “the history of racialized mascots, Civil War monuments, and other contested public symbols and memorials.”
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Reading list compiled by Michael Washburn, Director of Programs, with help from fellow HNY staff members.