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.