Collective Trauma: Remembering the Unforgettable and Unspeakable

In her article “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes that remembrance is inextricably tied to forgetting  (1233). By picking out the details to remember, we implicitly choose what to remember and what to forget. And, she elaborates, that the generation of meaning attached to the memory is artificial and politically manipulated (1239). Those who have the political upper hand to interpret the collective narrative are the keepers of the historical memory.

While Dowd Hall addresses the theoretical and political aspect of memory and history, David Glassberg in “Public History and the Study of Memory” focuses on the practice of making-history and collective remembering. He attempts to tease out how different audiences, for example local communities and the nation as a whole, negotiate different versions of history.

Although Dowd Hall and Glassberg tackle the politics, players and give and take involved in the making of history and memories, I am wondering how historians would address remembering that which is too difficult to remember, yet cannot be forgotten. By that, I mean, how does a group, be it a nation, community, family, collectively remember and shape a narrative around a trauma? How can they create a coherent memory of that which is too painful to remember?  Can we ever properly remember and retell the history of slavery, the Holocaust? And, how do historians negotiate the memories of the victims vis-a-vis the memories of the perpetrators?

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