Politics of Memory Activism in Liminal Spaces

The idea of commemorating the past through a static public display or object is something that made complete sense as a child and makes less sense as I get older, perhaps precisely because my knowledge of politics and political agendas has matured (or shall I say, I’ve become cynical). If it’s already difficult to create an appropriate monument, it is impossible to create a monument that stands the test of time. Which, I guess the point of a monument is not to last forever, per se, but to last as long as it’s needed to remind people of an event. I guess also that monuments do not exist to make sense, but to emotionally appeal to a memory of an event or history. Anyway, this is how I usually (perhaps reductively) think of monuments: as physical objects. However, reading about how “protesters mobilized mainstream symbols to further alternative ends, to constitute (not just reflect) shared beliefs, and to open spaces for social change” (Sandage 138) specifically with regard to the Lincoln Memorial opened up my mind to the idea of monuments as sites of potential social change by virtue of being liminal spaces.

In “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963,” Scott A. Sandage defines a liminal space as being “a realm of ambiguity-and therefore of possibility-where public rituals and appeals to sacred symbols possess an unusual potency to effect both social change and group unity.” (143) Sandage goes on to describe the liminality of the Lincoln Memorial, writing, “Conceived and dedicated as holy ground, the Lincoln Memorial became…racially contested ground. By chance or design, the shrine straddled boundaries: between North and South, between black and white, and between official and vernacular memory.” (143) It’s important to remember, however, that people, not spaces, are the agents of any social change. Sandage writes, “By invoking and reinterpreting a national icon, black protesters explored the ambiguities and possibilities of American society in the mid-twentieth century. Their protests at the Lincoln Memorial were repeated, standardized rituals that evolved from experience and ultimately constituted a formidable politics of memory.” (143) Liminal spaces may indeed provide a unique space for political action, but ultimately it’s the political savvy of the activists themselves that generates change.

Works Cited

Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963.” The Journal of American History, vol. 80, no. 1, 1993, pp. 135–167., www.jstor.org/stable/2079700

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