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?
While reading Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and Nora’s “Between Memory and History”, I was reminded of a poignant moment I had in an undergraduate history course about modern international crimes. Like these readings, we were discussing memory versus history and the possession and appropriation of memory. Breaking from his scripted lecture, the professor, spontaneously and indignantly, brought up the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, MA. While at first seemingly irrelevant, he went on to explain that he was a Quaker and that his multiple great-grandmother had been accused of being a witch and was burnt at the stake. He therefore found the ‘Disneyfied’ Salem Witch Museum to be repellant and trivialized his ancestor’s pain.
In that moment, I understood, more than I would over the entirety of the course, the difference between memory and history, as posed by Nora. To me, the Salem witch trials was an unfortunate moment in American history (amongst many others), but was surveyed with a horrified, yet detached ‘otherness’; what Trouillot describes as seeing the past as fixed (147-148). Yet, to my professor, this moment in time was not merely another moment, but was one that had been shared through his family’s collective memory, a trauma passed down through generations. Being able to see this history through his eyes made it authentic in that his memory was, what Trouillot explains, the “vital connection to the present” (143). In this respect, Nora’s interpretation of memory as “a perceptually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present” (8) is what Trouillot calls “historical authenticity” (148). To not silence the past we must address honestly the past’s repercussions in the present. Like the Salem Witch Museum, the slavery themed Disneyland would have trivialized the past, not because of possible inaccuracies, but because it would not have addressed the implications of slavery in the present day.