Tag Archives: Memory

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

Memorial Mania on College Campuses?

I’m fascinated this week by the combination between commemoration as a physical presence (in the construction of memorials, as Doss discusses) and an experiential one (in Sandage’s article on protests during the Civil Rights Movement.) It’s one thing to focus on the ways in the constructed presence or its intended narrative, as Gopnik does in his criticisms of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. However,  it’s quite another issue to think of the constructed presence as something on which we present our feelings, interpretations, and constructed legacies. While the readings this week have focused primarily on the physical constructions of representations of the past (aside from Sandage), I’m curious more directly how politics of memory influence the celebrations/protests/events that occur around the physical memorials.

There are a lot of different ways to go about this – I’ll stick with protests. Politicization of statues, buildings, and monuments has been an increasingly prevalent theme in recent years. I’m reminded of #RhodesMustFall at University of Cape Town, where students used a protest for removal of a statue to push for wider decolonization of the university. I’m thinking of the recent change of Calhoun College at Yale to Grace Murray Hopper College being part of a larger conversation around the history of slavery and reparations in prominent universities. Amherst College recently took efforts to change their (unofficial) mascot from the Jeffs, a reference to Lord Jeffrey Amherst.  Sandage’s argument places  Lincoln (and the Lincoln Memorial) as a positive piece of symbolism on which black activists projected the growing Civil Rights movement. Now, though, we see a shift to view these figures negatively, and are perhaps more transparent/explicit  in the use of these political symbols of (white) men to make connections to decolonization and racial justice.

I’m also noticing as I write this that the examples I first reach for around memory and memorialization are university-related. I’m sure that’s partially due to my own news-related biases, getting most of my information from professors and academic-minded sources. But I also wonder if that points to the ways in which universities – public and private – use monuments or memorials to establish a legacy parallel to that of a larger, national one. What’s the role of memorial mania on this campus? On any campus? And what’s the role of students, faculty, and staff to acknowledge/challenge these politics around physical constructs?

Myth in Media

How does pop culture reinforce/ reconstruct myths of American history? Can modern myths even be created or exist outside of pop culture media outlets?

I was thinking of my own experiences working at sites of American history as I read Glassberg’s piece, particularly how visitors often came to the John Adams home with “memories” from watching an HBO series or reading a popular biography. Many were nostalgic for places they had never been, and often described to me scenes from the HBO series (which was not filmed at the historic location, but most thought that is was). I never watched the HBO series, but after a few months of working at this historic home, I felt like I had!

Glassberg poses the question, “Will mass culture in the next century prove to be a more powerful force than the nation-state in the twentieth century for the standardization of public historical imagery?” (Glassberg 14). It seems to me that mass culture and divided politics (more than a singular nation-state) work together to create imagery that builds into myth and nostalgia. Still,  the mass culture piece often comes first. People visit the Grange (Hamilton’s home) because they have seen the musical; they do not see Hamilton because of a prior love for Hamilton the man. The same was true at the historic home where I worked, and so visitors often had the same mass-produced views of the story that they were not necessarily looking to change. Interpreters at recognizable historic sites have always been faced with myths of the history, but I wonder how myths created by mass culture interact with historic sites differently than myth passed down through generations that did not create specific images. Mass culture creates the imagery of the place, while myths picked up in reading or conversation leave the visual to each individual. 

Note that the picture above of the HBO John Adams series is not at the historic home in Massachusetts, but actually filmed in Canada and Virginia.  

On Public History and Gentrification

“Public historians can participate in the process of placemaking and contribute to local residents’ sense of place by adding a sense of location to local residents’ sense of emotional attachment, helping residents and visitors alike to see what ordinarily cannot be seen: both the memories attached to places and the larger social and economic processes that shaped how the places were made.”
– David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory”

If placemaking is one practical application of public history, could peacemaking be another? Conflict resolution is usually seen as antithetical to scholarship: the point is to contest, to critique, to problematize. But could methods of public history also be applied to promote understanding among people with divergent experiences and aims, even as we understand the divergence to be informed by historical inequalities of access to power?

Before going into praxis, let’s talk about a particular place: Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is experiencing gentrification as a result of relatively low rents and proximity to the Arts District/downtown Los Angeles.

To the discerning public humanist, reading “low rents” signals histories of institutionalized discrimination and economic subjugation, leading to the current situation; historical institutionalized racism in the form of redlining versus contemporary institutionalized racism in the form of speculative property investment that converts homes to condos, renovated “flips,” or gyms and other non-residential uses. Of course, this is a reductive summary. To begin to know the history of the neighborhood would require many rich and varied sources of information including oral histories, census data, videos, and maps.

Gentrification is ongoing. As Boyle Heights residents face the threat of displacement with rent increases, community activists have staged protests against recently arrived art galleries, resulting in the closure of one particularly contested art space. These conflicts, between residents and developers, between protesters and art institutions, are important and should be archived in a way that situates them in the history of the place and the people who have lived there.

In the fall of 2016, I presented an idea to our Methods of Public Humanities course of a digital public archive on the history of gentrification in Boyle Heights. This would serve the double function of preserving memory and visualizing knowledge in ways that could help facilitate understanding. After reading David Glassberg’s “Public History and the Study of Memory,” I am particularly inspired by the possibilities of applied public history. Glassberg wrote, “[Public historians] confront the problem of historical representation on a daily basis, immersed in a world in which the boundaries between knower and known, between subjectivity and objectivity, have long been collapsed.” (23)

Perhaps peacemaking is not an application of public history, but a potential outcome. We know that archives are not neutral; that privilege is embedded into the very structure of an archive. If this archive project were to be realized, the project’s leadership team needs to include Boyle Heights residents–otherwise, it risks perpetuating the same issue it seeks to understand. As Glassberg wrote, “In presenting history to the public, [public historians] soon discover that the public is presenting history back to them as well.” (23)

Works Cited

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian, vol. 18, no. 2, 1996, pp. 7–23., www.jstor.org/stable/3377910

Memory in History

What role does memory play in the creation of historical narratives?

While Michel-Rolph Trouillot does not directly address memory, it seems that the idealized memory of those in power is turned into our textbook history. After the Haitian Revolution, which seemed impossible to many in power, “planters, administrators, politicians, or ideologues found explanations that forced the rebellion back within their worldview, shoving the facts into the proper order of discourse” (Trouillot, 91). Their memory of events, largely influenced by their ideologies, could not conceive of the actual events and so the Haitian Revolution was largely silenced in the historical narrative.

In contrast, Pierre Nora describes a clear divide between history and memory, where memory “is life, borne by living societies” and history, as “an intellectual and secular productions, calls for analysis and criticism” (Nora, 8 – 9). Do the producers of history then have no memory of their own that influences their narratives? Trouillot would seem to indicate exactly the opposite, writing that “[t]he inability to step out of history in order to write or rewrite it applies to all actors and narrators” (Trouillot, 140). For Trouillot, good history must involve “someone’s past,” presumably with voices from those underrepresented in traditional narratives (Trouillot, 142). Is this closer to Nora’s idea of memory? Does adding new voices and new memories make a more truthful historical narrative?

As practitioners, should we try to separate memory from historical fact or is there a way we can highlight how they are woven together?

Disneyfying the Past

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.