Competing Memories of Slavery

This week, David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory was paired with Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Horton and Lois Horton. Blight examines the relationship between race and reunion in America during Reconstruction and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is particularly interested in dissecting the oppositional memories that emerged in post-war America and how those memories conflicted or blended with public memory. Contending that race was “the central problem in how Americans made choices to remember and forget their Civil War,” Blight attempts to show “three overall visions of Civil War memory [that] collided and combined over time.” (Blight 2) The reconiliationist vision was formed by the “process of dealing with the dead from so many battlefields, prisons, and hospitals;” the white supremacist vision included “terror and violence [and] locked arms with reconciliationists,” and created the Lost Cause narrative of the war; and the emancipationist vision was “embodied in African Americas’ complex remembrance of their own freedom.” (Blight 2) Ultimately, according to Blight, the “forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture… the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.” (Blight 2)

Blight is not fully successful in proving his thesis. Race and Reunion reads more as a narrative of the decades following the Civil War than an analysis of collective memory in America during that time. He would have been more successful in elucidating his argument had he connected his evidence back to his overarching thesis. The ideas he puts forward in his introduction are certainly interesting and plausible, but he does not analyze his evidence in terms of memory and the competing visions of the Civil War often enough for his argument to truly be understood by the reader. His lack of analysis and emphasis on narrative make what could have been a fascinating topic seem mundane. That being said, it is a compelling read and is a great refresher on the history of the post-Civil War decades.

The pairing of Race and Reunion with Slavery and Public History is certainly complementary. Blight’s inability to fully demonstrate how the reconciliationist vision of the Civil War overshadowed the emancipationist vision is understood with a reading of this collection of essays edited by Horton and Horton. The editors described their collection as discussing “some of the struggles of historians and public history presentations to deal with race, slavery, and the public memory of slavery.” (Horton and Horton x-xi) As the authors of these essays show, it has certainly been a great struggle–one that is not yet over–to integrate a discussion of slavery into public history.

The essays that were particularly thought-provoking were James Horton’s “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable Dialogue” and Joanne Melish’s “Recovering (From) Slavery: Four Struggles to Tell the Truth.” These articles revealed how reconciliationist visions have trumped emancipationist visions of the Civil War. In Horton’s piece, he notes that public historians must address the general public’s ignorance of slavery, and discusses the history of slavery versus how that history is taught in public schools. He also describes how historic sites are working to revamp their interpretations to include slavery. It was not until the 1990s that the Gettysburg battlefield mentioned slaves or slavery, and when Roger Kennedy began work on integrating that history, he received a significant amount of backlash from southern heritage groups. Melish’s piece discusses how four different historic sites worked to add slavery to their interpretations of history. The John Brown House, My Old Kentucky Home, Brown University, and the First Rhode Island Regiment did not go far enough in their attempts. The John Brown House put up a plaque acknowledging that John Brown amassed his fortune from his ventures in the slave trade, not as an “entrepreneur,” and created a pamphlet discussing slavery. At My Old Kentucky Home, docents were given a sentence or two to say to their tour groups that touched on slavery.

Blight’s book and particularly the essays in Slavery and Public History illustrate how dire the situation in America is regarding the inclusion of slavery in a nationally accepted narrative of our collective past. It should be acceptable for public historians to engage with the public in ways that they do not expect or do not want. Sometimes public historians should strive to make their audiences uncomfortable in pursuit of creating a more inclusive narrative. If one of the responsibilities of public historians to create an informed public, then they will have to include a more comprehensive history of slavery. If such efforts makes the public uncomfortable, then so be it. The leaders at historic sites wield tremendous power in their positions, and should use that power to integrate slavery into interpretations of American history. They should certainly make greater efforts than simply placing a plaque or creating a pamphlet on the topic.

The ideas of Trouillot were echoed in these readings. In Silencing the Past, he notes that the historical narrative is rife with silences. Blight shows how those touting reconciliationist or white supremacist visions successfully silenced empancipationist visions of the Civil War, and Horton and Horton’s essays demonstrated how that silencing has continued to the present day. In Blight’s article, “If You Don’t Tell it Like it Was, It Can Never Be as it Ought to Be,” he writes: “Historians study memory because it has been such an important modern instrument of power.” (eds. Horton and Horton 25) Trouillot would mostly agree with this statement, except he would say that memory is not a modern instrument but one that has always been prevalent in the creation of the historical narrative. This week’s readings emphasized the extent to which those who voice a reconciliationist vision of the Civil War have been successful in smothering the voices of those who embrace an emancipationist vision.

These readings spurred a personal reflection of my own experiences visiting historic sites. On future visits to such places I will actively note how slavery is or is not incorporated into the narrative. The readings also made me realize how powerful such a reconciliationist vision of the Civil War can be, and continues to be, in America and in public school education. I was taught in my primary schools that the Civil War was fought because of slavery and state’s rights. That the Lost Cause notion of state’s rights being one of the primary motivations for war was still being taught–and perhaps continues to be–in primary education in the late decades of the twentieth century is astonishing and reveals just how much work public historians have ahead of them.

One of my professors last semester asked my class if we thought the issues of race and gender are overstated. I do not think race and gender cannot be overstated until they are no longer seen as “issues,” and until people of color and minority groups such as women are afforded equal rights and opportunities as the dominant groups in society. The readings this week reinforced this belief and, on reflection, will make me analyze more deeply how slavery is presented in public history sites and how I, as a public history practitioner, can work to create a more inclusive, and perhaps uncomfortable, narrative.

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