2017-18 Civic Fellow Jessica Holdnak reflects on the shared power of a history in which we can all see ourselves.
In the South, history is more than stoic words on glossy textbook pages. Southern history is heavy, it is complicated, it is pervasive. Our past can be a prison, trapping people and communities in stagnation with what feels like unyielding force. It can be a rallying point, pushing us to struggle and strive for better than before. History defines our present and guides our future. What we hold in our collective memory shapes who we are as communities and individuals.
Remembering our stories can be difficult and complicated like the past itself. When we study history we choose, as a community, what stories and lessons we learn from, and what we forget. Not all stories are pleasant to recall. It feels good to celebrate and commemorate the exceptional, the stories that show us overcoming great odds, challenging laws, changing minds. But how do we include what we have previously ignored and repressed, how do we confront the ugly bits? We haven’t always. Many Southern stories were locked away behind tight lips, names forgotten, voices silenced. They left conspicuous holes in our narrative. We saw the holes, saw their shape, we knew what was missing.
Our ability to endure and to overcome is revealed in the stories that end badly, that we avoid and rush through in history class, because they leave a bad taste in our mouths. Those prove our resiliency. Changing the way we remember, changing our historical narrative, isn’t just about including the sad, the tragic, and the awful. It’s about being inclusive. It’s about recording and recalling the voices of those we have failed to listen to, and learning from the memories we once hid away.
A couple of years ago I went to a conference in Framingham, Massachusetts, near Boston. There I attended a session in which Canadian scholars discussed their government’s attempts at making reparations with the First Nations, the indigenous peoples of Canada. During the session, a man sitting in the back of the room asked the visiting scholars: Why is it important to make these reparations? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we stopped talking about the problems of the past, if we ignored what happened, and just moved on? Why remember what we might rather forget?
Here, you don’t have look back very far to find memories that are difficult to bear, memories we might rather forget. The South’s history is littered with strife. The Trail of Tears begins in the South, Civil War battlefields dot our landscape, Jim Crow laws were codified here, millions of Africans and African Americans toiled and died in the south as slaves to King Cotton. These are not good memories. They are not easy to deal with, they do not make you nostalgic for the past, but they are important.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James A. Baldwin
There is a real danger in forgetting. When we ignore blocks of history because they are unpleasant, or awkward, or embarrassing, we create a false narrative. We find ourselves trapped in a past that never really existed. We look around at today and notice the discord, we long for a simpler time, we long to go back. Individuals and communities stagnate, refusing to change. They say this is the way things are always done, or things used to be so simple, so easy, better. But things have never been simple. This kind of nostalgia for the past is lacking perspective. It ignores and excludes those whose lives were not simple, and were not easy. When we forget we erase and repress the experiences and stories of the people who struggled and endured. Instead of healing together, we silence voices, we separate ourselves further.
As you walk through the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the floor digs deep into the ground. Steel blocks, covered in the names of lynching victims, rise above your head. Walking back into the sun you are surrounded by identical monuments etched with names, waiting for their home counties to confront and claim their stories. Here, the Equal Justice Initiative has done something special. They have brought back the forgotten. The have created a space of collective healing, a national monument and memory, so we can never again forget and never again repeat. This contribution to our story brings us together over what once drove us apart. It parts lips, opens minds, and strengthens our community, our identity.
Our ability to endure and to overcome is revealed in the stories that end badly, that we avoid and rush through in history class, because they leave a bad taste in our mouths. Those prove our resiliency. Changing the way we remember, changing our historical narrative, isn’t just about including the sad, the tragic, and the awful. It’s about being inclusive. It’s about recording and recalling the voices of those we have failed to listen to, and learning from the memories we once hid away. Creating new monuments and making space in our story allows us to heal, and pushes us to do better. The South moves slowly. We have a long way to go, but we are making progress, we are expanding our story, and in the process we are making a better us.
– Jessica Holdnak, former JOIP intern and 2017-18 Civic Fellow with the David Mathews Center