America’s Interminable Identity Crisis

Darin J. Waters, PhD, is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.   Photo: Urban News
Darin J. Waters, PhD, is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. Photo: Urban News

Bridging the Psychological Divide: Restructuring Our Collective Historical Memory

by Dr. Darin J. Waters

In the most recent issue of The American Prospect, a magazine that examines American politics, culture, and policy from a liberal perspective, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy writes in an article titled Black America’s Promised Land” that for many the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 marked a turning point in American history.

Given the nation’s long history of racial oppression, not only against African Americans, but other minority groups as well, Obama’s election as the first man of African descent to the presidency was a watershed moment that suggested that perhaps the nation had come to terms with its racist past. Surveying the American political landscape six year later, however, Kennedy finds pessimism and disappointment among many people.

As Kennedy sees it, there are a growing number of people who believe that numerous opportunities to address the nation’s racial ills have been missed. But is this true? To be sure, there is significant evidence to suggest that rather than progress, we have actually regressed in the area of race relations recently. In addition to the racial unrest surrounding the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, to name a few, a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than forty-five percent of Americans, both black and white, “agreed that the country had made ‘a lot’ of progress towards racial equality” in the past fifty years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, only 32% of African Americans felt that positive progress had been made in this area of our national life.

Western North Carolina residents let their sentiments be known after the acquittals in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News
Western North Carolina residents let their sentiments be known after the acquittals in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Such data begs the question, why the continued existence of discordant and seemingly worsening race relations at a time when the occupant of the highest office in our land is himself an African American? And does this increasing racial unrest suggest, as Kennedy observes, that the “promised land” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of in his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, remain elusive and perhaps forever out of reach?

To be sure, there are bound to be innumerable responses to these questions. In fact, some, responding in the negative, might point to our unwillingness to truly address policies that perpetuate the ever-increasing economic divide among black and white Americans as evidence that, indeed, the promised land has not been reached. Statistical data showing widening gaps between black and white Americans in income and wealth give poignancy to this position.

For instances, national figures show that the income gap between black and white Americans has “widened from $19,000 in the late 1960s to about $27,000 in 2011.” Moreover, the same figures show that the wealth gap between the two groups has grown from “75,000 in 1984 to $85,000 in 2011.”

Perhaps a less visible and thus not-so-obvious divide among us is the ongoing division within our collective historical memory. Indeed, despite the election of the first African American president, we continue to operate within a collective historical framework that privileges white supremacy.

For the sake of the health of our collective national psyche this narrative needs to be dismantled. In fact, one cannot help feeling that for many, Obama’s election was seen as all that was necessary to provide absolution from the nation’s white supremacist past. In other words, Obama’s mere election meant that there was no longer a need to discuss (at least in a public way) the legacy of racial oppression in our nation.

In 1967 Dr. King made the important observation that “as long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom . . . is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.” In many ways our refusal to truly address the ongoing white-supremacy structure of our collective public memory has ensured that as a nation, we remain psychologically imprisoned by this narrative. As minorities we may exist here, however, the story or memory that really matters is the one we see commemorated in statuary around us on a daily basis.

The only way to truly address and ultimately dismantle the white-supremacy narrative of our past is to first recognize the pain and trauma that the ideology of white supremacy has left on our individual and collective psyches. From there, we must be willing to have a real national conversation about how that shared narrative has been constructed. This is something that Dr. John Hope Franklin called for in his autobiography, aptly titled Mirror To American.

What Dr. Franklin and so many others realized was that the restructuring of our collective historical memory requires that we be able to face ourselves, a process that is often painful and contentious. But without such a conversation, our national memory will remain divided and conflicted.

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln stated in a speech before his party’s State Convention in Illinois: “That a nation divided against itself, half slave and half free, could not stand.”

Borrowing the words of the later president, one could argue that a nation that attempts to maintain a divided and thus distorted narrative of its past cannot long stand without ongoing convulsions like those we have recently witnessed in our country.


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