by Dr. Darin J. Waters –
Restructuring Our Collective Historical Memory
Editor’s Note: Dr. Waters’s writings from previous years still resonate. For Black History Month 2018 we take excepts from Dr. Waters’s writing and apply it to our current racial disparities and challenges.
As Americans, we love to herald our progress toward our nation’s founding ideals, yet we often do so by either dismissing or diminishing the fact that this progress has rarely come without a struggle.
Frederick Douglass said in 1857, “power concedes nothing without a demand,” and African Americans have had to make significant demands to achieve the progress that the country so readily promotes. As a historian, I believe we have a duty to ensure that our society does not succumb to historical amnesia: to do so would delegitimize the reality of the past and present experience of African Americans.
Given the nation’s long history of racial oppression, not only against African Americans, but other minority groups as well, Barack 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.
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. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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.
In 1974, Dr. John Hope Franklin pointed out that historians have a responsibility to keep before a nation both the glories and deficiencies of its past. A true and accurate recounting of a nation’s history, he noted, shows that in many places its various positions and “postures have been mixed and exist on several levels of morality… At times, in the case of the United States, its public policy has been human, healthy, and worthy; at other times, it has been bereft of many or any praiseworthy objectives.”
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.
If our goal is to fashion a more equitable society, we need to recognize that while our country was founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty for all, we’ve often found it difficult to live up to those ideals. No other group has suffered more from this failure than African Americans.