Why Memory?

I am sometimes asked to explain my fascination with the study of Civil War memory. It comes down to an interest in how and why we form national narratives. There is an interesting psychological element in this that seems to have much in common with how each of us forms our own self-narratives. We are constantly writing and re-writing our self-histories in ways that continue to conform to changing assumptions about why our lives have turned out in specific ways. But it is the traumatic moments in our lives that prove the most difficult to explain. We rationalize and remember in ways that allow us to move on, often without dealing with what initially went wrong and why. So it is the same when it comes to our national historical narratives. The Civil War was arguably the most traumatic event in our nation’s history. The stories told those first few decades following Appomattox went far to healing the wounds, but ultimately left the story incomplete. Uncovering lost narratives takes on a moral flavor; the study of how and what various groups chose to remember ultimately reveals as much about what they chose to forget. The price of this historical amnesia in the context of postwar Civil War narratives was in part the disfranchisement and social and psychological alienation of an entire race.

Below is an excerpt from the preface to Edward A. Johnson’s, A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890. Johnson was the principal of the Washington School in Raleigh, North Carolina. This book was published in 1890.

To the many thousand colored teachers in our country is this book dedicated. During my experience of eleven years as a teacher, I have often felt that the children of the race ought to study some work that would give them a little information on the many brave deeds and noble characters of their own race. I have often observed the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors, most of whom seem to have written exclusively for white children, and studiously left out the many creditable deeds of the Negro. The general tone of most of the histories taught in our schools has been that of the inferiority of the Negro, whether actually said in so many words, or left to be implied from the highest laudation of the deeds of one race to the complete exclusion of those of the other. It must, indeed, be a stimulus to any people to be able to refer to their ancestors as distinguished in deeds of valor, and peculiarly so to the colored people. But how must the little colored child feel when he has completed the assigned course of U. S. History and in it found not one word of credit, not one word of favorable comment for even one among the millions of his foreparents who have lived through nearly three centuries of his country’s history! The Negro is hardly given a passing notice in many of the histories taught in the schools; he is credited with no heritage of valor; he is mentioned only as a slave, while true historical records prove him to have been among the most patriotic of patriots, among the bravest of soldiers, and constantly a God-fearing, faithful producer of the nation’s wealth. Though a slave to this government, his was the first blood shed in its defense in those days when a foreign foe threatened its destruction. In each of the American wars the Negro was faithful — yes, faithful to a land not his own in point of rights and freedom, but, indeed, a land that, after he had shouldered his musket to defend, rewarded him with a renewed term of slavery. Patriotism and valor under such circumstances possess a peculiar merit and beauty. But such is the truth of history; and may I not hope that the study of this little work by the boys and girls of the race will inspire in them a new self-respect and confidence. Much, of course, will depend on you, dear teachers, into whose hands I hope to place this book. By your efforts and those of the children, you are to teach, from the truth of history, that complexions do not govern patriotism, valor and sterling integrity.

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