History vs. Memory

The other day I picked up a very interesting collection of essays titled Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory and edited by James O. and Louis E. Horton.  All of the essays address the place of slavery in our national memory and provide examples of conflict in the public arena.  I’ve already finished essays by Marie Tyler-McGraw on recent interpretive problems in Richmond and Dwight T. Pitcaithley on the decision of the National Park Service to interpret its Civil War battlefields within a context that includes a discussion of race and slavery.  Readers of this blog know that I am very interested in these questions.  What I like most about the topics covered is the way that each essay focuses on the connection between historical interpretation and the presentation of that material in the public space.  I don’t want my work on the Crater to simply be considered or debated by other historians; I hope that it makes some kind of impact on the way we see our Civil War battlefields.  David Blight’s essay touches on competing interpretations of the role of slavery in our national narrative and considers the moral imperative of not forgetting certain aspects of our past that are uncomfortable.  At one point he provides an excellent comparison between history and memory (you can easily substitute heritage for memory):

History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory.  History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, contingent on place, chronology, and scale.  If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community.  Memory is often owned; history is interpreted.  Memory is passed down through the generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity.  History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. In an essay about the slave trade and the problem of memory, Bernard Bailyn aptly stated memory’s appeal: "Its relation to the past is an embrace. . . ultimately emotional, not intellectual."

Blight’s comparison highlights why it is so difficult for historians to engage more casual "buffs" and especially those in the various heritage organizations.  In my own experiences I’ve found that the distinction between secular and emotional approaches explains a great deal. 

Blight ends his essay with a nice little moral flair. He relates an encounter he had while leading a discussion at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on why a museum on slavery is necessary.  One of the participants suggested that "If you don’t tell it like it was it can never be as it ought to be." 

I couldn’t agree more.

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2 comments… add one

  • Harry Jun 3, 2006

    In my experience, (academic)historians can be just as “emotional” in their approach as more casual students of history. It’s natural to be territorial in defence of interpretations. But in general the observation is a good one.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 3, 2006

    I couldn’t agree more. Notice that Blight’s observations address approaches to the study of the past rather than the individual practitioners.

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