Today’s social unrest rooted in two histories of America

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Charlottesville statue robert e lee

As Americans we engage deeply with the past every day. Whether through museums, genealogy, movies, family photo albums and reunions, the past is powerful because it helps us understand ourselves. In their classic book The Presence of the Past, historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen showed through an exhaustive public opinion survey conducted in 1998 that our past makes meaning of our present.

But the relationship between past and present has always been complicated, and it has become much more contentious recently as the events in Charlottesville showed. People have literally fought in the streets there and elsewhere, not really about statues but about how we use the American past. 

{mosads}In their survey almost 20 years ago, Rosenzweig and Thelen showed that white respondents believed that America’s best days were behind it, but African-Americans saw the future as much brighter. Whites had a memory of a great America, which was gone. Black Americans remembered a horrific past but watched those bad times slowly fading with racial progress. In the years since that 1998 survey, the distance between these versions of the American past has only seemed to grow. Donald Trump’s slogan about Making America Great Again was a hard-edged claim about a specific historical narrative that appealed largely to white voters’ nostalgia of a lost cause.


As individuals, how much we feel a link to a certain vision of the past helps to define our identity and links us to others as part of a group. Those strong emotions form narratives — stories that root us in a specific understanding of where we’ve come from and point us to where we’re going. Some think of episodes that reinforce America as the land of freedom and opportunity or as a great international power, while others recall stories of degradation and slavery. When individual or group narratives collide, we are willing to go to battle because the emotional investment in our own story is so high. 

The clashes in Charlottesville are the result of two narratives about America colliding. The alt-right clings to a memory about white supremacy’s golden age (whether it was factual or not) and fights to keep its symbols such as the statue of Robert E. Lee. Many other Americans no longer see the Old South as useful for defining what America is today and wish to discard symbols that fail to speak to a narrative about American diversity. 

The most emotionally powerful narratives are not in the study of history but rather in memory. History and memory are very different ways of telling the human story. History is created by historians trying to understand the past based on the records we have about the human experience. That work requires the ability to empathize with people long gone but also the skill of keeping an analytical distance to see the past from all sides. History tries to understand the past on its own complex terms, keeping in mind the limits and struggles with which people lived.

But memory’s narrative understands the past only in terms of the present. It is all empathy and no distance, concerned only with lifting the best parts of the past into the present and using that story to feed an identity today. Memory makes the past feel good with no desire for analytical distance or for recalling the hard parts. Memory’s narrative simplifies and sugarcoats the past, turning people into heroes or villains rather than complex human beings. The nuances of the lived human experience are sacrificed to the identity narratives of now. 

The battles in Charlottesville, New Orleans, Memphis and elsewhere over these statues are really about whether we as a nation wish to live in memory’s rosy glow or to confront the complexities of history with the hard work required to understand how people lived and at whose hands they died.

These clashes are likely to continue, and perhaps worsen, as America tries to come to terms with the deep emotions invested in our past. President Trump has not made that work any easier given his complete disregard for history in favor of the easy — and politically effective — emotional pull of memory. The violence in Charlottesville ultimately shows how much history matters to us. Whether we choose to confront it will determine how America moves into the future.

Jeffrey H. Jackson is the chairman of the Department of History at Rhodes College, and an associate professor of history. Jackson is also the J.J. McComb chairman of History and interim chairman of the Environmental Studies and Sciences Program.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
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