How do we separate history from memory?




The Vance Monument, Vandalized in the Summer of 2015, Asheville, NC



History and memory are two branches of the same tree, they consider the past, and they often work together. Consider genealogical studies, the memories we have of our ancestors and the sacred feeling we have about preserving their memory lives leads us to objective empirical research and the preservation of their history and our memory. Therein lies a confluence of history and memory, that is, the act of historical research to preserve the memories of our ancestors. The act of preserving the memory of individuals goes well beyond a personal family research, however. The urge to memorialize our past is apparent everywhere we look; on street signs, in public art, on the names of organizations. Asheville is scattered with epitaphs to once wealthy, slave –owning businessmen: Clingman Avenue, Chunn’s Cove Road, W.T Weaver Boulevard, and, of course, the Zebulon Vance Memorial. All of these held large amounts of power, land and wealth Western North Carolina, and yet they remain memorialized, engraved into our memory as landmarks and street addresses. The question for historians is, does dismantling the current public narrative destroy history? And is the reason we cannot seem to let go of the public narrative because we see the established one in a mundane, ordinary, everyday environment, ingrained into our memories?

The confluence of history and memory, however, must be examined such that historians can define the separation between the two. Memories are statues, Civil War balls, and Sons of Confederate Veterans meetings. History, on the other hand, is the practice, the craft, of formulating an objective historical narrative separate from memory. Historians are called to answer the question of why we remember these men while memory is the function of how we remember them in our public conciseness. Often museums are spaces for History, but institutions of memory are cropping up all over South and Central America. An author for The Economist visited a memorial to the victims of the Argentine junta and observed, “[The victims] died ‘fighting for the ideals of justice and equity’ the park proclaims.” But notes, “Not in many cases for democracy or human rights.”  This sort of memorialization is certainly present in locations like Stone Mountain Park outside Atlanta Georgia, and throughout the South. Some museums the author visited, like the Museum of Memory in Santiago, Chile are trying to change the one-sided narrative by displaying the memory behind the monuments. The author ultimately concludes that the Santiago museum’s “Rewriting of history has a practical consequence.” Because of the regional backlash toward anything that could push the envelope.

Regional backlash has been the center of much controversy in the United States since the murder of nine African-American church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina by a young white supremacist. The young man proudly displayed the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of his hateful, white-supremacist views. The flag to some southerners, though, is a mere symbol of a shared heritage and culture, and in the memory of some, a symbol of the valor of their southern Confederate ancestors who fought to protect their homes and property during the Civil War. This controversy has sparked demonstrations and calls for the removal of Confederate and other white-supremacist symbolism, especially in colleges and universities. Some scholars have remained conservative on the issue, contesting the removal of monuments, and labeling it as a dismantling of history. Christopher Phelps, a history professor at the University of Nottingham, proposed a different point of view in the “Chronicle of Higher Education.” Phelps suggests that the removal of the name of John C. Calhoun from Calhoun College at Yale is not a dismantling of history, because “Recognition of the historical significance of white supremacy is perfectly compatible with institutions not giving it credence in their memorials (Phelps, 5).” Phelps shows us that memorializing the past is not the same as studying it and that the connection between what we believe in our memory is purely subjective, but the craft of history is inherently objective.

The confluence of history and memory then does not have to be a difficult one. The important part of their relationship is ensuring the integrity of the two concepts. They merge when we allow history to not only remain in the past but become a part of the present consciousness of people. Historians aim to learn and teach about the truth of our past so that we can influence the collective memory. Many Confederate monuments were erected long after the war because of the historiography of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the memory of the war in the popular consciousness of the post-reconstruction South. Historians now must look to the future. David Blight in Beyond the Battlefield aims to use collective memory as “an instrument of power.” To bring history into the present and influence a new narrative.

Similarly, Drew Faust wrote about John Hope Franklin, the great African-American historian who paved the way for those who have come after him. She points out that Dr. Franklin was persistent in digging up the lost history of African-Americans. With records sparse, he completed numerous ground-breaking works and opened up a new door in African-American history. He believed, though, that the issue of memory invaluably important in our present. Faust reminds us that Dr. Franklin said that “The past ‘is’ not the past was. The past lives on .” The past lives on in our collective memory, and what we choose to memorialize. History, and thus our memory of it, belongs to the people.

So in a time when there is so much consideration of Confederate and white-supremacist symbolism we must ask not what should we remember, but what should we memorialize? Ultimately, history will be written by historians. Objective research will be done to explore all sorts of events, and people, and movements, but which ones we memorialize are up to the public. In the case of Asheville for instance, I am left with these questions, should the Vance Monument stand? And what other historical impact is significant enough to wash away the great stain of slavery upon a memorialized individual? When will we acknowledge the contributions made to our town by people of color and mitigate the supremacy of monuments to slave owners and Confederate sympathizers? Western North Carolinians have got to answer this question, and swiftly.

For further reading on Confederate Symbolism in WNC:

Featured Image comes from the itsgoingdown blog.

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