Whose story? Democratizing America’s collective historical memory

Darin Waters, the writer of this commentary, is an assistant professor of history at UNC Asheville. Photo by Cindy Kunst.
Darin Waters, the writer of this commentary, is an assistant professor of history at UNC Asheville. Photo by Cindy Kunst.

In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, historian David Blight reminds us that how a society remembers its past is a good indication of how the people of that society see themselves. Blight notes that in the case of the Civil War, African-Americans were virtually ignored as the nation constructed its collective public memory of that period. At the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, he observes, there was no mention of the role that slavery had played in the conflict. Instead, the events held to commemorate the occasion focused on the extent to which the nation had healed the sectional divide that had precipitated the war. Unfortunately, most failed to see that national healing had come at the expense of justice for African-Americans.

That conspicuous absence is indicative of how we think about the American past. Nothing illustrates this better than the recent reaction to the unveiling of a memorial in Charleston, South Carolina, to Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had managed to buy his own freedom. Along with 35 others, Vesey was executed for allegedly plotting a slave revolt in 1822. After years of planning and fundraising, a statue of Vesey was unveiled in Charleston’s Liberty Square this past February. The monument, which depicts him standing erect and dignified, drew criticism the moment plans for its construction were announced. Opponents argued that the city of Charleston should not memorialize a man who, in their opinion, was no different from a modern day terrorist. Because Vesey’s alleged plot included a plan to execute whites, they said, his efforts should not be celebrated. Writing for the Charleston City Paper, Jack Hunter compared Vesey to Osama bin Laden, saying that a “statue to honor Vesey is tantamount to admitting that terrorism is sometimes justified.”

In the context of the politics of historical memory, opposition to the Vesey statue is not surprising. However, comparing Vesey to bin Laden is outrageous, particularly considering how integral terrorism was to the maintenance of slavery. No one more vividly illustrated this than J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. While touring the Southern colonies in 1782, de Crevecoeur described seeing a slave who, for the crime of murdering his abusive overseer, had been imprisoned in a cage in the middle of an open field. The cage was suspended in the trees and, according to de Crevecoeur, birds of prey had plucked the slave’s eyes out, and “swarms of insects … eager to feed on his mangled flesh,” covered the man’s body. Uttering what de Crevecoeur described as “inarticulate monosyllables,” the slave asked first for water and then for poison to end his life. “Humanity herself would have recoiled back with horror,” de Crevecoeur wrote, noting that the image had left him “arrested with the power of affright and terror.” Questioned by de Crevecoeur, the slave master replied that “The laws of self-preservation rendered such executions necessary.” This was the world that Denmark Vesey inhabited, which left him and other slaves few options concerning their freedom.

Vesey scholar Douglas Egerton notes that even though Vesey’s plan included violence, branding him a terrorist “merely demonstrates how little we, as a culture, understand about slavery and what it forced the men and women it ensnared to do.” After a presentation Egerton gave on Vesey in Charleston a few years ago, a troubled audience member asked, “Why not work within the system for liberation … or stage a protest march?”

But there was no ‘system’ for Vesey to work within: He couldn’t vote, and even the “freedom” he’d purchased was still heavily subject to the whims of the white power structure. As Egerton wrote, “For the enslaved,” the only real path to freedom was “to sharpen a sword.”

Egerton’s analysis, though sound, could be taken a step further. America continues to have a difficult time facing its past, especially when this requires taking an in-depth look at slavery. Slavery does not comport with our claims about our founding ideals. Thus, when memorializing the past, Americans are more comfortable with images that don’t glaringly highlight the country’s hypocrisy. Vesey’s story, and the statue that now memorializes him, do just that, standing as constant reminders of the inconsistent way we’ve attempted to live up to our democratic ideals. Additionally, the Vesey monument reminds us that while a later generation of African-Americans may have found it possible to work within the system for change, Vesey’s generation was not so fortunate.

Considered objectively, Vesey’s story seems more in keeping with this country’s own struggle for independence and self-determination. Seen in this light, one could argue that rather than being a terrorist, Vesey was a liberator, much like George Washington, who helped free his countrymen from the tyrannical British. To some, equating Vesey with Washington is blasphemy. But why, one might ask? And what would African-Americans have to say about it?

In many respects, African-Americans have never truly had the opportunity to engage forthrightly in the discourse about our collective memory. Control of that ground has always been kept in the hands of white Americans — particularly in the South. Asheville residents Wilma Dykeman and James Stokeley alluded to this fact in their 1957 book Neither Black Nor White, writing, “After the Civil War, when the South saw almost everything it had built and collected and cherished crumbling to dust and ashes … Southerners clutched to the only things that were left: their memory, their pride, their ideas. The physical ramparts of their world tumbled, and they cemented all their crumbs of glory and despair into a mental image” that was later reinforced by statues “cast in bronze.” Out of this material, Southerners “forged new weapons in the fortress of their minds,” the authors stated. This fortress, however, left little or no room for African-Americans to either challenge or even try to contextualize that version of history.

Evidence of the lack of African-American involvement in constructing our collective public memory is readily visible. One need only consider the monuments that dominate our landscape. In the heart of downtown Asheville stands the Vance Monument, which pays homage to Civil War Gov. Zebulon Vance, Buncombe County’s native son. Major thoroughfares around town bear the names of prominent white citizens, but there are no comparable monuments commemorating the African-Americans who called this city home, other than a few rec centers tucked away in historically black neighborhoods. Similarly, there are no statues of notable African-Americans on the grounds of the State Capitol building in Raleigh. There are, however, monuments to Vance and other prominent white men, many of whom owned slaves.

In a poignant essay titled “Landmarks of Power,” Catherine Bishir maintains that the construction and placement of monuments in late 19th and early 20th century North Carolina was meant to convey a clear message about power. During this period, she writes, North Carolina’s white leaders used monuments to articulate “a saga of patrician Anglo-Saxon continuity, order, stability and harmony. The location of monuments in the state’s principal civic places lent authority to the vision of history they represented … [and] defined the setting of public life.” Through their actions, North Carolina’s leading white citizens were intent on projecting their rendition of history into the future — ensuring that their version of the past would continue to dominate our collective memory.

Our democratic ideals hold that everyone should have a voice in our public discourse. In that context, isn’t it about time we allowed more voices into discussions of our collective public memory? As we consider the future, we must be willing to think about who’s been excluded — and what that says to the descendents of those whose blood, toil, tears and sweat helped build the society we inhabit today.

Darin J. Waters is an assistant professor of history at UNC Asheville.

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2 thoughts on “Whose story? Democratizing America’s collective historical memory

  1. Often the easy path, when considering our nation’s history, is to look only at what is readily available in material already been researched and written about by a consensus view of the past. Dr. Waters: Thank you for presenting the alternative, a difficult, uncomfortable look at the truth, one which resonates in contemporary politics both in our state, and the nation’s capitol.

  2. Excellent commentary by Dr. Waters – and thanks for quoting my parents, Wilma Dykean and James Stokely !
    Please visit the Wilma Dykeman Legacy booth at the upcoming Goombay Festival (Friday Sept 12 and Saturday Sept 13 at Pack Square). We will be featuring the book Neither Black Nor White, and will have copies which you can borrow and read.

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